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It is officially the last day of session. 90 days have flown by! Here is a great editorial on this year’s legislature.
World-Herald Editorial: Legislature adapts to an era of flux
With the 2013 session ending today, it’s a good time to look at some of the key lessons for future state senators in the term-limits era. Drawing on our observations and interviews with lawmakers, three key lessons are apparent:
>> Churning. The dynamic at the State Capitol is fundamentally changed because the two-term limit produces regular turnover in the Legislature’s membership, ideological makeup and policy knowledge of individual lawmakers.
>> Need to adapt. To deal with the recurring turnover, the Legislature is adopting new habits.
>> Attitudes. Nebraska can’t afford for the Legislature to bog down in congressional-style indecision and stalemate. That means lawmakers need to approach their work with the appropriate vision and energy, plus a willingness to engage in compromise.
Term limits pushed out 10 lawmakers last fall, and the 2014 elections will push out 17 more, including the legislative speaker, six committee chairmen and the chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board.
The 2012 elections, notes State Sen. Galen Hadley, produced a significant increase in the Legislature’s number of moderate swing votes — this, in a body that already de-emphasizes partisanship and promotes independent-mindedness. Sen. Amanda McGill says the Legislature this session was led by an “independent, moderate majority.”
But with term limits now taking a bite every two years, expect to see fluctuations over time in the ideological mix at the State Capitol.
In this new era, lawmakers tend to be in leadership positions, such as committee chairmen, for only a short time. Says Speaker Greg Adams, who stepped into the Legislature’s top leadership post in January and is term-limited next year: “You no more than get your feet on the ground than you’re gone.”
In response, the Legislature has begun an ongoing effort to prepare its next set of leaders. Freshmen lawmakers, in a major break from the past, are being encouraged to engage early on.
Two committee vice chairmanships this year went to freshmen (Sens. Jim Scheer at Education and Dan Watermeier at the Legislative Performance Audit Committee). The Legislature specifically voted to require that the new special commission studying Nebraska’s tax policy include two freshmen senators.
Mentoring of freshmen has taken on greater importance. Freshman Sen. Sue Crawford says the chairpersons of two of her committees (Sens. Kathy Campbell at Health and Human Services and Mike Gloor at Banking, Commerce and Insurance) have done an excellent job in mentoring her about procedures and effectiveness at the committee level.
With each new wave of freshmen elected, the Legislature needs to help newcomers understand the habits and values that help things run efficiently and produce significant legislation for the state.
Glibness and partisan swagger may win cheers on the campaign stump, veteran senators emphasize, but once elected, a senator needs more than that to prevail in debates and pass legislation. That includes attention to detail, a depth of knowledge on issues, preparedness and the ability to reach out and communicate with colleagues of all philosophical stripes.
When a legislator isolates himself in a small political circle and fails to develop relationships with a breadth of colleagues, says Sen. Bill Avery, he undermines his ability to get things done.
Adams, the legislative speaker, also emphasizes the need for communication. One of the key questions he asks lawmakers about their proposals is, “Did you sit down and talk to the other side?”
Lawmakers also need a breadth of vision, Adams says. They’re state senators, he says, and if the Legislature is going to avoid stalemate on divisive issues such as state aid to K-12 schools, lawmakers must look to what’s best for all of Nebraska. Sound policy-making at the Legislature often comes down to a sense of balance, he says.
“It requires you to step up to a different level and look with a broad perspective,” Adams says.
Veteran senators readily acknowledge that with term limits, there are benefits to having fresh eyes look at issues and existing laws. At the same time, they say, it’s important to draw on the institutional memory of legislative staff and lobbyists.
With regular turnover, the temptation to reinvent the wheel is understandable, says Sen. Bob Krist, but “knowing the history of how the state got where it is is as important as having the fresh idea” on individual issues. “It helps you avoid the pitfalls.”
Lawmakers, Adams says, need to understand how to draw on the knowledge of lobbyists and staff — but then step away and exercise their own judgment. It’s a key ingredient of leadership, he says.
In this new era, the lineup of lawmakers will change and the philosophical makeup will fluctuate. But the principles that make for a well-functioning, forward-looking Legislature need to endure.
It will be the duty of each new group of lawmakers to safeguard those principles and carry them into the future.
PUBLISHED WEDNESDAY, JUNE 5, 2013
This morning, the Legislature will be discussing taxes, specifically a Tax Modernization Study to review and make recommendations for an overhaul to Nebraska’s tax code for the first time since 1967.
I am fully supportive of this initiative as we need to examine tax policies that work best for the citizens of Nebraska.
Here is a link to the bills we will be discussing:
The wind farm bill (LB104), by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, passed 38-2 and would would remove a barrier to the development and export of wind energy in Nebraska. It would offer tax incentives that could lead to Nebraska getting a $300 million to $400 million wind farm project by TradeWind Energy of Lenexa, Kan.
There is speculation that Gov. Dave Heineman might veto the measure because he says tax breaks should go to Nebraska taxpayers first. But he also supported a concept that was rolled into the measure that took away Omaha’s ability to raise its sales tax.
It takes 30 votes to override a veto.
Lawmakers rejected a second attempt by Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala to gut Lathrop’s bill and replace it with a version of another (LB402), by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, that would encourage more local ownership of renewable energy projects. It would have allowed a sales tax exemption on materials used in the projects, as long as a percentage of gross revenues went to Nebraska businesses or individuals. The exemptions would start at 10 percent for the first year, go to 15 percent the second year and 20 percent in the third year.
Some groups, such as the Nebraska Farmers Union and Center for Rural Affairs, have said they support LB402 because it would create more economic development in rural areas by requiring purchases from Nebraska to qualify for tax breaks. The Sierra Club supports both bills.
Schilz noted that because Nebraska is a public power state, TradeWind would be required to offer 10 percent of the power it generates to Nebraska utilities while shipping 90 percent out of state.
Nebraska lags in the production of wind energy. Iowa, for example, generates more than 11 times as much wind power as Nebraska — 5,137 megawatts to 459, according to the American Wind Energy Association. And Nebraska ranks last among its neighboring states.
Proponents of LB104 said the state needs to act now if it wants to develop its abundant wind resources, because a major wind-energy incentive — a federal production tax credit — is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
Lathrop’s bill would fall under the Nebraska Advantage Act, which took effect in 2006 and is meant to encourage companies to expand and create jobs by offering them tax incentives. To date, some 320 companies have applied for Nebraska Advantage credits and created 20,500 new jobs.
The measure would provide a sales tax exemption for the purchase of turbines, towers and other wind-farm components, which Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma have used to create a wind-energy boom. Meanwhile, Nebraska has lagged behind, ranking 26th of the 39 states that generate wind energy, despite having the fourth-best wind resources in the country.
The juvenile justice overhaul (LB561), by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, commits $14.5 million to help reorganize the juvenile justice system to focus on mental health treatment instead of punishment.
The mission of juvenile offender centers at Kearney and Geneva would change under the plan. Nebraska will be spending $44 million per year for juvenile justice services once the new system is up and running. Ashford said the bill emphasizes working with the families of juvenile offenders.
The $21 million spent each year at the youth treatment centers would go to the court system to help set up treatment programs.
Ashford’s bill will create an Office of Juvenile Assistance under the court system to oversee juvenile probation, a statewide expansion of the Nebraska Juvenile Service Delivery Project, coordination of work with local and national experts in the delivery of evidence-based services, the Office of Violence Prevention and the newly created Office of Juvenile Diversion Programs and Detention Alternatives.
The measure, co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Krist of Omaha and Kathy Campbell and Amanda McGill of Lincoln, passed 44-1.
Other bills passed Wednesday included:
* DESIGNER DRUGS: A bill (LB298) by Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha to update laws passed two years ago aimed at compounds used to make synthetic drugs, such as K2 and bath salts. In what has turned into a game of leapfrog, the bill bans the newest generation of substances used to make so-called “designer” drugs. McCoy’s bill updates Nebraska’s Uniformed Controlled Substances Act to include third and fourth generation synthetic cannabinoids used to make the drug commonly known as K2 or Spice. It also would include synthetic phenethylamines used to make Blue Mystic, 7th Heaven and Smiles, and synthetic tryptamines commonly known as Foxy. The vote was 44-2.
* PUBLIC RECORDS: A bill (LB363) by Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln will help to ensure the public can access government records and data at a fair cost. The bill will close a loophole in the public records law that some public entities took advantage of to make public records so expensive to acquire that they, in effect, discouraged public access, Avery said. It says that a public agency or political subdivision can charge a fee for making copies of public records, but it can’t exceed the actual, reasonable cost of making the copies. No charge for searching, identifying and copying the records can be added to the cost until the time would go beyond four hours. And no charge can be added for legal review of the public records when seeking a reason to withhold the requested information. The vote was 44-0.
* EMPLOYMENT PILOT: A bill (LB368) by Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue to create a subsidized employment pilot program for low-income Nebraskans that allows small businesses to grow, while minimizing risks involved in hiring new employees. The program would last four years, beginning July 1, 2014, and would subsidize employees at 100 percent the first two months, 75 percent in month three, 50 percent in months four and five and 25 percent in month six. The subsidy would end after the six months, with the hope that the employer would keep the recipient on the job after that. The vote was 34-7.
* ENLIGHTENED TERMINOLOGY: A bill (LB23) by Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney replaces the antiquated and pejorative term “mental retardation” with a more enlightened and contemporary expression “intellectual disability” in state laws. The amendment for the terminology change, offered by Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, became a part of LB23, which is intended to revise and improve the operation of the provider tax for intermediate care facilities for people with developmental disabilities. The vote was 46-0.
* FOSTER CARE: A bill (LB216) by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill would help support young people who age out of foster care up to age 21 with Medicaid, postsecondary education assistance, living expenses, placement in a foster home, institution or independent living; and continued case management to help access additional supports. The program would be voluntary, and eligibility limited to former state wards age 19 to 21, excluding those who entered the foster care system through the Office of Juvenile Services. Youth in foster care would receive information about the program at age 16. The program would not begin until the Department of Health and Human Services state plan amendment receives federal approval. If the state plan amendment is denied, a state-only version of the program would be implemented as a pilot project. The transition program would cost $2 million in state general funds over two years and $2.6 million in federal funds. The vote was 44-2.
* ALTERNATIVE MINIMUM TAX: A bill (LB308) by Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus eliminates the state’s alternative minimum tax. It also allows businesses to spread out their losses over 20 years on their state tax returns instead of the current five. The alternative minimum tax was created to make sure that people who invested in tax shelters paid at least a minimum amount of income tax. But Schumacher said that tax shelters are seldom used any longer and the tax, which was aimed at high-income earners, was affecting more middle-income earners. The vote was 48-0.
* CHILD CARE: A bill (LB507) by Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell would require quality standards for providers who get the largest share of state assistance money. It would require a five-step quality rating and improvement system for centers caring for children whose parents qualify for assistance. Other child care providers could participate voluntarily. The cost of the bill over the two-year budget would be $4.3 million. Income of those eligible to participate could not exceed 125 percent of the federal poverty level in 2013-14 and 130 percent of the poverty level in 2014-15. The vote was 42-1.
* CHILDREN’S MENTAL HEALTH: A bill (LB556) by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill creates a pilot program to offer behavioral and mental health screenings to children, using computer technology to connect them remotely with mental health professionals. The program, to be run by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, would include three health clinics, with at least one in an urban area and one in a rural setting. Optional behavioral health screenings could be offered by physicians at the time of childhood physicals. The results of such behavioral health screenings and any related documents would not be included in the child’s school record or even provided to the school without the express consent of the child’s parent or legal guardian. The cost to the state of the pilot project would be $903,000 in 2013-15. The vote was 42-0.
* CLIMATE DATA: A bill (LB583) by Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm provides the governor and other interested persons with information and research on the impacts of cyclical climate change in Nebraska, including impacts on physical, ecological and four economic areas, and attempts to anticipate the unintended consequences of climate adaptation and mitigation. It facilitates communication between stakeholders and the state about cyclical climate change impacts and response strategies. By Sept. 1, 2014, an initial report on cyclical climate change in Nebraska and possible impacts to agriculture, water, wildlife, ecosystems, forests and outdoor recreation would be prepared. A final report would be given to the governor and Legislature by Dec. 1, 2014. The vote was 32-12.
I have a busy summer ahead of me.
I have introduced interim studies on expanded learning opportunities, school security, college savings plans, teacher education and property tax relief:
Don’t hesitate to contact my office this summer with policy ideas as I would be more than happy to meet with you and discuss potential legislation.
Two Omaha-area districts are leading Nebraska in preparing students for college, according to rankings compiled by national publications.
All three Millard high schools — North, South and West — made the list of “America’s best high schools” released last week by Newsweek magazine. The magazine ranked public schools only.
The Washington Post ranked the country’s “most challenging” high schools, and all three Nebraska schools on the list of 2,054 were from the Omaha area: Millard North, Millard West and Westside.
Newsweek’s ranking are based on six weighted factors: 25 percent, graduation rate; 25 percent, college acceptance rate; 25 percent, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests taken per student; 10 percent, average SAT/ACT scores; 10 percent on average AP, IB and AICE scores; and 5 percent on percent of students enrolled in at least one AP, IB or AICE course.
Millard North and Millard West were the only two Nebraska high schools on the Newsweek list last.
The Washington Post canvassed public and private high schools across the nation. Its rankings are based on a formula that took the number of AP, IB and AICE tests taken by students at a high school and divided it by the number of seniors who graduated the previous year.
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I had a wonderful weekend volunteering with my Kiwanis club at a baseball league for children with disabilities. I am inspired by these children and their families. Below is a picture of myself with Bruce Froendt, the founder of this noble cause.
I am please to announce that my bill to help poll workers and voters has passed final reading!
LB 417 supports our volunteer poll workers and our voters by requiring the Secretary of State to publish statewide election guidelines that will create more efficiency, transparency and equity on election day.
Now on to being signed by the Governor into law.
In support of a bill to help keep harmful drugs out of the hands of our children, Senator Kolowski made the following speech on the floor that is worth reading:
SENATOR KOLOWSKI: Thank you, Mr. President. Good morning, Senators, and good morning, students, glad to see you here. I want to thank Senator Ashford for his comments concerning this bill and Senator McCoy for bringing this forward. I speak as a former high school principal, with my last 15 years at Millard West High School. I had a file on my desk that I’ll tell you about very briefly, but it was related to the number of student funerals I attended over my 15 years as principal. Auto accidents, alcohol, drug situations, depression, and suicides were part of the reality of life of any high school administrator when you’re dealing with large numbers of students and the issues that we face in our world today. Tomorrow morning I’ll be going to the…to visit with the Catholic Charities program in Omaha that I’m the administrator of record for, and that’s the Journeys program, where 16 students are in a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week drug/alcohol program for the difficulties they’re facing in their lives. I wish I could take every senator from this hall to meet and listen to these students. And in most cases you would not believe the students’ stories, what’s going on in their lives, and what they’ve faced and what they are facing at the current time. The need for problem solving, decision making skills on the part of these students, how to fight peer pressure, to set and make personal goals in their lives are extremely important, and they have great difficulties trying to overcome those things that they had been facing. Those stories those kids would tell you are true. I meet with them every month, a number of hours. And I work with these students, hopefully, trying to get them to a place where they can be released back to their homes, back to their schools, and hopefully will lead a clean life as they move on from the program. We need this bill. We need this bill to pass. It’s a reality that surrounds us in every community, in every town, in every school in this state, and we would be burying our heads in the sand if we would ignore that.