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On Tuesday of the week we had the public hearing for my bill LB718 – Adopt the Higher Education Free Speech Accountability Act. I want to thank all the people for and against the bill who took the time to come out and testified using the free speech right to do so. It is important that we have a venue, open to the public, where the free exchange of opinions can be heard. This is truly the crux of what LB718 would achieve on the campuses of institutions of higher learning in Nebraska. LB718 was written to guarantee / protect the free-speech rights for ALL – students, faculty, staff and invited guests.
After carefully listening to ALL the testimony and reviewing the numerous emails and articles written leading up to the hearing and the days that have followed, resulted in me working on a new amendment to the bill that will address concerns that have been raised. I have received a number of requests for this newest amendment to LB718. This amendment is in the final drafting stages. We will release it as soon as it is finished – expected early next week. This amendment was drafted with the collaboration of my office and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, otherwise known as (FIRE). With the University Nebraska Board of Regents only releasing their newly written and approved policy late last week titled: Commitment to Free Expression: Guide for Facilities Use: and Education, FIRE worked with us up to the last minute before the hearing to create a rough draft of a new amendment that we could present to the Education Committee. We continued our discussions after the hearing to take into account the testimony from the hearing. I did not want to release the rough draft that evening because of concerns that there may be changes to the proposed amendment based on the testimony and I did not want to confuse the issue.
Also this week, the second major tax reform bill – LB947 sponsored by Senator Smith on behalf of the Governor had a hearing in the Revenue Committee. I was personally unable to attend the hearing because of my Judicial Committee’s commitments that day. I did speak with my staff and fellow colleagues about the hearing. I was encouraged by several amendments proposed by Senator Smith. Clearly this bill is still evolving. I therefore am withholding my position on this bill. I believe that this bill will be sent out of committee and onto the floor of the Legislature. I further believe this will result in a lively debate.
The third major tax reform bill LB1084 written by Senator Briese who has a hearing scheduled for Thursday, February 8th within the Revenue Committee. LB1084 will generate new revenue by closing a number of current tax exemptions, raising the state sales tax by ½ cent and raising taxes in other areas like the tax on tobacco products. The new revenues that are generated will help fund K-12 education and it will also direct hundreds of millions of much-needed dollars into the Property Tax Credit Fund.
I am STRONGLY for tax reform! My concern leans much more for the need to address property taxes. Property taxes are out of control, especially in rural Nebraska. We have kicked the can down the road for forty years. We, as a Legislative body, must address tax reform this session. I look forward to working with my fellow Senators to make tax reform a reality for the good people of Nebraska.
Recently I signed on to co-sponsored LB747 – the Nebraska Liquor Control Act, authored by Senator Thibodeau. LB747 brings “bottle clubs” in line with other establishment that have alcohol consumed on premise. I have received significant correspondence from constituents who are concerned about operation of these “bottle clubs” operating within our district. I would like to thank all the people who came out to Kitty’s Roadhouse last Saturday for the first “Coffee with Senator” of the year. I always enjoy meeting with constituents and discussing their issues and concerns. The next Coffee with Senator is scheduled for 9:00am, March 3rd, at Kitty’s Roadhouse in Hastings.
Week 4 of legislature has been a typical work week during a short session. Early morning meetings with my staff. Floor debate from nine a.m. till noon. Meetings over the lunch hour. Hearings that run late into the night, followed by meetings with my staff who provide me prepared materials to review that evening. Then I get up the next morning and do it all over again. It keeps me pretty busy, but it is rewarding work knowing that I and my fellow Senators are looking out for the best interests of the good people of Nebraska.
My staff and I have been preparing for Tuesday’s hearing, January 30th, on my bill LB718 – Adopt the Higher Education Free Speech Accountability Act. This bill and the events that precipitated the writing of this bill has received quite a bit of media attention both locally and nationally. I want to provide some clarity about what has been written about the bill. First, this is not a bill to restrict or squash free-speech on college campuses. Quite the opposite! The goal of LB718 as amended by AM 1553, is to guarantee / protect the free-speech rights for ALL – students, faculty, staff and invited guests. Everyone should have the right to be heard.
Second, the bill does NOT outlaw counter-demonstrations. All points of view should and need to be heard. It is through the free flow of information and ideas that we are able to make educated and sound decisions. The bill does state that counter-demonstrations may be held so long as such conduct is lawful and does not interfere with the free expression rights of others on campus by materially and substantially disrupting activities and the functioning of the institution. In simpler terms, respecting the rights of others to freely speak and display materials. This should encourage dialogue rather that a shouting match and name calling.
Third, it requires institutions of higher learning to report on an annual basis any incidents that happen on campus during the year and how those situations were handled by the institution. It holds the institutions accountable for protecting the free-speech right of all on college campuses.
Recently the Board of Regents for University of Nebraska passed the Nebraska Policy Commitment to Free Expression; Guide for Facilities Use; and Education. I would like to compliment the Board of Regents for unanimously adopting a new free speech policy. This is an important first step toward addressing the serious free speech issues that I and my fellow Senators Steve Erdman and Tom Brewer identified at UNL. While this is a positive step, we must still see how the new policy will be implemented by the NU Administration. There are areas in their policy that need further clarification. This is one reason why I am continuing on with LB718. Additionally, LB718 as amended is not limited to the University of Nebraska but encompasses all public institutions of higher learning in the state of Nebraska. I encourage you to read the bill as amended and to testify on this bill. Your voices need to be heard. Again, the hearing will be held on Tuesday, January 30th within the Education Committee. The Education Committee meets in room 1525 of the State Capitol.
Shifting gears, two bills that I have received quite a lot of correspondence about from constituents were LB780 and LB1022. LB780 introduced by Senator Patty Pansing-Brooks from Lincoln seeks to outlaw the manufacture of “bump stocks” and “silencers” or, more accurately “suppressors” and make it a crime to possess these items. The comments we received were overwhelmingly against this bill. I agreed with the comments that “suppressors” needed to be taken out of this bill. I had my staff draft an amendment that would strike out any reference to “suppressors” from the bill. During the hearing, Senator Pansing-Brooks did remove this language from the bill. As a result of her actions there was no need for me to submit my amendment. One would have to assume that she received the same type of correspondence that I had received. It just goes to show that correspondence matters!
The second bill, LB1022, known as “Adopt the Irrigation Tax Act” was introduced by Senator Paul Schumacher from Columbus, Nebraska. As with LB780 the correspondence we received was clearly against the bill. The costs to farmers would be astronomical. Rest assured, I will not be in support this bill.
This week’s message will be short and sweet. We have a lot happening at the capitol. Committee hearings on new bills began this week. In total 469 new bills and 13 legislative resolutions were submitted this year. That brings the total number of bills for biennium session to 1,136. In Nebraska, every bill receives a hearing. These hearings are often called, “the second house” or the “people’s house” because these hearings present the opportunity for interested parties and the public at large to express their opinions about bills being proposed. Senators usually serve on more than one committee. Currently I serve on three committees: Agricultural Committee, Business and Labor Committee, and Judiciary Committee.
My busiest committee is the Judiciary. By the end of this first week of hearings, we as committee will have heard testimony for no less than fifteen bills. Often these hearings go late into the night. However, the time spent is well spent. The testimony help inform myself and other Senators which enable us to make better decisions on whether or not a bill should be voted out of committee and sent to the floor of legislature for debate by the entire body.
The two bills that I submitted this session are LB718 – Adopt the Higher Education Free Speech Accountability Act and LB1058 – Adopt the Faithful Delegate to Federal Article V Convention Act. LB718 ensures that the Free Speech rights, granted in United States Constitution, are protected for everyone on Nebraska’s public institutions of higher education. The public hearing for this bill is scheduled for January 30th within the Education Committee. Since the bill was submitted, I have had further discussions with several parties. As a result of those discussions, I wrote an amendment to the bill to make the bill stronger. I encourage you to read the amendment and to testify at the hearing later this month.
LB1058 – Adopt the Faithful Delegate to Federal Article V Convention Act directly addresses concerns by those who unrealistically fear a “runaway” convention. LB1058 creates a structure for how the State of Nebraska will elect and govern delegates to a called Convention of States by the United States Congress. In the coming weeks I will discuss in more detail each of these bills. Again, I encourage you to read the bill and contact my office if you have any questions on LB718 and LB1058.
Saturday, January 27th the Adams County Farm Bureau Federation and Hastings Area Chamber will be hosting my first Coffee with the Senator this session at Kitty’s Roadhouse in Hastings. The meeting will start at 10:00 a.m. I hope to see you there!
We hit the ground running during week two of legislative session. On Monday we started to debate general file carry-over bills from last session. During the second session of a biennium, bills can be “carried-over from the last session and debated. However any bills that are not passed during this session will be indefinitely postponed. In simpler terms, the bill is now dead. If a Senator such as my self wants to bring back a bill, the Senator will have to resubmit the bill the following year and go through the entire process again as if it was a new bill. The bill will have to be referenced to a committee, have a hearing, be voted out of committee and then placed on general file. The success of a bill in the past does not always guarantee future success. Committee make-up of members can change as well as social and political climates of the day.
One such bill that has gone through this process several times is the “helmet bill.” Over the years this bill has come to floor in many different forms. This year it was LB368 which sought to change helmet provisions, change passenger age limits, and require eye protection for operators of motorcycles and mopeds. The bill was brought by Senator John Lowe. The bill was unable get the necessary thirty-three votes to evoke cloture and end debate last session. The bill saw new life this year when Senator Bob Krist made it his priority for this year. When a Senator designates a bill as a priority bill, it “jumps the line” and it is called to floor over other non-priority bills. Therefore LB368 was debated on Monday and then again on Wednesday. Once again, the bill was unable to gain the necessary thirty-three votes to evoke cloture. The bill will most likely not be brought back to floor this year. So if a Senator wants to present a helmet bill next year, he or she will have to start all over again.
Wednesday was also the day the Governor presented his State of the State address to the Legislature and the people of Nebraska. Governor Ricketts plan is one of several tax relief plans being proposed this session. I have been posting links to these bills on my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SenatorHalloran/) so you can read these for yourself. Through discussions with my fellow Senators I have heard that there may be additional tax relief related bills to be presented this session. I encourage you to share your thoughts with my office on these different proposals.
I fully support tax relief and reform in Nebraska. The federal government in Washington, D.C., has struggled to reach solutions that will unleash a new era of American economic growth, many state governments have forged ahead in meeting their particular fiscal and economic challenges. Many of our surrounding States that have adopted pro-growth policies have seen their economies grow. Many of the more successful, economically growing states have found that competitive tax policies are the key towards viable growth. Nebraska’s focus should be on pro-growth policies. One of the goals of implementing pro-growth tax policies is to first stop the out migration of citizens. Citizens are increasingly “voting with their feet” and moving to states with better economic outlooks. This underpins the fact that taxes absolutely bear a relationship to the economic health of our state. Nebraska is a small population state and can be easily influenced by people leaving our state to due to our burdensome taxes.
Governor Pete Ricketts, in his State of the State address, declared his interest in reducing both income taxes and property taxes. His proposal is dependent upon economic growth, with tax reductions triggered incrementally when economic growth occurs. I personally believe that without first reducing taxes, economic growth will be sluggish. My preference for tax relief would be to focus on property tax relief. As your representative, I have heard from constituent after constituent that property taxes are unreasonably high, and there has been a loud cry for property tax relief. I have not heard this same concern for income tax relief.
Here are some facts regarding Nebraska’s property taxes.
I am looking forward to a healthy tax reform debate on the floor of the legislature. It is my sincerest hope that we as a body can come together and pass meaningful tax relief this session for the good people of Nebraska.
Wednesday, Jan 3rd marked the beginning of the second session of the 105th legislature. As an interesting tidbit of information. This is the earliest date a session of the legislature can convene. According to our state constitution, article III section ten, the legislature shall commence at 10 a.m. on the first Wednesday after the first Monday in January of each year. Since Monday was the 1st, we could start on the Wednesday the 3rd . I am going to take this as a good sign that we are ready to get started and that we will get a lot accomplished during this short session.
As you may know we call this session a short session because we meet for sixty legislative days during even numbered years and we meet for ninety legislative days during odd numbered years. Why do we not meet for the same number of days each year? It’s because during the long session which is ninety days we are tasked with creating the biennium budget.
The short session can be a very busy session for several reasons. For instance, we have several bills that carried over from the last session. Since these bills have already had their hearings we can start to debate them on floor right away. As a matter of fact we will start full session debates on bills starting Monday the 8th. Second, Senators are finishing up drafting new bill for this session and these need to be submitted within the first ten days. Third, sometimes, like this year, we unfortunately had to address a projected budget shortfall. Currently that budget shortfall is projected to be somewhere between 150 to 200 million dollars.
On Wednesday, the Governor will address the Legislature to give his State of the State Address at 10 a.m. in which he will lay out his plan to address the budget shortfall. His plan will then be given to Appropriations Committee to review. The Appropriations Committee will study the Governor’s plan, make some changes and recommendations. I do not see the legislature starting the debate on the budget changes until late January, early February. So in the interim we will be addressing carry-over legislation and starting on committee hearings for the new bills proposed for this session.
One bill that I have written is LB718 – Adopt the Higher Education Free Speech Accountability Act. This bill looks to guarantee free speech for all on college campuses in the state of Nebraska. The impetus for this bill was born out of well published incident on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus in which a college sophomore was denied her right to free speech. I want to be clear that this is not the only reason I felt this bill needed to written. After it was known that I, along with Senator Edman and Senator Brewer had raised our concerns to the university, our offices were flooded with phone calls, emails of support and stories from others who felt their freedom of speech rights were suppressed as well when they attended college. So it’s not based on a single, isolated incident but a pattern of behaviors over time. Seven states have already passed similar legislation and ten states have legislation pending. Based on communications that I have received from both supporters and detractors, I am drafting an amendment that will strengthen the bill. My ultimate goal is defended and protected everyone’s First Amendment rights to free speech at institutions of higher learning.
This will be a busy short session (60 Days) dealing with the budget shortfall (which I and many of my fellow Senators predicted) and multiple tax reform bills taking center stage.
I am looking forward to working with my fellow Senators to pass legislation this session that will bring meaningful change / relief benefiting all Nebraskans.
This week in the legislature was all about the budget and the Department of Health and Human Services. Last Tuesday the legislature passed the three major budget bills – LB331, LB332, and LB327. I along with several other Senators had some strong reservations about the under lying assumptions utilized to create the budget. As a group we held a press conference on the steps of the State Capitol to voice our concerns. The major issue, in my opinion, is the overly optimistic revenue projections for the next biennium. The Appropriations Committee is operating under the assumption that we will see revenue growth of roughly 5% a year for each of the two years. Given the flat growth we experienced the past two years combined with my knowledge of the agriculture marketplace, I just don’t see that 5% growth in revenue is realistic. What this could mean is another large budget shortfall and quite possibly the need for a special session in the fall to either make draconian cuts or the push for tax increases as some Senators have suggested. I in no way want to raise taxes or have to make crushing cuts. That is why I feel we needed to make more cuts to the current budget instead.
A week ago, Friday, the Governor announced his first line-item veto. He cut a little over $11.5 million dollars from the State Capitol HVAC renovation project. According to the Governor, this will not stop the project from moving forward with current construction but it will need to have additional funding added to future budgets to complete the project. During the same press conference he clearly indicated that further vetoes were to follow. On Monday the Governor used this line-item veto authority to cut an additional $45 million dollars from the budget. With his earlier veto, the total amount of cuts to the budget equaled $56.5 million dollars.
By law, the Appropriation Committee has 24 hours to respond to the Governor’s vetoes. Tuesday morning the committee recommended that lawmakers restore $32.7 million back to the budget. An important point to know about this process is that the legislature only has the ability to vote for, or, against a specific line-item veto. We are not allowed to make dollar amount changes nor suggest cuts from other items of the budget that the Governor did not veto from the bill. For example, the first veto override vote was to restore $300,000 dollars to probation services. We as a body can only vote to restore the entire $300,000. We cannot change the amount to say restore $150,000 of the $300,000. Additionally, we could not have voted to take additional funds from the University or the Supreme Court, as several of the constituent emails I received suggested, as an offset to the items that were vetoed. As a body we voted to reject to restore the $300,000 in funding for probation services.
The large portion of the day’s session was the debate to restore $32.5 million dollars for Medicaid and people with developmental disabilities. As a package the body did not vote to override the veto. Several amendments offered by individual Senators looked to override individual line items of the $32.5 million dollars. A majority of these amendments were pulled by the Senator who introduced them. Other efforts to amend did not get the required 30 votes to override the Governor’s veto. The debate was highly emotional and these were not easy decisions. There was a considerable amount of misinformation and fear mongering during the debate. My decision not to override the Governor’s vetoes was based on research and subsequent conversations I had with fellow Senators, the Policy Research Office, and the Department of Health and Human Services, and not as a result of the Governor’s pressure as some of my fellow Senators tried to imply.
We requested and received from the Department of Health and Human Services the real impact theses line-item veto cuts would have on their department and more importantly the people they serve. I wanted to share with you some of their response to our requests.
They noted that Legislature passed LB 327, which appropriated $1.69 billion dollars for the two-year funding for Nebraska’s Medicaid program. Governor Ricketts made a line-item veto of $11.8 million in each of the two fiscal years. That is just $23.6 million out of a 1.69 billion dollar appropriation. This equated to a 1.4% percent reduction in each fiscal year. According to DHHS, the line-item veto of funding in the Medicaid aid budget will not mean providers will receive across-the-board rate reductions. The Medicaid aid budget is a block appropriation based on forecasted need and the department has the responsibility to manage the program within its appropriation and minimize adverse access-to-service issues for Medicaid eligible individuals and families. Additionally, the veto does not impact services not covered by Medicare like long-term care, nursing home care, and assisted-living care services. The Medicaid program will work with stakeholders to devise an appropriations reduction strategy that protects critical services like long-term care.
The so-called cuts in funding to the Behavioral Health aid budget will not mean providers will receive across-the-board rate reductions. Nebraska is split into six “regions.” These are local units of government that the state partners work with to do planning and service implementation. The amount of funding included in the line-item veto represents just 1% of total contract funds allocated to the Behavioral Health Regions. Historically, behavioral health providers under contract with the Regions have received a 10% increase in rates over the last four years. Those rate increases are sustained in the current budget plan.
The line-item veto of funding in the Children & Family Services budget will not mean providers or contractors will receive across-the-board rate reductions. Children & Family Services has identified efficiencies and expects to save $1 million a year with a new statewide contract for drug testing of parents involved with the child welfare system. Those savings more than take care of the $640,000 annual cut in child welfare services.
Sustaining these cuts was difficult, particularly in the light of the efforts to unnecessarily shame those Senators who were supporting the fiscally responsible vetoes of the Governor. After my discussions with Health and Human Services, I felt confident that they can find cost savings to offset these cuts and still provide quality services during these challenging times.
The Legislature started the week off by debating whether or not to override Governor’s Ricketts veto on LB75. LB75 sought to remove the two year waiting period to restore voting rights for persons convicted of a felony. The veto override was hotly debated by Senator Wayne who introduced the bill. My staff and I received phone calls, emails, newspaper editorials, and questions during a recent town hall meeting. It was intimated by some constituents that I “flip-flopped” on the issue because the Governor somehow pressured or influenced me to change my position on LB75. This is simply false. I did not support LB75 as written. However, I offered Senator Wayne a friendly amendment. We were working together on an amendment while the bill went through both General and Select file. Ultimately we could not come to friendly agreement. Rather than adding a hostile amendment on the floor, I informed Senator Wayne that I would not be supporting the bill on Final reading. I was not pressured in any way and I did not flip-flop, I was working with a fellow Senator to make changes to the bill. Sometimes we can come to agreement and other time we can respectfully disagree.
On Tuesday I strongly supported the passage of the funding bill attached to LB289 – the sex trafficking bill introduced by Senator Patty Pansing-Brooks. Yes, Republicans and Democrats can agree. It saddens me that in this day and age that we are still having to address the issue of slavery and exploitation of young women and men. We now have the penalties in place that fit the severity of crime these sex traffickers commit.
Final approval of the budget bills LB327, LB331 and LB332 happened on Tuesday as well. All three bill had an emergency clause attached. An emergency clause allows the bill to take effect immediately after the Governor signs the bill. An emergency clause bill requires a super-majority vote of 33 yes votes to pass rather than the usual simple majority of 25 votes.
A number of rural conservative Senators, including myself, did vote no on all three of the budget bills dealing with cash transfers and appropriations – to take a stand against a budget which, we believe, is based upon a false premise. The Appropriations Committee had to first fill the gap in the nearly 1 billion dollar shortfall in the last biennium. To do this, they proposed a series of one time transfers from various agency funds and a significant draw-down of our rainy day fund. In addition, this budget, in my opinion is founded on an overly optimistic assumption of fiscal projections that our state economy will grow at 5 and 5.5% for the next two years of the upcoming biennium. Unfortunately, our economy is flat…virtually no growth this past year. This unreasonably high revenue projection, caused the Appropriations Committee to look at budgeting income that is not likely to occur.
We stood against this budget, because we have deep concerns that the State will soon find itself in a deficit position. We hope we are wrong, but if we are correct, we are very likely to see the Governor will have to do either a series of line item vetoes, or have to call for a special session to deal with revenue shortfalls. Thursday morning Governor Pete Rickets called a press conference to set the record straight on current tax revenue. The April revenues, forecasted back in February, was $533.3 million dollars. The actual number, which still needs to be certified, was $477.8 million dollars. This is a $55.5 million dollar shortfall. The forecasting board has missed the last 14 out of 22 revenue forecasts. We have to be more fiscally realistic about the next biennium budget. My gut tells me that we will be very busy next week addressing the Governors response to the budget bills sent to him by the Legislature.
Thursday we debated the much anticipated LB651 which addresses third grade reading proficiency. This is an extremely important issue that needs to be addressed and debated. The ability to read has been demonstrated over and over in research to be the fundamental skill that leads to the future success of a child. After three hours of debate the Legislature adjourned for the week. LB651 will most likely not be debated again this session but I believe the conversation will go on during the interim and we will see this bill brought back to the floor during the 2018 legislative session.
May 6th was the last scheduled “Coffee with the Senator” for this year at Kitty’s Roadhouse in Hastings. I wish to thank the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce, the Adams County Farm Bureau Federation, and Kitty’s Roadhouse for coordinating and hosting these town hall meetings. I also would like to thank all of the people who attended and participated in these lively discussions. While we may not always see eye-to-eye on particular issues or bills, I know that we all value the opportunity to have open and honest discussion on topics that concern the good people in District #33.
We are looking at the possibility of having a series of wrap-up meetings later in the year. These meetings would discuss the past session and solicit input on what topics and concerns my office staff and I could be focusing on for future legislation. Stay tuned!
To mix things up a bit, I am going to lead off with events that happened outside of Lincoln. Monday I had the pleasure of meeting with the good people of Nebraska. My first meeting of the day was with the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association in Grand Island. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with these folks. After a brief review of current legislative activity, we engaged in a lively Q & A. Much of the questioning centered around the significant tax impact on fixed income of retirees. I also shared with them some detail regarding my priority bill, LR 6, calling for Nebraska to join in an Article V Convention of States. The group was very interested and engaged in some thoughtful discussion.
Later in the afternoon, my Legislative Aide and I attended a town hall style meeting with the Junior and Senior students from the Wood River High School – the home of the Fighting Eagles. The meeting was held in their beautiful auditorium. Students studying Political Science were tasked with researching a current legislative bill of their choice. They were assigned to study the bill and follow its progress through the session. After a very nice introduction, students were encouraged to go the mic and ask questions about their particular bill. Many of these bills were not specific to my committees so, with the assistance of my Aide, I did my best to answer their questions. I was very impressed by the whole event. I was first and foremost impressed by the students. Likewise, I was also impressed with the school’s faculty and their interaction with their students. It is clear to me that Wood River, Nebraska has a bright future. These students were the consummate professionals – they were educated, prepared, and polite. I was also impressed with the structure and concept of holding a town hall meeting for high school students. They are learning how to be actively engaged in their responsibilities as citizens to their local community and state.
Tuesday marked the start of 3 late night sessions in a row. The first night focused on LB461, the Governor’s and Revenue Committee’scomprehensive tax plan. For the first time in many years, the Revenue Committee advanced a comprehensive vision for tax reform in Nebraska. Legislative Bill 461, the Nebraska Taxpayer Reform Act, was intended to rein in high property and income taxes on families, farmers, and businesses across the state.
The bill had two major components. One component dealt with changing the methodology for measuring valuation of farmland for property tax purposes. Historically, land valuation has been based upon the recent history of land sales in the community. Instead, this legislation would create a methodology for measuring valuation based upon the income-producing history, using an 8 year Olympic average, dropping the high and the low. This was not designed to give quick property tax relief. Over time, this would at least allow farmland valuation to “float” with the commodity markets….avoiding the squeeze landowners are experiencing now trying to pay high property taxes with low commodity prices.
The second component of the bill focused on reductions in income and corporate tax rates. These small incremental reductions in tax rates would be triggered only when there is a 3.5% or more increase in projected revenue to the state. The bill was far from perfect. I voted for this legislation to advance it to ‘Select File’ for further amending and debate. Unfortunately, the bill’s sponsor failed to motivate enough support to give some hope for some tax relief and the bill failed to pass.
LB98, which would have extended certain levy authority for NRD’s, was also heavily debated. LB98 would have given a 10 year extension of the sunset date of the 3-cent property tax levy for fully appropriated NRD’s. I did not vote for cloture on this bill. This did not impact our NRDs, but it would have potentially increased property taxes for others. I could not bring myself to raise someone else’s property tax.
On Wednesday the majority of the day and night’s debate was on the mainline budget – LB327. The focus of the debate was not on overall spending but rather on a small provision of the bill dealing with the prioritization of which facilities would receive Title 10 Federal funding. There was a lot of misinformation and hyperbole about this issue. Ultimately, an amendment offered by Appropriation Committee Chair Senator Stinner pulled the controversial provision from the bill and this appropriation bill was passed onto Final Reading.
We have a long way to go before we pass the final biennium budget for 2017-2019. The Appropriations Committee has been meeting 5 days a week, since the beginning of the session to work through nearly a billion dollar shortfall in revenue. I am troubled that, to make the numbers work, this committee has proposed pulling funds from a number of agency funds and to draw significantly on the “rainy day fund”. In addition, I am concerned that this next biennium budget is built on a false premise…..namely, an overly optimistic increase in state revenue. In spite of this last year’s tax revenue income growth being a little south of 1%….this committee is projecting an increase of 5% in tax revenue. This state’s economy is highly dependent upon our great Agriculture industry. The folks in Lincoln and Omaha are a bit clueless about commodity prices and rural property taxes. If they had a better grasp of economic reality, they would lower their expectations for state revenue.
Late into the night on Thursday we continued our debate on LB44 the “Internet Sales Tax Collection.” I conceptually support the premises behind the crafting of this bill. I believe that we should have a level tax playing field. All goods purchased for consumption in Nebraska should have the same tax levied on those goods regardless of how they were purchased. The issues I have with the bill are to do with the constitutionality and the mechanisms used to collect these taxes. The bill needs much more refinement to become a functioning law. Debate ended without a vote, essentially the bill is dead for this session. Senator Watermeier the Chair of the Executive Committee, the bill’s sponsor, said he did intend to bring the bill back next year.
Monday marked the seventieth legislative day. We have just twenty days left to this session. Monday morning we voted on and passed 52 bills. These bills now go to the Governor to be signed into law or be vetoed. If the Governor vetoes a bill, the Legislature then has the right to decide to accept the veto or override the Governor’s veto. As a reminder, it takes 30 votes in the affirmative to override a Governor’s veto.
The entirety of the afternoon session on Monday dealt with LB595, which would provide for the use of physical force or physical restraint or removal from a class as a response to adverse student behavior. My office received quite a bit of correspondence from constituents both for and against LB595. Through rigorous debate, several amendments were proposed. Clearly this bill raised emotions. LB595 is addressing a real concern – safety and control in the classroom. I believe that something needs to be done for the safety of all children in the classroom. My hope is that through further conversations off the floor, changes can be proposed to LB595 to make it an effective bill that will protect the rights of all involved within the classroom environment.
Tuesday marked the start of debate on the biennium budget bills. Speaker Jim Scheer made it clear that if any Senator would want to add money to the budget for programs or services, “they” would also have to come up with monies (typically from some other program or agency) to pay for this increase. Hence making their changes budget neutral.
The debate focused on the Appropriation Committee’s proposal to take 15 million dollars each year of the biennium budget from the Highway Cash Fund and redirect those funds to the General Fund. This Committee recommendation represents an historic departure from the belief that gas tax receipts are for infrastructure spending and instead redirects gas tax revenues for General Fund spending. This is an unwarranted use and improper use for financing increased General Fund Spending. Raiding the Highway Cash Fund to subsidize increased state spending is wrong. Our transportation infrastructure, in my estimation, is a priority for the state of Nebraska. Funds should not be raided to balance a shortfall in General Funds revenues.
Wednesday marked the first late night session. The prioritization of who in the state of Nebraska will receive Title X federal grant program funds. Title X provides individuals with comprehensive family planning and related preventative health services. None of the Title X funds can be used for abortion services. After eight hours of debate, at 9:00pm, a cloture vote passed and we moved LB327, the primary budget bill, to Select File.
On the home front, I would like to congratulate Longfellow Elementary on being recognized by Solution Tree as a Model Professional Learning Community at Work. Longfellow was one of only 118 schools and districts in the United States to receive this honor. Solution Tree delivers comprehensive professional development to schools and districts around the world. Solution Tree has empowered K–12 educators to raise student achievement through a wide range of services and products. They have offices in North America and Australia. This is truly a prestigious award for Longfellow Elementary. They joined Alcott, Lincoln, Hawthorne and Morton Elementary schools along with Hastings Middle Schools as the only schools in the state to receive this national recognition for improving student performance.