Welcome

January 8th, 2014

Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 34th legislative district in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature.

You’ll find my contact information on the right side of this page, as well as a list of the bills I’ve introduced this session and the committees on which I serve. Please feel free to contact me and my staff about proposed legislation or any other issues you would like to address.

Sincerely,
Sen. Annette Dubas

Tax Modernization Committee

May 31st, 2013

Even though the 103rd Legislative session is not officially over we are already thinking about and planning for work that will be done over the interim. Individual senators will be doing research on issues of importance to their district and committees will conduct study hearings throughout the summer and fall. One study of particular importance will be conducted through a special Tax Modernization Committee comprised of members of the Revenue Committee, the chairpersons of the Appropriations, Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture, and the Planning Committees as well as two senators at large.

At the beginning of this Legislative session, the Governor proposed two bills with the intention of eliminating our state income tax and making up for those lost revenues through the removal of many of our sales tax exemptions. Those bills did not pass. The feeling of many members of the Legislature was that such sweeping changes to our tax structure should be done in a careful, thoughtful, and deliberate fashion. That will be the charge of the Tax Modernization Committee, which will compile a final report and present recommendations to the full legislature next year.

Modernizing our tax system is long overdue. In creating an equitable and responsive system that can respond to global influence, we need to review our tax structure and laws regarding sales, income, and property taxes along with other miscellaneous taxes, credits, and incentives. What will ensure the success of this study is to have a cross section of individuals participate. Of course businesses and government officials will bring their perspectives to the discussion, but it is vital that the public at large brings their views, ideas and concerns to the discussion.

This committee and the Legislature will take into consideration fairness and the burden that is created by our taxes placed on families and businesses. We must ensure our competitiveness so that we may keep our existing jobs and businesses while seeking ways to attract new economic activity. We need a tax policy that is easy to understand, administer, and comply with for individuals and businesses. That same structure should generate a stable, adequate source of revenue. The Committee will have a great deal of work to accomplish over the remainder of this year in order to be ready to issue a report of their findings and recommendations by December 15, 2013.

There are two very important points to remember. First, it is critical that citizens participate in these hearings. It is your opportunity to bring your concerns and thoughts to the legislature. Second, this study is not guaranteeing that your taxes are going to be reduced. The focus of this study is to evaluate our current system and determine what types of changes may bring about the above stated goals. I will keep you up to date as more details are presented regarding the dates and locations for these hearings.

Legislative Page Program

May 23rd, 2013

I would like to take this weeks column in a different direction and share a story about a young man who serves in our Legislative Page program. Our pages are bright, interested young people who want to play a part in how their state government functions. No doubt some have political aspirations of their own. That is especially true of Jean-aime Mbiya Bondo. By our definition he is a “non-traditional college student”. Jean-aime is a 43 year old husband and father of four from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Africa, who was chosen to come to America on a diversity visa. He gives us an opportunity to look at our Democratic form of government through the eyes of someone who has lived in a country embroiled in civil war, immense poverty, oppressive military presence, and sexual violence on a daily basis.

He is a man who loves his country and wants to make it a better place to live so he can eventually return with his wife and family. The saying, “if it’s to be, it’s up to me” fits Jean-aime to a tee. He is committed to return to his country and work to bring change through a peaceful revolution. He is impressed with our “liberty of expression.” In the DRC, no one may safely express any opinion if it is contrary to the views of the military regime. I asked him what is the one thing he wants to take back to his people to invoke change. I expected an answer related to our democratic process. His answer left me speechless. He wants to instill in his people the “love of country” that he sees in Americans. To bring about positive change people must feel like they have something to stand up and fight for. He sees Americans as always putting country first, even when we disagree. It is our sense of patriotism he views as the best way to save his homeland.

Jean-aime will leave his family in Nebraska and return to the DRC to organize a fledgling political party in order to change people’s experience and to help them understand the beauty of freedom. He believes the fight is never about one person but for the good of all. He is willing to put himself in a dangerous situation because he believes his life is not as valuable as the need for change for the entire country. Staying here and making a comfortable life for his family is not an option. Jean-aime’s actions are driven by his deep spiritual values and belief that he is fulfilling God’s plan for his life. He told me, “God’s plan is never for suffering, only for good.”

Jean-aime’s story touched me deeply. Everyday we take our life and the benefits of living in this country for granted. We freely and openly speak our minds. Jean-aime sees only the opportunities we have presented to us on a daily basis and yearns for a similar experience for his countrymen and women. He is willing to take what he is learning in America, put his life at risk, and return home to give people a taste of our blessings. He wants to give them a “love of country” so they will feel hope and the courage to stand with him.

Resolutions

May 17th, 2013

Although being a State Senator is a “part-time job”, our work on state issues does not end when the session ends. As we look toward adjournment on June 5, the budget is going through its final rounds of debate, and Senators are submitting their interim study resolutions. These resolutions may be in the form of honoring accomplishments or occasions or proposing amendments to the Constitution or issues to study over the interim break between the short and long session.

Interim study resolutions are introduced by individual senators, then referred to the appropriate committee. Study resolutions help senators gather information that may be used in a variety of ways. Public hearings for these studies are less formal than our regular committee hearings and are often held in locations throughout our state. This is a great way to give local citizens a chance to engage with their state government by attending these hearings.

I am introducing a study resolutions to look at contracts between foster care providers and the Department of Health and Human Services. Another resolution will examine ongoing concerns with ACCESS Nebraska. As Chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, I introduced a resolution to study the Universal Service Fund and its benefit to telephone and Internet access in our state.

Another resolution I introduced deals with the development of the Chief Standing Bear Trail which will extend from Nebraska to Oklahoma. The trail is intended to recognize the story of Nebraska’s original Native American inhabitants, which in turn will lead to a better understanding of history. The resolution spells out the challenges faced by Chief Standing Bear and his people. He spent his life struggling to gain equality and justice for his Ponca tribe and other Native Americans. In 1877, due to a federal treaty, the Ponca tribe was forced to leave Nebraska and move to what is now Oklahoma. That trip was filled with hardship, sadness, and illness that caused many members to die, including Chief Standing Bear’s son. Members of the tribe defied Federal orders to remain in Oklahoma and left the reservation to bury their son in his homeland, on the banks of the Niobrara River. Chief Standing Bear was subsequently arrested. His story and the historic court decision in 1879 was a pivotal moment in our state’s and nation’s history, as Judge Dundy ruled “An Indian is a person within the meaning of the law”.

While the Legislature will take no formal action regarding the development of this trail, our support of the resolution will indicate our recognition of this trail as a part of our state’s history. Our treatment of Native Americans is not necessarily a proud part of our history; it is still something we must acknowledge and hopefully learn from.

Budget

May 10th, 2013

This week your Legislature wrapped up day 75 of this 90-day session. The long session is dedicated to passing our biennial budget; in fact, this is the only business the Legislature must complete according to the constitution. The budget we pass must be balanced: we cannot spend more than we expect to bring in. We are already looking at the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 fiscal years. While we have had many hours of spirited, and at times heated debate this week, order is maintained and a majority vote prevails.

This undertaking begins long before we convene in January. In July, the Department of Administrative Services seeks input from State agencies on their budgetary needs. The Legislative fiscal office works year-round with the Department of Revenue and the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board to estimate the revenue of the state for the current and next biennium.

In September, a compilation of requests by State agencies are sent to the fiscal office for analysis. These requests are available for public review. The Governor proposes a budget to the Legislature during the State of the State address. The first two months of our 90-day session, the Appropriations Committee holds public hearings on each agency’s submissions and reviews all of the reports in order to present a preliminary budget to the Legislature. By day 70, the Committee has hammered out a final budget to present to the Legislature for debate.

The budget bills are introduced by the Speaker of the Legislature at the request of the Governor. This year, we had seven bills that covered all aspects of the budgeted requests. These bills set the salaries for the Legislature and constitutional officers and appropriate funds for Capitol construction, cash reserve transfers, state government expenses (which is the mainline budget bill), cash reserve transfers, and deficit appropriations.

At the close of the 2012 session, we were looking at a projected $619 million shortfall, which then improved to $195 million after the October forecast, and thankfully rebounded to a $15.9 million surplus balance when the preliminary budget was presented early in this session. The General Fund Financial Status as of May 9th indicates a $50.1 million variance above our 3% minimum reserve requirement. Even with the improved revenue numbers our debate still contained cautious overtones with an eye to building our Cash Reserve (our “savings account”). While the Governor’s proposal showed a 4.9% average budget growth over the biennium, it did not take into consideration state aid to education nor the state’s share of pension obligations. The Legislature’s budget includes those two items and demonstrates growth at just over 5%.

We have grappled over education spending, airplane purchases, railway inspectors, and property taxes to name a few. For now, there are no major changes to taxes, no repeal of income taxes or increase on agricultural inputs or sales tax refunds. My colleagues and I take very seriously our obligation to you, our constituents, to manage the business of the state while not overburdening the people.

Water Policy Task Force

May 3rd, 2013

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Ben Franklin recognized we are nothing without this life sustaining natural resource. The Natural Resources Committee, of which I am a member, understands that water, along with its use and management, is a priority and demands our utmost attention.

In 2011, the Committee conducted an extensive interim study to examine who uses water, how they use it, and the associated costs. We also studied Nebraska’s agreements with other states and asked difficult questions like: How do we manage this valuable resource now? What needs to be done in the future? How do we pay for water projects that will help us meet our immediate and future needs?

The recommendations of that study are now being put forward in LB 517 which would create a task force to identify water resources programs, projects, and activities in need of funding in order to meet long-term statewide goals of water sustainability and ensure efficient use of our existing water resources so that we can maximize the beneficial use of water.

In order to develop future legislation for water funding, the task force will look at a variety of important elements, including criteria to prioritize water projects, a statewide project map, and annual funding needs. The task force will rely on and consult with stakeholders as they put a plan in place.

When we speak of projects that impact water use, agriculture commands its share of the attention. NRD’s through integrated water management plans are looking at ways to protect and conserve our groundwater resources while irrigation districts are looking at managing water-short years and shrinking allocations. Yet our water needs and demands go beyond that scope to encompass drinking water projects in cities and villages across our state, wastewater treatment facilities of all sizes, and compliance with our compacts and multi-state agreements to avoid additional costly litigation.

Water is a natural resource that we “mine” for our use, be it domestic, agricultural, or industrial. Steve Peterson, a leading hydrologist for the High Plains Groundwater Availability Study, recently stated that in the Southern High Plains Aquifer, especially in the Texas panhandle, groundwater levels have dropped 150 feet due in large part to unregulated irrigated agriculture. In the Northern High Plains region, which includes Nebraska, our levels have remained virtually unchanged. That does not mean we are looking at a limitless resource. Sustainable levels will be subject to how we manage our water usage.

The waters of our river basins and aquifer sustain us physically as well as financially. Nebraska’s agricultural economy helped shelter us from the worst of the recent economic downturn. A comprehensive statewide water plan is important to ensure protection for future generations. To ensure the wells do not run dry the state must act now to manage our most critical natural resource, water.

ACCESSNebraska

April 12th, 2013

Implementation of ACCESSNebraska, the online and automated phone system for economic assistance, began in 2008 and has been in full operation for just over a year. The goal for the program was to create an efficient, modern, accurate, and streamlined application process. Even though the Department of Health and Human Services has been working to ensure this program is meeting goals, there are ongoing problems that require attention.
My office routinely hears from frustrated constituents and employees. Citizens continue to deal with lost documents, inaccurate and inconsistent answers to questions, long wait times on the phone, and errors that have serious financial impacts. Employees are frustrated by unmanageable work tasks, inadequate training, and regular technical difficulties.
The Health and Human Services Committee recently held a briefing on the current status of ACCESSNebraska. Questions raised by the committee clearly supported the problems being presented to my office. Reports of long wait times on the phone leading to missed interviews and high phone bill costs, erroneous denial letters, and overall frustration persist. Senators questioned the need for phone interviews for all applications and annual re-application for the Developmentally Disabled and elderly whose circumstances do not change over time. Others pointed out that a new 48 hour callback option creates more work tasks and was denounced by a consultants report on how to make the system better.
DHHS Director of Children and Family Services, Thomas Pristow, and Deputy Director for Economic Assistance, Jill Schreck, reported spending time with field staff to get a better understanding of what improvements are needed to help employees serve their clients. They also highlighted changes that point to some improvements in the system. Clients who reside in nursing homes or assisted living facilities are now provided with a dedicated staff person to handle their case. Another change created a separate phone number for Lincoln area callers which saves one thousand dollars per day and takes some pressure off of the 800 number. A similar plan is moving forward for Omaha residents.
To more accurately answer client questions, DHHS will segregate  Medicaid and Economic Assistance programs (such as the supplemental nutrition assistance program, and energy assistance) between the five call centers. Customer service centers in Lincoln and Lexington will handle Medicaid and Long Term Care issues, while the Scottsbluff, Fremont, and Omaha centers will handle economic assistance. In the coming months applications and renewals for Medicaid will be transferred to the Division of Medicaid and Long Term Care.  This significant change should give pause for concern. Clients will now be required to call a separate number and fill out a different form. This has the potential to create more confusion in a system that is still struggling to meet its original goals of efficiency, accuracy, and responsiveness.
I continue to monitor the effects of this new program on Nebraska’s most vulnerable populations. Creating barriers to services is not an efficient use of state resources and costs more in the long run.

Veterans ID

April 5th, 2013

It is not uncommon for senators to receive ideas and suggestions for legislation from constituents. Hall County Supervisor Pam Lancaster brought an idea which would allow for a “Veteran” designation on a driver license or state identification card. Through her work, she discovered that a majority of states had already provided for such a recognition or were in the process of introducing legislation. I was happy to turn her request into LB 93.
Three additional bills were introduced this session to recognize our Veterans and their service through the creation of military honor license plates. At the public hearing in the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, the testimony was compelling, and the committee felt strongly that we should not only advance a bill that demonstrates our gratitude and respect for our service members, but also make it a committee priority.
The Department of Veteran Affairs testified in support of these bills and offered their assistance with implementation. They saw this as an opportunity to create a statewide registry for Veterans.  Currently, no such database exists, which makes it difficult for the Department to ensure that all Veterans are receiving the benefits and services to which they are entitled. Servicemembers or Veterans who voluntarily apply for a license plate or driver license designation would first be required to register with the Department of Veteran Affairs. The Department of Motor Vehicles would then check with the registry to verify eligibility for the plates or driver license notation.
Veterans are required to show their DD 214 to access specific benefits, such as health care or priority status when applying for a job. The notation on the driver license will not completely eliminate the need for more detailed proof of service but will help in many instances. The Veteran designation on their driver license will allow a convenient way to show proof of service to the 275,000 retailers nationwide who offer discounts to Veterans. It can also help law enforcement or medical personnel identify Veterans who may be suffering from PTSD or other related difficulties, and help them access the benefits they have earned by their service. This notation will also provide an opportunity for members of the public, when checking the ID of a Veteran, to give an expression of thanks.
LB 93 was amended to include ideas from several bills, and will enable the DMV to create the “Military Honor” license plate for current or former service members. The plates will be designed by the DMV by 2015 and indicate service in the National Guard or one of five branches of Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, or Coast Guard.
I feel strongly about honoring our Veterans. The intent of LB93 is to provide opportunities for recognition and pride in the men and women who risk their lives to protect the freedoms that Americans hold so dear. While a driver license notation or a license plate will not guarantee such treatment it certainly is a step in the right direction. To my father, Francis “Red” Steele, and to all Veterans and active duty soldiers, Thank You for your service.

One Call Notification System

March 28th, 2013

In 1994, the Nebraska Legislature passed a law creating the One Call Notification System. This law requires everyone who does excavation to call the Diggers Hotline at least two business days before they begin their work. This statewide system was put in place to help locate underground infrastructure, such as natural gas pipelines or telecommunications cable, and to protect public safety by preventing damage to property, interruption of utility services, and serious injury. By using the hotline, diggers eliminate their liability for damage to pipelines and cables.

When the legislation was originally introduced, debate centered around defining the term “excavation.” It was determined that normal road maintenance, the digging of graves or landfills in planned locations, and the tilling of soil for seeding were outside of the call requirement for excavation along with other activities related to what was broadly labeled as “agricultural purposes.”

Recently, questions have been raised regarding soil sampling and whether it falls into the category of “agricultural purposes.” A 2011 opinion by Nebraska’s Attorney General stated the need for legislative clarification in the exemption for agricultural purposes. Utility companies, farmers, and soil samplers have taken opposing views on the subject.

Utilities are adamant that soil samplers should not be included in the exemption and be required to call the hotline. They argue that probes are becoming more invasive, making important infrastructure more susceptible to damage. Severing telecommunication cables will disrupt 911 service, interrupt Internet availability, and impact cell phone towers and FAA radar sites. For gas pipelines, even small nicks can compromise structural integrity and lead to leaks or even devastating and costly explosions.

Farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness professionals argue that soil sampling is indeed an “agricultural purpose” that has become much more pervasive and technologically sophisticated in recent years. Many Natural Resource Districts now require probes up to 3 feet deep to monitor for groundwater contamination, and farmers use frequent moisture probing during the growing season to conserve irrigation water. In fact, because of GPS systems and more precise tillage equipment and practices, soil sampling is done on a regular, yearly basis.

Unlike other types of excavation, soil sampling is done routinely, in the same location year after year, and requires detailed records. Requiring repetitive calls to the Diggers Hotline to clear the same field would be unnecessary from a safety perspective. Moreover, gathering soil samples, is impacted by the weather so there is a short window of time to complete collections. If soil samplers were required to call the Diggers Hotline for each probe, it could create a higher volume of calls over a condensed time frame, increasing demands on personnel and making calling the hotline for each probe time consuming and costly.

There is no disagreement with the purpose and benefits of the Diggers Hotline. No one takes issue with the safety aspects that this long-standing program provides. Right now it appears that the “devil is in the details” as we work to find common ground that recognizes the legitimate perspectives from both sides of this important issue.

Universal Service Fund

March 22nd, 2013

One of the more interesting and perhaps complex issues that the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee deals with is the Universal Service Fund (USF).

The USF is one of those fees included in your telephone bill that I would like to help you better understand. In 1996, the federal government passed the Telecommunications Act. The Unicameral then passed the Nebraska USF in 1998. Nebraska’s program is now regarded as an example for other states to follow and ensures that every person, regardless of where they live, has access to reliable, reasonably comparable and affordable telecommunications.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission distributes the money collected from your phone bill among five programs: the Broadband Pilot Program, Tele-Health, the Dedicated Wireless Fund, the Telephone Assistance Program, and the High Cost Program.

The Broadband Pilot Program awards grants for capital improvement projects located across Nebraska. Through these grants the Commission is expanding broadband services, reviewing the broadband speeds to meet customer expectations, and targeting needed infrastructure all the while keeping their focus on affordability for the public.

The Statewide Tele-Health Network connects 68 rural and critical access hospitals across the state to hub hospitals. This service allows more patients to remain closer to home for quality medical attention. The financial support provided by this fund helps keep the network up and running and reduces costs. Our Tele-Health Network also brings together resources to ensure readiness for natural disasters or other regional emergencies.

The Dedicated Wireless Fund Program provides support to wireless carriers for the construction of cell towers or placement of needed equipment in rural and sparsely populated areas of our state that would otherwise struggle to attract wireless service.

The Nebraska Telephone Assistance Program ensures low-income consumers affordable access to telephone service. Funds are remitted directly to the phone companies and appear as a credit on the bill of the recipient to prevent fraud.

Finally, the High Cost Program provides quality and affordable access to telecommunications no matter where a customer resides. The cost to provide service for those who live in sparsely populated areas of the state far exceeds what most phone customers pay. The farther a customer lives from a central office the more costly the service. In Nebraska, over 47 of our counties have fewer than 10 people per square mile. The need for reliable and affordable telecommunications services is no less important to those residents than it is for the more populated areas of our state.

There are potential changes being discussed at the federal level that could have a significant impact on the fund and the way it is currently used. The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee will conduct an interim study later this year to engage with the Public Service Commission as they prepare for such changes, educate the public about the important aspects of the fund, and ensure the focus remains on consumers’ needs by providing reliable, up-to-date and affordable services to all areas of our state.