NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
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Sen. Curt Friesen

Sen. Curt Friesen

District 34

Weekly Column

April 24th, 2017

Education bills occupied much of the debate last week. LB 409 introduced by Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte would adjust the state’s school funding formula to better align with current budget projections and  LB 512, an omnibus bill introduced by the Education Committee, contained provisions from several bills ranging from how technology companies can use student information to  how to fund voluntary termination agreements for teachers and school administrators.

LB 409 would change both the base limitation rate and the local effort rate when determining state aid to schools. The base limitation rate is the rate at which school budgets are allowed to grow from year to year. The rate is currently 2.5 percent but the bill would reduce the rate to 1.5 percent for school fiscal years 2017-18 and 2018-19.

The bill would also increase the local effort rate to $1.02. The local effort rate is set by state statute and is the rate which, when multiplied by the total adjusted valuation of all taxable property in a school district receiving equalization aid pursuant to TEEOSA will produce the amount required to support the total formula need of the school district when added to state aid appropriated by the Legislature and any other receipts.

An amendment to the bill, would calculate net option funding, state funding for educating students who exercise the option to attend a school outside their home district, by multiplying the net number of option students by 95.5 percent of the statewide average basic funding per student for those years. The bill was advanced to select file by a vote of 38-0.

LB 512, the Education Committee’s omnibus bill, incorporated provisions from six bills:

  • LB 512, the underlying bill, would make minor technical changes to current statutory language.
  • LB 123 (Pansing Brooks) would authorize the Coordinating Commission on Postsecondary Education to assess a fee on for-profit post-secondary institutions in the state with the money going into a cash fund to be used to reimburse students for lost tuition and fees if the institution closed.
  • LB 175 (Morfeld) would prevent companies that contract with schools from using student data to target advertising or for other non-educational purposes.
  • LB 235 (Walz) would change some of the provisions for grantees receiving money under the Summer Food Service Program and the total amount of funds available for the program.
  • LB 398 (Wayne) would require certification of swimming instructors and lifeguards at swimming pools located inside a public school and also require that certified swimming instructors and lifeguards be present during public school swimming activities.
  • LB 457 (Briese) would remove a budget and levy limitation exemption for the money a school district agrees to pay teachers and administrators in exchange for voluntary termination of employment. School districts sometimes use such payments as a tool to encourage older higher paid teachers to retire early making it possible to hire more teachers at the lower end of the pay scale.  Some school districts have spent over four million dollars for separation agreements.

All but one of the components of the omnibus bill were noncontroversial and elicited little discussion. The Briese bill was of concern to some senators especially Omaha Sen. Burke Harr who worried that there would be a substantial negative impact on school districts already at their maximum levy. Harr introduced an amendment to allow those districts to exempt up to $35,000 of the payment for a teacher’s voluntary termination agreement that is not part of a collective bargaining agreement. The Harr amendment was adopted on a 30-6 vote and the bill then advanced to final reading on a voice vote.

A third education bill discussed this week was LB 645 introduced by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln. The bill would provide a legal definition for dyslexia. Dyslexia is included as a specific learning disability in state law but is not defined. Sen. Pansing Brooks said she introduced the bill with the hope that adding a definition to state statute would result in more attention being given to the issue leading to earlier identification of students with dyslexia and getting them the help they need.  After adding a technical amendment, senators voted 32-0 to advance the bill to select file.

Please feel free to contact me and my staff about your legislative concerns or other issues you would like to discuss. My email address is cfriesen@leg.ne.gov and our telephone number is 402-471-2630.

Weekly Column

April 18th, 2017

Two bills that garnered a lot of interest last week were LB44 dealing with collection of sales taxes for online purchases and LR6 a legislative resolution calling for a convention of the states.

Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse introduced LB44 which would require that online retailers without a physical presence in the state report the names of customers and the amounts of purchases sent to Nebraska if their gross sales revenue in the state is over $100,000 or they make more than 200 separate transactions in the state that year. It is estimated this would bring in an additional $30-$40 million per year in sales tax revenue.  Currently, based on a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a business must have a physical presence in the state before it can be required to collect state sales taxes.

The bill received enough support to advance to select file although some senators expressed concern that it would be struck down as unconstitutional.  I voted for the bill because I think it would help small retailers in the state who are disadvantaged by having to charge sales taxes when online retailers don’t.  In fact under current law, Nebraskans are required to self-report online purchases and remit sales taxes on those purchases when they file their state income tax returns but very few people actually do this.

LR6 introduced by Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete calls for holding a convention of the states as authorized under Article V of the U.S. Constitution.  The convention would be able to propose amendments to the constitution that would impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and implement term limits for members of Congress and federal officials.  It would not be authorized to take any additional action.

It is highly unlikely a convention will take place and even if it does chances are slim it would come up with an acceptable amendment. The framers of the constitution purposely made it difficult to amend the constitution – a two-thirds majority – 34 states – must pass identical resolutions and any proposed amendment would then have to be ratified by a three-fourths majority – 38 states.

The resolution is still being debated but I will support it if it comes to a vote. I strongly believe something needs to be done to address the growing federal debt and curb the overreach of the federal government stemming from the countless rules and regulations drafted by Washington bureaucrats.

After the Easter recess the legislature will begin debate on the Revenue Committee’s proposed tax package. LB461 as amended by AM954 is an omnibus bill containing provisions from LB337 (Smith) and LB452 (Lindstrom) relating to changes in the structure and rates of personal and corporate income taxes, LB129 (Morfeld) increasing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and LB338 (Brasch) changing how ag land in the state is valued for tax purposes.

The bill would eliminate the lowest personal income tax bracket and collapse the four current brackets into three.  The highest individual income tax rate will decrease by approximately 0.1 percent per year from 2020 to 2027 thereby dropping the state’s top individual income tax rate from 6.84 percent to 5.99 percent.  If the projected rate of growth in revenue is less than 3.5 percent, the tax rate cut would be deferred and the deferral would remain in effect until the expected rate of growth exceeds 4.2 percent.

The bill lowers the top corporate income tax rate of 7.58 percent on income over $100,000. The rate will be incrementally reduced until it reaches 5.99 percent.  Reductions in the corporate tax rate would be subject to the same revenue growth rate triggers as those for personal income taxes except a 4 percent growth rate would be required.

While the majority of Nebraskans should see income tax relief, some individuals at lower income levels might not. In order to prevent any detrimental impacts on these individuals the bill will increase Nebraska’s EITC from 10 percent of the federal credit to 11 percent in 2018 and to 12 percent in 2019.

The bill will make significant changes in how ag land is valued for tax purposes and mandates that the aggregate value across all classes of land will increase by no more than 3.5 percent from the prior year.

Rather than basing valuation on the land’s market value, the new system would use an income-based valuation taking into account land’s projected income producing potential.  The new valuation would be between 55 and 65 percent of actual value for each class of land as determined by the state property tax administrator.  Valuation rate decreases will trigger increases in state TEEOSA funding.

Overall I think this is a good bill that begins the process of overhauling taxes in the state.  While my primary focus will continue to be achieving a significant reduction in property taxes on agricultural land and a more equitable approach to school funding for everyone, this is a step in the right direction. No doubt there will be a great deal of discussion and possible amendments as the bill is debated on the floor which will set the stage for tackling the budget, the next big challenge looming on the horizon.

Please feel free to contact me and my staff about your legislative concerns or other issues you would like to discuss.  My email address is cfriesen@leg.ne.gov and our telephone number is 402-471-2630.

Weekly Column

April 10th, 2017

The legislature made good progress last week advancing a number of bills from both general and select files.

The “Choose Life” license plate bill (LB46) that has consumed hours of debate time over the past few weeks passed on final reading with a vote of 38-0. The bill was signed into law on April 5th by Gov. Pete Ricketts during a special signing ceremony.

The Revenue Committee completed work on its tax reform package and sent two bills (LB481 and LB640) to the floor. It is likely to be several weeks before the bills are debated.

I think both bills will make positive and much needed changes to the tax structure in the state.  This week I am focusing on LB640 which deals with property taxes and school funding and next week I will take up LB481 which deals with a range of tax  issues including income tax rates, how property taxes are assessed, and changes to the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit.

LB640 was introduced by North Platte Sen. Mike Groene and I selected it as my personal priority bill. The intent of LB640 is to reduce the amount of property taxes going to school funding potentially reducing property tax bills, especially in areas where the property tax base is mostly agricultural land.

It is an understatement to say that the way we figure school funding in this state is complicated, confusing and hard to understand; trying to explain LB640 is much the same.  If implemented in its current form the bill would make three major changes: capping the amount of property taxes used to fund schools; lowering the maximum school district levy; and redirecting money from the Property Tax Credit Cash Fund to make up the difference and provide property tax relief.

Property taxes have always been the primary source of funding for Nebraska’s schools. Today property taxes make up between 32 percent and 80 percent of total revenue depending on the school district.  The goal is to eventually cap the property tax portion at 40 percent.

LB640 takes a step in that direction and would place a 55 percent cap on the amount that property taxes contribute to school funding. The difference between the total amount of revenue now collected and the 55 percent cap, the “property tax gap,” will be split between the state and individual school districts.

The state will contribute 75 percent of the amount needed to close the gap with money taken from the Property Tax Credit Cash Fund.  If the balance in the Property Tax Credit Cash Fund is less than the amount needed for school district relief aid, individual school district aid will be reduced proportionately.

School districts receiving aid must reduce their spending by an amount equal to 25 percent of the property tax gap unless the school board, after holding a public hearing, overrides the reduction by a two-thirds majority vote.  The 159 unequalized districts along with 26 districts that receive minimal equalization will see the biggest impacts.

Next, the bill would lower the maximum school district property tax levy from $1.05 per $100 of property value to $.987 per $100 of property value which in turn lowers the local effort rate in the TEEOSA formula.  The difference will be offset with money from the Property Tax Credit Cash Fund paid in the form of property tax relief aid to citizens in equalized districts.

The Property Tax Credit Cash Fund was established in 2007 to provide property tax relief to real property owners across the state in the form of a property tax credit and today it contains $221 million. This bill will significantly impact the fund because the money to pay for LB640 will come from redirection of those dollars.

If LB640 is implemented both urban and rural areas will feel the effects. Rural areas will pay slightly less toward school funding and receive increased state aid to make up the difference.  Urban areas will receive less in property tax credits.  While it is easy to frame changes like this in terms of winners and losers if you think about the system we have now we already have winners and losers. LB640 is not intended to benefit one area at the expense of the other, it is intended to make the system fairer for everybody while still adequately funding our public schools.

Please feel free to contact me and my staff about your legislative concerns or other issues you would like to discuss.  My email address is cfriesen@leg.ne.gov and our telephone number is 402-471-2630.

Senator Friesen will be holding a Town Hall Meeting in conjunction with the Central City Chamber of Commerce Civic Breakfast

When:          Monday, March 27, 2017                                           7:30 – 8:30 a.m.

Where:         Venture Center    —  1532 17th Avenue, Central City, Nebraska

Town Hall Meeting with Senator Curt Friesen

When:            Friday, March 24, 2017                                   7:30 – 8:30 a.m.   

Where:          Aurora Town Hall   —   1604 “L” Street, Aurora, Nebraska

 

Weekly Column

March 20th, 2017

This week in the legislature two school-related bills garnered a lot of attention and sparked some intense debate.

On Tuesday, March 14, the Education Committee held a public hearing on a bill introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill that would allow creation of independent public schools, also known as charter schools.

LB 630, the Independent Public Schools Act, would permit nonprofit organizations and certain other entities to establish independent schools in any school district with a school the State Board of Education has identified as significantly underperforming.  Level of performance is determined by evaluating several factors including graduation rates and test scores.

The bill would create an eight-member commission to grant and oversee charter school compacts.  The bill would also authorize school districts to grant and administer compacts for charter schools to operate within their boundaries.

The schools would be independent of any school board and would be managed by a board of trustees.  Each charter school would receive state aid equal to the number of enrolled students multiplied by the statewide average funding per formula student amount.  They would be open to all students through a lottery system.

The debate over whether or not to permit charter schools elicits strong emotions on both sides of the issue.  At its core though, no matter which side you come down on, is the belief that every child in Nebraska must receive a high quality education that will prepare them to become successful adults and equip them with the skills they need to get good jobs and be productive members of society.

Personally, I am a strong supporter of the education provided in the state’s public schools.  This is not to say that all public schools are excelling, clearly there are some that are not. But overall our public schools do a good job and I think it’s important that we give them credit for the work they do.

I have introduced several bills this session that call for significantly changing the way we fund public education by reducing the current heavy reliance on property taxes. This is in no way a reflection on the quality of public education in the state. I am not trying to take money away from the public schools.  I am simply hoping we can come up with a different funding mechanism that will still adequately support our schools while sharing the economic burden more fairly.

Very soon the Revenue Committee, of which I am Vice Chair, will be putting out its proposed tax package and I’m sure I will have some additional comments on education funding at that time.

LB 62 introduced by Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk was filibustered for a second time by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers.  The bill would repeal a law prohibiting public school teachers from wearing religious garb at school.  The prohibition was passed by Nebraska in 1919 and requires school boards to suspend a teacher for one year for a first violation and terminate their employment upon a second violation.

Sen. Chambers also staged a filibuster against the bill on General File.  First round debate was ended by a cloture vote on Feb. 22 after two days of protracted discussion.  Senators then voted 36-1 to advance the bill to Select File.  The second round filibuster was ended by another successful cloture vote and the bill was advanced to Final Reading on a vote of 41-1.  It is likely Sen. Chambers will again waste a significant amount of time with a filibuster against the bill on Final Reading.

Having passed the halfway point in this legislative session with only 14 bills being sent to the governor, there is a significant backlog of legislation to get to and time is rapidly winding down.  In addition, we still need to pass a budget and with the revenue shortfall and anticipated budget cuts, this promises to be no easy task.  The Appropriations Committee has until April 24 (the 70th legislative day) to place the appropriations bills on General File.  The legislature is required to pass all appropriations bills by the 80th legislative day which is  May 10 this year.

Please feel free to contact me and my staff about your legislative concerns or other issues you would like to discuss.  My email address is cfriesen@leg.ne.gov and our telephone number is 402-471-2630.

Weekly Column

March 13th, 2017

In the legislature this week several hours of debate were devoted to a proposal to change Nebraska’s mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require judges to give fixed prison terms to persons convicted of specific crimes, most often drug offenses.

A bill introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, would have eliminated the mandatory minimum sentences for Class IC and Class ID felonies.

Currently a person convicted of a Class IC felony is subject to a sentence ranging from five to 50 years in prison. Class IC felonies include robbery, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony, and possession of certain amounts of illegal substances. Conviction for a Class ID felony, examples of which include possession of certain amounts of illegal substances and assault on a police officer or health care professional, carries a sentence of between three and 50 years.

Unlike some of the other bills the legislature has taken up this session that have consumed entire days with little to show, this bill prompted good debate.

Supporters of the legislation argued that inflexible sentencing laws are unfair, preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offense.  Further that they have resulted in significant prison overcrowding and increased costs to taxpayers. In addition, incarcerated individuals are more likely to behave badly because they are not eligible to have their sentences shortened for good behavior.

Opponents of the bill contended that removing sentencing discretion from judges actually ensures fairness because it results in greater consistency for individuals convicted of the same crime. Mandatory minimum sentences also serve as a deterrent to crime as individuals are more likely to consider the potential consequences of their actions. Finally, mandatory minimum sentences improve public safety as longer sentences keep criminals off the streets.

In the end, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn offered an amendment to the bill eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for Class IC and ID drug offenses only, specifically for manufacturing between 28 and 139 grams of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine with the intent to distribute.

The amendment was adopted on a vote of 29-9 and the bill then advanced to select file 25-22. It still faces two more rounds of voting plus surmounting a possible gubernatorial veto before it can become law.

I am personally in opposition to the bill. At the end of the day these individuals have been convicted of serious crimes and should bear the associated consequences. Judges continue to have a wide range of sentencing options that take into account the individual circumstances of the convicted offender.

March 9 was the deadline for senators and committees to identify their priority bills.  Bills with priority status are generally scheduled for debate ahead of other bills. Each senator may select one priority bill, each committee may select two priority bills, and the Speaker may select up to 25 priority bills.

I designated LB 640, introduced by Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, as my priority bill. The bill caps the property tax contribution for school funding at 60% and provides tax relief in equalized school districts by lowering the maximum levy from 1.05 to 1.00.

Four of my bills have been designated as priority bills. Three bills, LB 144 which changes valuation of agricultural and horticultural land for calculating state aid to schools, LB 161 changing provisions of the Nebraska Advantage Act, and LB 265 which provides for a minimum amount of state aid based on the number of students in a local school system were designated as priorities by other senators. The Transportation & Telecommunications Committee prioritized LB 339 which creates a Department of Transportation by merging the Department of Aeronautics into the Department of Roads. Additional bills may receive priority status as the Speaker priority bills have yet to be announced.

Please feel free to contact me and my staff about your legislative concerns or other issues you would like to discuss.  My email address is cfriesen@leg.ne.gov and our telephone number is 402-471-2630.

Welcome

January 3rd, 2017

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. Curt Friesen

Sen. Curt Friesen

District 34
Room #1110
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2630
Email: cfriesen@leg.ne.gov
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