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Every day before the Legislature convenes, a state senator leads the Pledge of Allegiance in the legislative chamber. I have already volunteered to lead the pledge on January 16 and will sign up again. I think it is important to set this precedence before the senators get to work each day, to instill a sense of patriotism amongst senators and to carry on a very important American tradition.
The Education Committee and the Revenue Committee held hearings this past week on several bills that were introduced to provide property tax relief and alter the school finance system to reduce the burden on property taxpayers, especially rural landowners, in supporting our K-12 schools.
LB 497, introduced by Henderson Senator Curt Friesen, was heard before the Revenue Committee. It is supported by the Nebraska Agriculture Leaders Working Group, made up of the Nebraska Cattleman, Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Pork Producers Association, Nebraska Soybean Association, Nebraska State Dairy Association and the Nebraska Wheat Growers Association. This legislation seeks to phase-in over a three-year period a minimum state aid guarantee for school districts to equal 50% of basic funding as determined by the state aid formula. Furthermore, for school taxation purposes only, a reduction in the value of agricultural land from 75% to 40% would be phased-in over the next three years. The local effort rate in the state aid formula would be lowered to $0.9750 and an annual maximum property tax authority would be set for each school district, to help ensure that the additional state aid is used to lower the property tax request.
To fund the property tax relief, LB 497 proposes to repeal the $10,000 personal property exemption, repeal certain sales tax exemptions (for such things as real property and motor vehicle maintenance, dry cleaning, pet services, food, personal care, travel agencies and zoo admissions), increase the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack and increase the excise tax on alcohol. Since the state budget would not be impacted by the additional aid until the 2020/2021 fiscal year, the new revenue would allow for a transfer of $150 million to build up the Cash Reserve Fund.
LB 314 was introduced by Albion Senator Tom Briese and also heard before the Revenue Committee. This legislation recognizes that Nebraska relies too heavily on property taxes to fund K-12 education. LB 314 proposes to increase the Property Tax Credit Program by $468 million. Currently, $224 million is appropriated annually for the tax credit program which is reflected on property tax statements. LB 314 would also increase the reimbursement rate for special education, restore the allocated income tax returned to school districts to 20%, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit from 10% to 15%. Finally, the legislation calls for a school finance study.
To fund the proposals in LB 314, several sales tax exemptions would be eliminated. The exemptions are similar to those in LB 497, except LB 314 would tax candy, soft drinks and water, instead of all groceries. As introduced, it also would raise the sales tax by ½ cent, add a surcharge on high income earners, end the tangible personal property tax exemption, eliminate state income tax itemized deductions (except medical), increase cigarette taxes and increase the excise tax on alcohol.
Senator Briese offered an amendment at the hearing to strike the increase in the excise taxes on alcohol, replacing it with a 3% increase on sales tax on alcohol and expanding the tax increase on cigarettes to all tobacco products. Local craft breweries were concerned that the 345% increase in the excise tax would severely curtail their business and the amendment aims to resolve the cash flow issue.
At this time, it is hard to predict which bill or bills will advance from the Revenue and Education committees and what amendments will be offered. I signed on as a co-sponsor of LB 497 to show that I am supportive of property tax relief. However, I am open to studying any proposal advanced to the floor of the Legislature proposing to reduce property taxes. I am supportive of eliminating certain sales tax exemptions, as they give specific people a break on taxes, but result in a higher rate that everyone must pay. It is bound to be challenging discussion.
I am interested in your thoughts on property tax relief. I can be reached at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is email@example.com and my telephone number at the Capitol is (402) 471-2801.
Public hearings are in full swing. The Judiciary Committee went until after 9 p.m. one night this past week hearing bills regarding issues related to conversion therapy and discrimination based upon sexual orientation. One afternoon, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard testimony on ten bills related to license plates, of which six would add new options for specialty plates. The executive board met over the lunch hour to hear testimony on proposed constitutional amendments to increase legislators’ salaries and to lower the age requirement for persons running for the Legislature. The Governor testified before the Revenue Committee in support of his proposal to exempt 50% of military retirement benefits from the state income tax.
The Natural Resources Committee, on which I serve, heard testimony for more than three hours on one bill dealing with eminent domain. Senator Tom Brewer of Gordon introduced LB 155 to remove the statute stating that public power building transmission to a renewable energy project is a public use. In effect, this would remove the ability of public power to use eminent domain to provide transmission lines and related facilities for a privately developed renewable energy generation facility. The legislation amends a law passed in 2010 that first opened the state to privately developed renewable energy projects.
Since Nebraska is a public power state and thus could not take advantage of the federal production tax credits that subsidize wind energy projects, the Legislature authorized private companies to build wind energy facilities. Private companies could utilize the federal tax credits, thereby making the project more financially feasible. As the cost of wind development projects have decreased, the federal production tax credits are set to be phased out entirely by 2024.
Senator Brewer has been fighting wind and transmission projects because he represents the Sandhills region. He is concerned with the route of the R-Project, a transmission line from NPPD’s Gerald Gentlemen Station near Sutherland to an existing substation east of Thedford. From there the transmission line would proceed east and connect to a second substation in Holt County. I believe the transmission line is necessary to enhance reliability and relieve congestion. Senator Brewer is concerned that private developers will use this line for wind energy facilities. I agree that eminent domain shouldn’t be used to benefit private companies. It should only be used by our public utilities on projects that are for the public good.
LB 66 was discussed on the floor of the Legislature but failed to receive first-round approval with a vote of 19-23. Twenty-five votes are necessary for advancement. LB 66 would have required cities to incorporate early childhood development in their comprehensive development plans. Discussion focused on where the daycare facilities are located within the city, whether bus lines go near them, etc. These issues may pertain to larger cities, but are not applicable to smaller towns. Although I realize the importance of addressing early childhood education in our communities, I believe that this discussion is better suited for local school boards than city government.
LB 306, introduced by Bellevue Senator Sue Crawford, would create a new category of good cause for voluntarily leaving employment for purposes of unemployment benefits. The new category would be to care for a family member with a serious health condition. The benefits would not be charged against a specific employer’s account. Committee amendments clarify that such individual must make all reasonable efforts to preserve employment before voluntarily leaving their job. LB 306 received first-round approval on a vote of 29-11.
In addition to debate by the full Legislature in the morning and committee hearings in the afternoon, I try to attend as many events as I can. I enjoy the opportunity to visit with constituents that attend these events. If you are ever at the State Capitol, make sure to contact me. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is District 40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, Nebraska 68509.
This past week, public hearings were held on both of the bills that I introduced: LB 243 and LB 406. LB 243, which proposes to create the Healthy Soils Task Force, was heard before the Agriculture Committee. Nineteen people testified in support of my bill, no one opposed it, and representatives from the Nebraska Corn Growers Association and the Natural Resources Conservation Service spoke in a neutral capacity. Supporters included representatives from Natural Resources Districts and the Nebraska Pork Producers, the former assistant Vice Chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources (IANR) at the University of Nebraska, and Jeffrey Steffen from Crofton.
The public hearing for LB 406, which I introduced at the request of the Unclaimed Property division within the State Treasurer’s office, was heard before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. A representative of several insurance companies and a utility company expressed concern with one provision of the bill, which proposed to remove the ability to report properties in the aggregate for items less than $25, thereby requiring the owner’s name and address on all items reported. This portion was meant to ensure that property owners are getting all the money due to them when they file a claim. However, testifiers were concerned that it would increase their client’s workload and costs. Consequently, this portion of the bill will be removed and the issue studied over the interim.
The Revenue Committee heard testimony on three bills (LB 18, LB 284, and LB 291) this past week that were introduced as a result of the South Dakota v. Wayfair case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer that states could require remote sellers (those without a physical presence in the state) to collect sales tax. Current Nebraska statutes don’t explicitly mandate collection. The three proposals followed the South Dakota law which required collection if the online retailers had $100,000 worth of sales or at least 200 transactions. Furthermore, LB 284 and LB 291 both require online marketplaces (such as etsy & eBay) to collect and remit for smaller vendors for whom they facilitate sales. Twelve states have passed similar marketplace facilitator provisions, although the issue was not part of the Supreme Court’s decision. LB 18 proposes that revenue from internet sales is used for property tax relief, a concept the governor supports. However, the State Tax Commissioner indicated there is not a clear way to identify which tax revenue is attributable to remote sellers. The Tax Commissioner emphasized that the committee can count on no new revenue from these proposals, but the fiscal office disagreed, projecting approximately $18 million in added tax revenue over the biennium due to the mandate on marketplace platforms.
LB 373, proposed by Senator Tom Brewer of Gordon, would require counties that allow the construction of new wind turbines to have zoning regulations, which address set-backs, noise, and decommissioning. For two years, while developing the guidelines, wind turbines would need to be at least 3 miles from a residence. The bill also establishes a civil cause of action for citizens who feel a wind energy facility has diminished their property value. Proponents of the legislation, primarily landowners that live nearby to wind turbines, testified that they don’t have a voice in the process. They mentioned concern with noise and shadows created by the turbines. Opponents, who were many, warned that the legislation would stifle rural economic development and interfere with local control. They cited the increased jobs the projects bring to an area, the increased tax revenue, and the added income for landowners.
Every morning when the Legislature convenes in session, the day begins with a prayer. Chaplains from across the state are given the opportunity to deliver the prayer to state senators on the floor of the Norris Legislative Chamber in the State Capitol. Since I am new to the office this year, I was not able to get letters out before the legislative session began, but will be sending them in the near future to those whose information is available. In the meantime, if any members of the clergy are interested in this, please contact Alex in my office at (402) 471-2801, and he will work with the Clerk of the Legislature’s staff to schedule a day for you to visit the Capitol and deliver the morning prayer. My address is P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 and my email address is email@example.com.
During the 10-day period allowed for bill introduction, senators introduced 739 bills, as well as 7 constitutional amendments. Two years ago, during the last 90-day legislative session, 667 bills were introduced. In both 2013 and 2015, 655 bills were introduced during the first 10 days. The Judiciary Committee typically has the heaviest workload and with the increased number of bills introduced this year, the committee will have difficulty scheduling public hearings for more than 120 bills by the end of March. There has been some discussion of changing the Judiciary Committee from a 3-day committee to one that meets every day, as the Appropriations Committee does.
I introduced two bills. My primary goal this year is to listen and learn. I did sign on as a co-sponsor to a number of bills.
The first bill I introduced is LB 243. It proposes to create the Healthy Soils Task Force. The Task Force would consist of the Director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, two representatives from Natural Resources Districts, two academic experts, five representatives from production agriculture, two from agribusiness and one from an environmental organization. The chairs of the Legislature’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committees would also serve on the task force.
Under LB 243, the task force would develop a comprehensive healthy soils initiative. They are to develop a comprehensive action plan using specified standards as measures to assess improved soil health. With the assistance from outside resources, the task force would examine how to provide farmers with research, education, technical assistance, and demonstration projects; examine options for financial incentives to improve soil health; and examine the contribution of livestock to soil health.
I worked with several scholars with experience in agriculture and natural resources on this legislation. I decided to introduce it because soil health and water quality are important to me, having worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service for more than 30 years, and to all Nebraskans, as improving the health of Nebraska’s soil is the most effective way for agricultural producers to increase crop and forage productivity and profitability while also protecting the environment.
The other bill that I introduced was on behalf of the Unclaimed Property division of the Nebraska State Treasurer’s office. LB 406 updates and modernizes current statute, making the process more efficient.
The State Treasurer’s office publishes an annual unclaimed property report in Nebraska newspapers annually. Last year, the report included almost 31,000 names from properties received in 2017. However, since this is published only once a year, property owners need to be aware that they can check online at any time for unclaimed property at treasurer.nebraska.gov. Currently, there is $170 million in Nebraska unclaimed property and 350,000 names of people, businesses and organizations in the treasurer’s database. More than $14 million was paid out in 2018.
Some of the bills that I co-sponsored include:
This past week, I had the pleasure of visiting my hometown school. I presented a legislative resolution to the Creighton football team, recognizing the Bulldogs for an impressive season that concluded with the Class D1 championship.
Again I urge you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on issues before the Legislature. I can be reached at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.
On Tuesday of this past week, Governor Pete Ricketts presented his State of the State Address to the Legislature, which outlines his budget recommendations for the next biennium. On Thursday, Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican presented the State of the Judiciary. He spoke about justice reinvestment, the role the courts play in that process, and the initiatives that have been implemented to increase access to our courts.
Although the state is strong and growing, Governor Ricketts acknowledged that our number one industry, agriculture, is struggling with low commodity prices. He relayed that when talking to Nebraskans, property tax relief is their number one priority. The governor’s proposal contains $51 million each year in direct property tax relief, accomplished by increasing the annual appropriation to the Property Tax Credit Fund to $275 million. Furthermore, at the request of the governor, Senator Brett Lindstrom introduced Legislative Bill (LB) 303, which creates a floor for the Property Tax Credit Fund, prohibiting the amount of property tax relief from going lower than $275 million.
Another recommendation from the governor for property tax relief would require a constitutional amendment (CA), which first must receive approval from the Legislature and then from the majority of voters. The proposal, introduced by Revenue Committee chair Senator Lou Ann Linehan, establishes a 3% cap on property taxes levied by local governments, such as schools, cities, and counties. The two exceptions would be for bond payments or if residents in a political subdivision voted for an increase at a special election.
Other senators are introducing alternative proposals for property tax relief. I will provide more information on this topic in a future newsletter, as tax relief will be one of the most important issues we deal with this year.
The governor’s budget proposal would allow retired military veterans to exclude 50% of their military retirement benefits from state income taxes. He noted that five of our surrounding six states do not tax veterans’ retirement benefits and wants to make Nebraska a more attractive state for veterans. Senator Tom Brewer introduced LB 153, the tax relief measure for veterans, at the request of the governor. I signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation.
K-12 schools are fully funded under the Governor’s proposal. Higher education received increases to fully fund salary and health insurance. The governor also proposed the creation of a Nebraska Talent Scholarship Program. The $4,000 scholarships would assist the university, state colleges and community colleges attract more students in targeted programs, ranging from engineering to health care. Funding for approximately 2,000 scholarships is included in his budget recommendations.
The governor has proposed a capital construction project for two new high security housing units. This would increase capacity by up to 384 beds at the Lincoln Corrections Center and help ease the overcrowding in our prison system.
Even with the new initiatives, the budget proposed by the governor limits spending growth to 3.1 percent. A significant portion of the new spending is attributable to fully funding the school state aid formula and for implementing Medicaid expansion. The governor’s recommendations contain no tax increases.
Although the Legislature’s Planning Committee recommended increasing the state’s cash reserve to $700 – $800 million, the governor’s proposal reflects a balance of $348 million, after transferring approximately $50 million for the Capitol Construction project at the Department of Corrections.
Because there is some talk of eliminating or reforming business tax incentives, the governor informed senators of his thoughts on this subject. He emphasized that incentives are an important tool for attracting new investments and jobs, but hinted that he would support efforts to make incentives simpler, more transparent and accountable, and with a greater focus on higher paying jobs.
As the public hearing process gets underway, I encourage you to inform me of your thoughts on the legislation that has been introduced. I can be reached at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is email@example.com and my telephone number at the Capitol is (402) 471-2801.
I’d like to introduce myself. I am Senator Tim Gragert, newly elected to represent District 40 in the Nebraska Legislature. District 40 consists of Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox, and Rock counties. I am a lifelong resident of Creighton and recently retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Army National Guard. My wife, Donna, and I have three children and three grandchildren. I am honored to serve the residents of northeast Nebraska in the Legislature.
The One Hundred Sixth Legislature began on Wednesday, January 9. Thirteen newly elected senators joined thirteen re-elected senators in taking the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican. Of the thirteen newly elected senators, one returned after sitting out four years due to term limits. Two of the thirteen newly elected senators were appointed by the Governor, following the resignation of the current senators due to election to a different office.
Following the ceremonial activities, in which my family joined me, senators got right to work with elections for the speaker and chairs of the committees. Every senator is assigned committees to serve on. I was selected for the Banking, Commerce & Insurance Committee, which meets on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, and the Natural Resources Committee, which meets on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. Committee hearings will begin later this month and continue through the end of March. In the Nebraska Legislature, every bill (except revisor bills which are purely technical in nature) is referenced to a committee based on the subject matter and is guaranteed a hearing, allowing the public to testify in support or opposition to the legislation. The Legislature will meet as a body in the mornings during the public hearing process and in all-day session beginning in April.
Bill introduction is allowed for the first ten days of the legislative session. Typically, approximately 700 bills are introduced during the 90-day session. The Legislature is predicted to discuss a wide range of issues including property tax relief, the school finance formula, and the implementation of Medicaid expansion, which was recently approved by voters.
My first few days have been eventful. I spent the first day in the office of former Senator Tyson Larson. The second day began in a hearing room before I was assigned to the 11th floor, along with five other newly elected senators. Due to the Heating, Air Conditioning, and Renovation Project (also known as the HVAC project) at the Capitol, which is expected to take approximately 8 years, one quadrant of the Capitol is off-limits. Divisions of the Legislature that were housed in the tower were moved off-site, so that all the senators could remain in the building. However, it will be more difficult for visitors to the Capitol to see their state senator. Since the offices in the tower are only accessible to senators and staff, visitors will have to use the telephones at the information area on the first floor to call their senator’s office. Staff will come down and escort visitors up the elevators. Although this will be an inconvenience, the HVAC project is sorely needed to replace an outdated system.
This year the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on June 6. During the legislative session, I will be in Lincoln during the week and drive home to Creighton on the weekends. If I am not in my office, my staff will be able to assist you. My administrative assistant is Alex Brechbill and my legislative aide is Kim Davis. Alex will answer the phone and is responsible for my schedule and Kim will work on legislation and constituent issues.
I would like to inform you of the Legislature’s website at NebraskaLegislature.gov, which contains a wealth of information. Viewers can read the text of bills introduced, search state statutes, e-mail senators, view the agenda for the day, read the Unicameral Update online, and even watch the Unicameral live.
As my first legislative session gets underway, I invite you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation that is before us. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My State Capitol telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is: Senator Tim Gragert, District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.
Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 40th 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.
Sen. Tim Gragert
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