NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

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Sen. Tim Gragert

Sen. Tim Gragert

District 40

The content of these pages is developed and maintained by, and is the sole responsibility of, the individual senator's office and may not reflect the views of the Nebraska Legislature. Questions and comments about the content should be directed to the senator's office at tgragert@leg.ne.gov

The public hearing to be held by the Revenue Committee, the Education Committee and the Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee on the property tax relief proposal, scheduled for April 18, was cancelled, due to the amendment to LB 289 not being ready in time. The hearing has been rescheduled for Wednesday, April 24 and the 82-page amendment was filed a week in advance, as required by legislative rules. The amendment could be further amended, based on testimony received at the hearing, prior to LB 289 advancing to the full Legislature.

Under the proposed amendment, a foundation aid factor would be added to the school state aid formula. Schools would receive $3474.40 for each student next year, resulting in every school receiving at least a third of its funding through state aid. Currently, more than two-thirds of school districts receive no equalization aid from the state and are funded primarily with property tax revenue. A lid would be placed on school spending, based on the consumer price index and growth within a school district.

The valuation of property will be reduced by 10%, with the valuation of residential and commercial property dropping to 90% and agricultural land to 65% of its value. The local effort rate in the school state aid formula will drop to 90 cents. The proposal represents a 50% increase in state funding for K-12 schools, resulting in $500,000 in property tax relief, which is projected to decrease school property taxes on average by 20%. The proposal would be funded by a ¾ cent sales tax increase, an increase in the cigarette tax to $1.00 per pack, the removal of some sales tax exemptions, including pop, candy, and bottled water, as well as taxing plumbing, heating and air-conditioning services, services provided by moving companies, and veterinarian care for pets.

Immediately after the amendment was filed, Governor Pete Ricketts issued a press release calling the proposal the largest tax increase in Nebraska history. He also criticized the elimination of most of the funding for the Property Tax Credit program.

The Legislature gave initial approval this past week to LB 657, the Nebraska Hemp Act. The passage of the 2018 Federal Farm Bill legalized the growth, cultivation, and processing of hemp across the country. Hemp is drought resistant, can serve as a rotational cash crop, and cannot contain over 0.3% THC. This is the chemical that produces the marijuana high. The legislation creates a process for farmers and cultivators to test their crop for THC compliance to ensure it complies with the Farm Bill.

Under LB 657 as amended, the hemp research pilot program authorized a couple years ago, based on the 2014 Farm Bill, would be expanded to enable wider participation for the 2019 growing season. LB 657 would provide the structure needed to prepare and implement a state plan to conform to the 2018 Farm Bill for the 2020 growing season and beyond. Other states around us have already passed legislation authorizing hemp and we need to get on board, in order to give farmers the opportunity to benefit from this crop.

The Legislature also gave first-round approval to LB 693, which adopts the Neighbor Spoofing Protection Act. The sponsor of the bill worked with the Attorney General’s office and the Public Service Commission on the legislation. The intent of the bill is to reduce the number of calls persons receive from numbers similar to their own, in a deliberate attempt to con people into answering the call. Supporters of the bill acknowledged that this would not entirely resolve the problem because many spoofing calls originate from the Internet or overseas and cannot be traced. LB 693 is patterned after a Kansas law and is among the growing attempt by states to place some constraint on this annoying practice, while Congress works on the issue as well.

LB 155, which as introduced, attempted to prevent public power districts from using eminent domain for the benefit of private wind companies. LB 155 fell two votes short of advancement earlier this session. After it was prioritized a second time, LB 155 was placed on the agenda again. The sponsor of the bill, Senator Tom Brewer, offered a compromise amendment, which resulted in the bill easily receiving first-round approval. The amendment would give landowners who didn’t want a connecting line across their property a chance to argue against it in court.

The Legislature has passed the two-thirds mark of this session. As we continue to discuss bills with priority status, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.    

Our office received word this past week that Boyd County has been included in the disaster declaration, making federal funding available for individual assistance. Knox County had previously been included, as well as the Santee Sioux Nation. To apply for individual assistance, call FEMA at 1-800-621-3362 or register online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov. This is in addition to the counties and tribal areas that have qualified for public assistance.

The Legislature debated LB 227 for six hours this past week before advancing it to the second stage of debate. LB 227, introduced by Venango Senator Dan Hughes, amends the Nebraska Right to Farm Act (NRFA), which protected farmers against nuisance lawsuits brought by individuals who move into agricultural zoned areas. Although the NRFA protected farmers if they were there first, it did not protect them if any changes took place on the farm. Under current law, even the conversion of a non-irrigated farm to an irrigated farm or a transition of the operation within the family could remove the defense provided by the NRFA. LB 227 sought to remedy this.

LB 227 applies to the following situations: the conversion from one type of farm operation to another, a change in ownership or size of the operation, the enrollment in a government program, or the adoption of new technology. An amendment adopted in an effort to resolve concern expressed over neighbor’s rights, would allow lawsuits during a two-year period following any of the changes listed in the bill. If a subsequent change is made, the two-year period would start over. Farmers would still have to comply with county zoning and environmental regulations before any change could take place. Furthermore, lawsuits could be filed at any time if reasonable techniques to mitigate negative effects on the property of others are not employed. Prior to advancement of the bill, the sponsor pledged to work on additional amendments to resolve concerns with the bill.

The amendment that I referred to last week, allowing property taxes to be prorated for victims of a natural disaster, was adopted by the Legislature and LB 512 received first-round approval. I supported the amendment as I think it is unfair that property owners would have to pay property taxes for an entire year, if their home is destroyed part way through.

Another bill discussed this past week, LB 334, proposed to eliminate the Angel Investment Tax Credit program, which hasn’t been very successful, and instead transfer the funding appropriated to the Business Innovation Act. The Business Innovation Act funds grants and loan programs that encourage innovation and startup businesses in Nebraska. The chair of the Revenue Committee suggested that the $4 million appropriation should be used to replenish the Governor’s Emergency Cash Fund, which has dwindled from $5 million to $400,000 due to the recent flooding. Many senators, including myself, supported this suggestion. However, since the $4 million appropriation would not be available until next year, the Appropriations Committee voted to put $6 million in general funds into the emergency fund for the upcoming fiscal year and then use the $4 million plus an additional $1 million, to replenish the emergency fund in 2020-21.

The Revenue Committee has been working on a proposal to share with the full Legislature regarding property tax relief. They plan to hold a public hearing on their amendment to LB 289 on Thursday, April 18. The Education Committee and the Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee will join the Revenue Committee for the hearing. Possible components of the proposal include increasing the sales tax by ½ cent, eliminating the sales tax exemption on pop and candy, charging sales tax on plumbing and moving services, increasing the cigarette tax by 36 cents a pack, reducing the valuation of agricultural land for property tax purposes from 75% to 65% of its value and residential and commercial property from 100% to 90%, and adding a foundation aid component to the school state aid system.

My priority bill, LB 243, was passed by the Legislature on a 43-0 vote. It creates a task force that is to develop a healthy soils initiative and action plan. Another bill that I introduced, LB 406, was passed last month with the emergency clause, meaning that it went into effect when the Governor signed it. LB 406 updated statutes dealing with unclaimed property to ensure claimants receive all the unclaimed property rightfully due to them. The State Treasurer’s office recently notified me that the changes made in the law have already begun to simplify certain processes within their office. There is more than a half million dollars in unclaimed property in District #40. A list of unclaimed property can be found at: https://treasurer.nebraska.gov/up/. If your name is listed, the website also contains information on how to file a claim.

I would like to commend the North Central Sports Club, composed of student-athletes from Rock County High School in Bassett and Keya Paha County High School in Springview, for foregoing their spring trip and instead sending the money to a Verdel family that was severely impacted by the flood.

As the Legislature debates controversial issues, I appreciate hearing from constituents as to their views on the bills. I can be reached at tgragert@leg.ne.gov. My telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.

My priority bill, LB 243, received second-round approval this past week on a 46-1 vote, after a lengthy debate that had nothing to do with the legislation. It is now ready for Final Reading. Under LB 243, a Healthy Soils Task Force would be created, whose purpose is to develop a comprehensive plan to promote more widespread use of healthy soil practices among farm and ranch landowners and operators in Nebraska in order to improve the health, yield and profitability of the soil, increase its carbon sequestration capacity, and improve water quality. I have already received letters from several people across the state, expressing their desire to serve on the task force. If the bill passes, I will pass their information on to the governor, who will appoint the task force members.

LB 15, which creates the Children of Nebraska Hearing Aid Act, received first-round approval on a 39-0 vote. The bill requires individual or group health insurance policies to provide coverage for children under the age of nineteen that includes hearing aids and associated services. The bill caps the benefits paid for hearing aids and services during the prior two-year period at $3,000. The bill would not apply to small employer group plans or policies providing limited-benefit coverage. Furthermore, health insurance plans are exempt if the cost of coverage exceeds 1% of all premiums collected under the plan. Thirty-one senators, including myself, signed on as co-sponsors to the bill, introduced by Bellevue Senator Carol Blood. LB 15 was designated as a speaker priority bill.

The Legislature began debating LB 483, which changes the way agricultural land is valued for property tax purposes. Currently, ag land is valued based on market sales. LB 483 proposes to value such land at its agricultural productivity value, which considers how much income can be earned off the land. Some of our surrounding states use a similar method of valuing ag land. The intent is not to reduce property valuations, but to provide for a fairer system. Governor Ricketts has expressed his support for the measure. However, some concern was expressed as to the constitutionality of the proposal. Our constitution allows ag land to be valued differently, but it has to be uniform and proportionate within the class of agricultural and horticultural land. Since the proposal caps valuation at the 2019 values, there was also concern that this is not a good year to serve as the base, with valuations that have just started to drop and with low commodity prices. The Legislature debated LB 483 for three hours. The sponsor of the bill, Senator Steve Erdman, will now have to show the Speaker that he has thirty-three votes in order for the bill to be placed on the agenda again.

The Legislature discussed at length an amendment to a Department of Revenue clean-up bill, LB 512, introduced by Elkhorn Senator Lou Ann Linehan. The amendment contains the provisions of LB 482, which would prorate property values for property tax purposes if a property becomes destroyed by a natural disaster. The current system unfairly taxes property owners for property which has been destroyed. This proposal became far more significant after the March flooding and is one way the Legislature can help Nebraskans who have experienced the devastating effects from the flood. I spoke in support of the amendment on the floor of the Legislature. I realize that counties and cities could experience reduced revenue for a short period of time, which will be difficult, but local governments have access to more federal public assistance than do individual homeowners. The sponsor of LB 512 will also have to show the speaker that there are thirty-three senators in support to continue the debate on this bill.

The Revenue Committee continues their work on a tax relief package that they hope to have completed by mid-April. Some ideas being discussed are more than doubling the state dollars allocated for property tax relief (currently $224 million), lowering the top corporate income tax rate, increasing the state sales tax rate, eliminating the sales tax exemption on pop, candy and bottled water, and raising taxes on tobacco, to bring them more in line with surrounding states.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation has developed a website, allowing Nebraskans to view updates on the progress of repairs to state highways and bridges. The website can be found at https://dot.nebraska.gov/news-media/nebraska-flood-2019.

Since my last newsletter, residents and business owners in six additional counties and one tribal area have been included in the disaster declaration making federal funding available to those eligible. The additional counties included Knox County and the Santee Sioux Nation. Boyd County is one of twelve counties still pending. Hopefully, by the time you read this, the decision will have been announced. To apply for individual disaster assistance, call FEMA at 1-800-621-3362 or register online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov. If you have been affected by the flooding and don’t know who to contact in regards to your specific needs, call 2-1-1. They will be able to point you in the right direction. Furthermore, you can contact my office at (402) 471-2801. My email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.

March 28 marked the 50th day of this legislative session and the final day for committee hearings. All of the bills that were introduced have now had a hearing. Full day debate will begin on April 2. Senators are now focused on bills that have been designated as a priority either by a senator, a committee, or the Speaker of the Legislature.

The Revenue Committee is meeting in executive sessions to devise a package for property tax relief that can be presented to the full Legislature. The committee hopes to have the proposal ready by mid-April.

How the tax relief measure will mesh with necessary revenue to deal with the flooding and the blizzard conditions that hit Nebraska a couple weeks ago is hard to predict. There are many factors involved, such as state matches for federal dollars for public assistance to counties, income tax filing extensions, decreased farm income, increased unemployment, increased bankruptcies, etc.

Just two days after the Governor submitted his request last week, the president granted a disaster declaration for Nebraska. At that time, nine counties were approved to receive individual assistance and sixty-five counties and five tribal nations were approved for public assistance. Counties not initially approved could still be declared for individual assistance. Staff are assessing other areas of the state now and I believe more counties will be added. The six counties in the 40th legislative district – Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox and Rock – were all approved for public assistance, as was the Santee Sioux Nation, the Ponca and the Winnebago Tribes.

Individual assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster. Public assistance funding is available to state, tribal, and local governments on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work.

While waiting for FEMA to validate damages in our counties for individual assistance, property owners should report their damage to local officials or county emergency managers, call their insurance agent to determine if there is coverage, and document the damage. Once your county is designated, make sure to register with FEMA online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling toll-free 800-621-3362. When registering with FEMA, be prepared to provide your current address, the address of the damaged property, contact information where you can be reached, social security number, the occupants of your household, insurance and income information. Even if you are insured, make sure to register and don’t wait until you have settled with your insurer.

Last weekend, I visited Knox and Boyd Counties and it was amazing to watch neighbors and other Nebraskans helping those affected by the flooding. This past week, I was able to fly with Governor Ricketts to Santee and meet with the tribes affected by the flooding. Representatives of the tribes were each given the opportunity to update the governor on their situation and progress.

The Department of Transportation is continually working to get the roads and bridges repaired. On Highway 281, they are working to get a temporary bridge installed in the next two to three weeks, weather permitting. A permanent bridge will take at least a year. On Highway 12, west of Niobrara, the Niobrara River Bridge appears to be usable and they are planning to get a temporary bridge for the Mormon Canal as soon as possible. The bridge east of Niobrara on Highway 12 will be finished the first part of April, weather permitting. The Rural Water District #2 in Boyd County has accepted a bid for replacement of the water line, which was destroyed when Spencer Dam failed. The district is working with FEMA and the project will take approximately forty days. In the meantime, the district has renovated two farm wells to supply their lines. Outstanding work is being done by our local, state and federal officials.

If you have any questions on legislation or associated with the disaster, I can be reached at tgragert@leg.ne.gov. My telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.

As the deadline passed this week for selecting priority bills, a different priority repeatedly resurfaced in the Legislature – the devastating flood affecting many Nebraskans and the urgent need to get relief to those in need. I visited the Lynch and Niobrara areas last weekend and am heartbroken by the destruction seen in our legislative district. After talking to many local people, I am continually impressed with the dedication, the willingness to help, and the perseverance of the county emergency managers, the first responders, city and county officials, the Department of Transportation workers, businesses, churches, and the constituents of the 40th district. We will get through this, but it’s going to be a long haul.

Seventy-nine of the ninety-three counties and numerous cities have submitted emergency declarations to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). Governor Pete Ricketts has sent an expedited request to the federal government for a presidential disaster declaration. Vice President Mike Pence, who visited Nebraska this past week, said the Trump administration will expedite the declaration to assure that federal aid will soon be on the way. If we qualify for disaster assistance, which seems assured, it could include both public and individual assistance.

NEMA has compiled the damage impact assessments submitted by the counties. At this time, the estimated statewide impact totals $553 million for public infrastructure and $89 million for private property. These figures will be updated as local emergency management teams are able to assess the damage across their counties. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture estimates that the lost livestock and needed repairs will result in a $400 million loss. This doesn’t account for the losses due to delayed or cancelled spring planting. The Nebraska Department of Transportation projects a cost of more than $400 million to repair our state’s infrastructure, including at least 200 miles of paved roads on the state’s highway system that will require significant repair or reconstruction and fourteen bridges that need to be replaced and three others that need reconstruction.

I have information on my website regarding potential assistance from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) at http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist40/. My website also has a list of resources to call if in need of assistance. Furthermore, NEMA has established a hotline for Nebraskans impacted by flooding. Impacted persons with questions should call (402) 817-1551. Additional resources can be found by visiting www.nema.nebraska.gov. Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Disaster Relief Project offers free legal assistance for low-income survivors of Nebraska’s floods, through both online resources and a network of trained volunteer lawyers across Nebraska. Low-income Nebraskans can apply for direct legal representation by applying online at disaster.legalaidofnebraska.org/apply or by calling the hotline at 1-844-268-5627. You can always call my office at (402) 471-2801 if you need assistance and I will try to direct you to the right resource.

Every senator is allowed to choose one bill as their personal priority bill, every committee can choose two bills and the speaker has the authority to select twenty-five bills as speaker priority bills. Priority status assures that the bill will be discussed by the full Legislature, if it has advanced from committee. Generally from this point on, only bills with priority status will be placed on the agenda. The speaker may also have a consent calendar, which is reserved for non-controversial bills that don’t warrant a priority designation.

Some of the bills designated as priority bills include:

LB 110, prioritized by Senator Anna Wishart, proposes to adopt the Medical Cannabis Act.

LB 147, chosen by the Education Committee, would allow teachers and administrators to maintain order in the classroom by allowing them to use necessary contact or physical restraint to subdue a student until they no longer present a danger.

LB 227, designated by the Agriculture Committee, is designed to protect farm operations and public grain warehouses from nuisance laws.

LB 289, prioritized by the Revenue Committee, is a placeholder bill. It will be used as the vehicle for property tax relief, once the committee develops their plan.

LB 483, selected by Senator Steve Erdman, proposes to change the way agricultural land is valued for property tax purposes from the current market based system to a productivity based system.

LB 657, introduced by Senator Justin Wayne and prioritized by Senator Tom Brandt, would permit the growth and cultivation of industrial hemp in Nebraska.

LB 686, selected by the Judiciary Committee, encourages continued efforts to reduce overcrowding in Nebraska’s correctional system.

LB 720, prioritized by Senator Mark Kolterman, would adopt the ImagiNE Nebraska Act, changing our current business tax incentive program.

Again, if I can be of assistance during the period of recovery from the flooding, please contact my office at (402) 471-2801. My email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.

**This post will be updated as more resources become available**

NEMA has established a hotline for Nebraskans impacted by flooding. Impacted persons with questions should call (402) 817-1551. Additional resources can be found by visiting www.nema.nebraska.gov

 

*******Updated information above 3/20/2019 at 12:15 PM*******

 

On March 12, Governor Pete Ricketts declared a state of emergency to deal with both the blizzard in the west and the flooding throughout the state. Since then, the counties of Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox & Rock have submitted emergency declarations to NEMA (Nebraska Emergency Management Agency), along with numerous cities. NEMA is working to expedite a major disaster declaration, waiting to do the damage assessments until later, as there is no doubt that Nebraska will qualify for a federal disaster funding through FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).
 
There are two types of assistance from FEMA – Public assistance and individual assistance.
 
PUBLIC ASSISTANCE:
 
Public assistance will help repair public infrastructure. The state and local governments will each pay 12.5% of the costs and FEMA pays 75%. Local leaders are to contact the county emergency manager who in turn contacts NEMA with their needs.
 
INDIVIDUAL ASSISTANCE:
 
Individual assistance helps businesses and individuals. It is usually difficult to qualify for individual assistance, but officials believe we will qualify when considering the number of homes that received major damage. A number of factors are considered, such as the insurance held and level of income. If Nebraska qualifies, a FEMA specialist will be of assistance. Information would be distributed and an announcement would be made in the counties that the programs are available.
 
As we wait to find out what assistance is available through FEMA, NEMA officials gave the following advice:
 
  • Document your losses – pictures, damage estimate, etc.
  • Contact your insurance agency – determine what you may be eligible for
  • Get legal paperwork together – mortgage, deeds, etc.
  • Document your income levels
 
 

*******Updated information above 3/18/2019 at 4:45 PM*******

The following services will serve as resources to contact if you have been affected during the recent flood:

NEBRASKA DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE:

Farmers and ranchers impacted by the flood and in need of hay, feed stuffs, fencing materials, volunteer help, equipment, etc. – call 1-800-831-0550. Persons wanting to donate any of the above can call the same number.

More disaster relief resources for farmers and ranchers available at: http://www.nda.nebraska.gov/resources/

LIVESTOCK:

Livestock Indemnity Program – a USDA-FSA disaster assistance program that helps producers recoup losses experienced by adverse weather events. Notify local FSA office of livestock losses within 30 days and document losses.
Emergency Livestock Assistance Program – another USDA-FSA disaster assistance program that covers some livestock losses that do not fall under LIP. It may financially assist with livestock feed losses, such as bales that are destroyed in the flood.

Emergency Conservation Program – can provide some cost-share assistance to rehabilitate farmland and pasture damaged by natural disasters and help restore fences. Contact your local FSA county office.

NEBRASKA FARM BUREAU:

Disaster Relief Fund – provides emergency aid to farmers, ranchers and rural communities affected by storms and flooding. Apply at: www.nefb.org/index.php…

Persons can donate to Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation or at: www.nefbfoundation.org/ways-to-give/disaster-relief-fund
Agriculture Disaster Exchange – where Farm Bureau members can seek and offer help at: www.nefb.org/ag-disaster-exchange

VETERANS:

Veterans affected by flooding – contact your County Veteran Service Officer to see if qualify for food, clothing and emergency housing

GENERAL ASSISTANCE:

For help with home clean-up, cutting trees, removing drywall, insulation, flooring, furniture and appliances or other physical labor-type jobs – call the Crisis Clean Up Hotline at (833) 566-2476 or (402) 556-2476 to get on a needs list

For assistance with food, shelter, clothing and personal goods – call 211

DONATIONS:

Monetary donations – Nebraska/SW Iowa Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund www.redcross.org/local/nebraska.html

Livestock feed (hay drive) – Curt Zimmerer, Verdigre (402) 841-2835

LB 243, the bill I introduced to create the Healthy Soils Task Force, was advanced from the Agriculture Committee on a 7-0 vote. No one testified against it at the public hearing earlier this session. I have designated it as my priority bill, assuring that it will be discussed by the full Legislature.

The purpose of LB 243 is to promote a more widespread use of healthy soil practices among farm and ranch landowners and operators in Nebraska in order to improve the health, yield and profitability of the soil, increase its carbon sequestration capacity, and improve water quality. The Director of the Department of Agriculture, as well as the chairs of the Agriculture and the Natural Resources Committees, would be members of the task force. The Governor would appoint the additional fourteen members, who are to have expertise in methods used for incorporating healthy soil stewardship practices into working agricultural operations and for optimizing environmental services provided through such practices.

The Healthy Soils Task Force is to develop a comprehensive healthy soils initiative, as well as develop an action plan to carry out the initiative. The task force shall 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. Furthermore, the task force is to identify goals and timelines for improvement of soil health through voluntary partnerships among agricultural producers and other entities. Finally, the task force is to review the new farm bill and identify opportunities to leverage funding under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program of the USDA and other conservation programs. The action plan is to be completed by January 1, 2021, at which time the task force will terminate.

Water quality and how it relates to soil health are very important to me and many Nebraskans. Healthy soils will increase crop resilience to drought, reduce soil erosion, result in higher per-acre crop yields, increase water retention, enhance water quality, and increase carbon sequestration in the soils. Many healthy soil practices are widely known, such as deep soil testing, nutrient management, cover crops, no till and irrigation water management. The task force will study why there isn’t more widespread usage of such practices and develop methods aimed at increasing their use. The most recent Ag Census showed that approximately 2% of Nebraska cropland was growing a cover crop. No till was being used on about 50% of cropland acres.

I have made it abundantly clear that I am not interested in creating new mandates for the agricultural sector. My vision is to make more information available and accessible on the advantages of improved soil health by demonstrating the economic and environmental benefits of healthy soil management practices. I believe that LB 243 will result in a win for the producer, a win for the consumer, and a win for the environment.

The Legislature passed LB 284 this past week, a bill introduced by Senator John McCollister of Omaha. This bill requires remote sellers, those without a physical presence in the state, to collect and remit sales tax on sales into the state. Although this tax has always been owed by the purchaser, if not collected by the seller, few persons actually paid it. Due to an outdated Supreme Court ruling, states could not require remote sellers to collect the sales tax, placing an unfair burden on local stores, selling similar products. South Dakota passed a law requiring remote sellers to collect sales tax, with the intention of taking it to the Supreme Court, in an effort to overturn the previous ruling, which occurred last summer. In order to not place a hardship on small business, the collection duty is limited to those making sales of more than $100,000 or 200 individual transactions in a calendar year into our state. These are the same thresholds used in the South Dakota law. The legislation also requires the marketplace (i.e. Amazon, Ebay) to collect and remit for third party sellers. With voluntary compliance and the passage of LB 284, state revenue is increased annually by approximately $40-$50 million.

The recent flooding has created devastation throughout our legislative district. Cities and counties are experiencing tremendous hardship. I sympathize with those who are dealing with destruction of personal and public property. Senators were briefed by the Nebraska National Guard Adjutant General, Daryl Bohac, who serves as the director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, and by the assistant director, Bryan Tuma. NEMA is ready to assist. They ask that requests come through the county emergency managers. I have contacted the emergency managers from the counties in our legislative district and have tried to touch base with many county sheriffs and city administrators, offering my assistance. Another means of assistance is 2-1-1, which can help connect callers with needed health and human services. With the widespread damage, restoration will be a lengthy process.

As senators finish up the committee hearing process and continue to select bills for prioritization, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at tgragert@leg.ne.gov or (402) 471-2801. My mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.

The Revenue Committee heard testimony this past week on LB 720, which would adopt the ImagiNE Nebraska Act. LB 720 proposes to rewrite Nebraska’s business incentive program. The legislation encourages the creation of higher paying jobs, simplifies the process, improves the transparency and accountability of the program, and reduces the number of years in which credits can be redeemed.

The primary current business incentive program, the Nebraska Advantage Act, is set to sunset next year. Senator Mark Kolterman of Seward, the sponsor of LB 720, stressed the on-going need for incentives to attract top employers while encouraging the growth of existing businesses. Although others questioned whether these incentives were the best use of our state’s tax dollars, Senator Kolterman emphasized that allowing our business incentives to end with no substitute in place would be disastrous for Nebraska.

Under LB 720, applicants would work with the Department of Economic Development, rather than the Department of Revenue, for the purpose of building and sustaining a relationship between businesses and the state. Various tax benefits would be available to taxpayers that meet the required levels of employment and investment. Twenty-two senators have signed on as co-sponsors of LB 720.

The Legislature spent approximately three hours discussing LB 627. Introduced by Lincoln Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, this bill would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Proponents argued that young people are bypassing our state for jobs because we are one of only twelve states that don’t offer this protection for LBGT individuals. Opponents countered that sexual orientation or gender identity should not be a protected class of individuals, that it could encourage lawsuits, and that it could restrict the religious beliefs of business owners. Under the speaker’s rules, the sponsor of LB 627 will have to prove that she has thirty-three votes in order for the bill to be placed on the agenda again, which appears unlikely.

My first bill was passed by the Legislature this past week. LB 406 will assist the State Treasurer’s Office in more efficiently administering the Unclaimed Property Program.

The Corps of Discovery Welcome Center closed last month. It is located on Highway 81 in Nebraska, just across the border from Yankton. I initiated a meeting with representatives of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, the Tourism Commission, and economic development organizations in Northeast Nebraska. The purpose of the meeting was to see if we can find a way to keep this building open and staffed, as it plays a very important role in promoting Nebraska, as tourists cross the river into Nebraska.

The Unicameral Update is a daily source of information, covering legislative activity. It can be found on the homepage of the Legislature’s website at nebraskalegislature.gov. Furthermore, a print publication of the weekly Update contains the same articles that appear online. Interested persons can subscribe to the free publication by calling (402) 471-2788 or by subscribing online.

I wanted to make sure that high school students with an interest in law, government, leadership or public speaking are aware of the 2019 Unicameral Youth Legislature, held June 9-12. It is a 4-day legislative simulation conducted at the State Capitol. Students will act as senators and sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, and debate legislation. Registrants are encouraged to apply for a Speaker Greg Adams Civic Scholarship award, which covers the full cost of admission. Registration forms can be obtained at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.

Although I am in Lincoln during the week, I try to attend functions in my legislative district when I am back home on the weekends. I will be in Wakefield on Saturday, March 23, for a Town Hall meeting at the Legion Hall from 1-3 p.m. If you would like to discuss legislation or another issue and I don’t see you in the district, please contact my legislative office at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.

The first cloture vote was taken this past week on LB 399, a bill that updates the civic education standards in our K-12 schools. Cloture is a method used to stop a filibuster. After six hours of debate, a motion can be made to invoke cloture. If thirty-three senators vote in support of the cloture motion, it immediately shuts off debate, allowing for a vote on the pending motion or amendment and then on the advancement of the bill. The cloture vote was successful and LB 399 advanced to the second stage of debate, where another filibuster is likely.

Most of the initial opposition to LB 399 focused on the requirement for students to take the civics portion of the naturalization test used by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to measure student mastery of the social studies standards in 8th and 11th grade. The Education Committee amendments dealt with concern over the use of this test by giving districts three options to choose from: require the naturalization test; require the student to attend a governmental meeting followed by a project or a paper; or require the student to complete a project or paper and a class presentation about a person or event commemorated by one of the holidays listed in the bill, such as George Washington’s birthday or Veterans Day. Just a couple senators continued to oppose the bill and extended the debate, requiring the cloture motion.

The first priority bill was debated by the Legislature this past week. Every senator is allowed to designate one bill as their priority bill. Senator Tom Brewer of Gordon selected LB 155 as his priority bill. LB 155 removed from statute the statement that the use of eminent domain by public power for transmission for privately developed renewable energy generation facilities is a public use. The purpose behind LB 155 was to prevent public power districts from using eminent domain for the benefit of private wind companies. NPPD is planning to construct a 345,000-volt transmission line (R-Project) in Northern Nebraska, to increase the reliability of the transmission system. Many Sandhills residents do not want wind projects crossing their property and feeding into this line. Opponents of LB 155 feared it would send a “closed for business” message to the renewable energy industry and cited the economic benefits from wind projects. Some were concerned that this could prevent public power from using eminent domain for transmission to any such project.

After several hours of debate, LB 155 failed to receive the necessary twenty-five votes for advancement, falling two votes short. I supported the bill because I believe that eminent domain should be used very infrequently and that it should only be used for a public good.

Senators began discussing property tax relief this past week. LB 183, introduced by Senator Tom Briese of Albion, would reduce the assessed value of agricultural land solely for the purpose of educational bonds. As amended, LB 183 would lower the value of agricultural land from 75% to 50% of actual value for this purpose. In some areas, rural landowners pay a disproportionate share in the funding of K-12 schools, but are outnumbered by non-rural residents when voting on school bond issues. The intent of LB 183 is to help equalize the tax burden for new school buildings and renovations. LB 183 was given initial approval on a 29-1 vote, but will now wait to see what package the Revenue Committee advances on property tax relief, to determine how it fits in.

The Appropriations Committee presented their preliminary report this past week to the Legislature. It is quite similar to the Governor’s recommendation, containing approximately $24 million more than the Governor’s budget, for a two-year budget of $9.4 billion. When presenting the preliminary report, the Appropriations Committee chairman warned that further cuts may be necessary after the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board meets. The following day, the forecasting board lowered projections for the current fiscal year and the next two years by approximately $110 million. The forecasting board will meet again in April and the projected revenue at that time will be used in the final biennial budget.

One of the meetings I attended this past week presented information on 2-1-1. This is an information and referral system linking Nebraska residents to health and human services, community and disaster response, and government programs. This program is free and serves the entire state.

As the Legislature continues with debate in the morning and public hearings in the afternoon, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts on the issues before us. I can be reached at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov.

As a member of the Natural Resources Committee, we heard testimony on LB 46 this past week. LB 46, introduced by Omaha Senator Ernie Chambers, proposes to eliminate the mountain lion hunting season. He has introduced similar legislation since the Legislature passed LB 928 in 2012 to allow the Game and Parks Commission to issue mountain lion hunting permits. This bill was passed while Senator Chambers was term-limited out of the Legislature from 2009 through 2012. Previously, state law allowed a farmer to kill a mountain lion on their property if it was threatening people or livestock or anyone if they were defending themselves or another person.

After the passage of LB 928, the Game and Parks Commission divided the state into four management units. Sufficient data must be collected on the mountain lion population in a unit before a hunting season can be held. A season was held in 2014 and again this year.

Senator Chambers referred to mountain lions as majestic, regal animals. He testified that there has never been a confirmed attack against a human being and only a few documented instances against livestock in Nebraska. Several years ago, Senator Chambers gained passage of legislation authorizing mountain lion conservation license plates, which has become the most popular specialty plate design.

No one testified in support of LB 46, but the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission testified in opposition. A furbearer and carnivore program manager with the commission testified that they strive to maintain a balance between what the wildlife population and habitat will support and what the people of Nebraska will accept. Due to the substantial increase in the Pine Ridge area to fifty-nine cats, which has almost doubled since 2015, it was decided to hold a season again this year. The committee has taken no further action on LB 46.

LB 254 received first-round approval this past week. The legislation, introduced by Omaha Senator John McCollister, creates the Fair Chance Hiring Act to require certain prospective employers to evaluate a job applicant’s qualifications without an initial inquiry about the applicant’s history of criminal law violations. This proposal is known as “ban the box” legislation. LB 254 attempts to give those with a criminal record a better chance of finding a good job, rather than being instantly rejected for their record. Statistics show that the best indicator of whether a former inmate will reoffend is whether that person can get a job.

At the public hearing, representatives of various business groups testified against the bill. They spoke of the need to know about convictions to determine if someone is appropriate for the job. They said the state should not force businesses to go through the cost of considering applications for people with disqualifying convictions. To address their concerns, a compromise amendment was offered to allow employers to continue asking job applicants about their criminal history on the initial application, but those who do would have to give applicants a chance to explain their situation and their rehabilitation progress.

LB 424, introduced by Grand Island Senator Dan Quick, would expand the Nebraska Municipal Land Bank Act to allow any municipality to create or join an existing land bank. Currently only municipalities in Douglas or Sarpy County are so authorized. Land banks are one of the tools that can be utilized by municipalities to facilitate the return of vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties to a productive use.

Proponents of LB 424 testified that a land bank would help add affordable housing and would reduce the time law enforcement spends patrolling abandoned buildings. They stated that Omaha has used this tool effectively and they hope other cities will be afforded the same restorative neighborhood revitalizing tools. Opponents cautioned that the legislation would allow a land bank to acquire properties instead of private developers, who would have difficulty competing with the tax breaks and other benefits. Furthermore it would reduce property taxes collected by a municipality. LB 424 has twenty-five co-sponsors. Similar legislation was passed by the Legislature last year, but vetoed by the Governor after the Legislature adjourned.

We have reached the limit for chaplains giving the morning prayer before the Legislature. If any member of the clergy would still like to participate, please keep it in mind for next year’s session.

Senators have reached the one-third mark in this year’s 90-day session. As we continue with the next two-thirds, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation before us. I can be reached at tgragert@leg.ne.gov . My address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509 and my telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2801.

Sen. Tim Gragert

District 40
Room #11th Floor
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2801
Email: tgragert@leg.ne.gov
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