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 Legislature was called back into session on Monday, March 23, to pass emergency funding relating to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). An amendment was added to LB 1198, a bill that originally sought to appropriate funding for the restoration of the doors to the legislative chamber. LB 1198 had already received first-round approval from the Legislature. An amendment offered by the chair of the Appropriations Committee, Senator John Stinner, struck the original content of the bill and replaced it with an appropriation of $83.6 million from the Cash Reserve Fund to the Governor’s Emergency Cash Fund, to be used for the fight against COVID-19.

The Governor sought $58.6 million, but the Legislature added an additional $25 million in the event that additional funds are necessary. This amount would transfer back to the Cash Reserve Fund if not needed.

The largest amount of emergency funding, $38.2 million, would be used for Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Public Health local response efforts. It would provide additional funding for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies to local jurisdictions (including tribal nations) and support to local health departments for staffing, PPE, call centers, and information technology. Veterans Hospitals and DHHS Care Facilities would receive an additional $13 million for staffing expenditures resulting from staff quarantine or isolation requirements. There is also funding provided for lab testing, lab equipment, software programming, and UV light boxes to allow for the reuse of respirators.

LB 1198, as amended, was passed by the Legislature on Wednesday, March 25. Since LB 1198 contained the emergency clause, the bill went into effect with the Governor’s signature.

Senators have 17 days remaining in this legislative session. At this time, I cannot predict when the Legislature will complete its work. When we are called back, our primary focus will be the budget. However, there are many other issues that are still pending, such as property tax relief and the package of bills aimed at resolving issues at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers. I am hopeful that during this break, a compromise can be reached on the school finance/property tax relief bill, so that it can move forward.

Earlier, the IRS granted federal income tax relief to taxpayers by extending the tax filing and payment deadlines for federal income taxes from April 15, 2020 to July 15, 2020. It was announced this past week that the State of Nebraska is providing this same income tax relief to state income taxpayers. However, the Governor did urge those not affected by the coronavirus to still pay by April 15, to help the state manage its cash flow. The governor stated at a press conference this past week that he was not considering delaying the deadline for paying property taxes because these taxes are a very important source of revenue for local governments.

During this uncertain time, don’t hesitate to contact me if my office can be of assistance. I can be reached at tgragert@leg.ne.gov. My telephone number at the State Capitol is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.

Many unprecedented events have taken place over this past week. In my March 13 newsletter, I wrote about the Legislature giving first-round approval to the budget bills. Since then, COVID-19 has completely overshadowed everything else. Terms such as “community spread” and “social distancing” have become part of our daily language. The Legislature postponed its session beginning March 17 until it is safe and necessary to call members back into session. However, the speaker may call us back in soon to approve COVID-19 emergency funding. The Governor has requested $58.6 million for public health, testing, staffing, equipment, and programming needs to fight the spread of COVID-19.

On Monday, March 16, the Governor announced restrictions on public gatherings of more than 10 people for the next 8 weeks. Since these are guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they can’t be enforced by law enforcement officers. However, the Governor strongly urged compliance by Nebraskans.

At the time of this writing, the Chief Medical Officer with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has ordered Directed Health Measures (DHM) for Douglas, Cass, Sarpy, and Washington Counties through April 30, 2020. These DHMs contain the prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people and further restrict bars and restaurants from serving customers on site. The prohibition of more than 10 people includes churches, schools, daycare facilities, fitness centers, libraries, theaters, sporting events, concerts, weddings, and funerals. It does not apply to such places as airports, bus stations, healthcare facilities, offices, shopping malls, grocery stores, retail stores, and courts. Any person violating a DHM ordered by DHHS is guilty of a Class V misdemeanor for each offense.

Also on Monday, the Nebraska Education Commissioner announced that state education officials recommended that all 244 school districts in the state transition to remote learning by Monday, March 23. The state Education Department received approval from the federal government for schools to get waivers so they can continue to serve breakfasts and lunches to students. Education leaders are working to determine if legislation is needed due to the suspension of state rules regarding testing, attendance, and the required number of school days.

The Department of Labor announced resources available to Nebraskans who are unable to work or are working reduced hours due to this health crisis. Employers can apply for the Short-Time Compensation program, which allows employers to uniformly reduce affected employees’ hours by 10-60% while permitting the employees to receive a prorated unemployment benefit. Beginning March 22, through May 2, the waiting week for benefits and the work search requirements have been waived. Furthermore, benefits will not be charged against individual employers accounts. Money will be paid out of the general trust fund as the job losses are not the fault of individual employers. Callers to the department may want to leave a call back number, as wait times could be rather lengthy.

At a Governor’s press conference, the grocery industry assured Nebraskans that there is no food shortage. Some items may not be available because people purchased more than needed. The Governor issued an executive order last week to waive the weight restrictions on food delivery trucks and the restrictions on hours worked by drivers, to help with the shortage of drivers in the grocery industry.

Although the vast majority of cases are from the Omaha area, two cases have been reported from Knox County. The number for the North Central District Health Department covering Boyd, Holt, Knox and Rock Counties is (402) 336-2406 and the number for the Northeast Nebraska Public Health Department covering Cedar and Dixon Counties is (402) 375-2200. Another number residents can call is 2-1-1. Calls will be answered 24/7 and staff will assist callers with questions about the virus, current recommendations, or resources available in the community.

During this time, my staff will be in and out of the office, as it has been suggested that they work from home as much as possible. However, my staff and I are monitoring emails and answering telephone calls. My contact information is 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.

The Appropriations Committee presented their recommendations for the budget to the Legislature this past week. The budget bills were also given first-round approval from the Legislature. Over the interim, the financial status of the current biennium has improved significantly. The variance from the minimum General Fund reserve was estimated at only $0.2 million when we adjourned last year, but has since grown to $133.8 million. Furthermore, the rainy day fund increased from $322.4 million to $731 million, representing 14% of the budget, the amount advised by financial experts. This can be primarily attributed to an increase in General Fund revenue, both actual and projected. The budget represents an average growth of 3.0% over the two-year period.

There were some significant increases since the two-year budget was passed last year. The largest deficit request that was funded was $46 million to replenish the Governor’s Emergency Program, which was used for flood damage, and to fund the state’s portion associated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance program, where local governments and the state are each responsible for 12.5% of the costs, with FEMA funding 75%. Additionally, the Appropriations Committee included $9.2 million to assist counties with their 12.5% portion, if their costs totaled 20% or greater of the county’s 2018 taxes levied. Other deficit requests in the Committee’s budget recommendations include $10 million to maintain minimum staffing levels at the Lincoln Regional Center and the Norfolk Sex Offender Program, $9 million in higher than expected costs for the homestead exemption program, and $8 million for pay increases for Department of Correctional Services’ staff, in an effort to retain qualified staff and reduce the need for overtime.

The Legislature gave first-round approval to a package of bills that were introduced as a result of a lengthy investigation into the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTC), in light of a crisis at the girls’ facility in Geneva last summer. The legislation will require the Department of Health and Human Services to create a 5-year operations plan, to develop an emergency plan for each facility, to conduct annual facility reviews, to hire a superintendent for education programs, and to contract for a cost study and needs assessment for an inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit. Furthermore, by July of next year, the Kearney YRTC could only house boys and the Geneva YRTC could only house girls. Since the crisis, the Kearney YRTC has been housing both sexes, which has created problems.

One year ago, northeast Nebraskans were dealing with the disastrous flood that hit our area, as well as other parts of the state. I attended a briefing hosted by Governor Ricketts. Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said that more than 500 payments are in progress or completed on public assistance projects totaling more than $11 million. He also mentioned that a Long-Term Recovery and Resilience Plan will be unveiled by early summer. Director of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, Kyle Schneweis, revealed that Nebraska had 3,300 miles of closure and 27 bridges that were heavily damaged or destroyed at the height of the flooding. Within a month, 99% of the closed highways were reopen. The last bridge was reopened in February. The Adjutant General for the Nebraska National Guard, Major General Daryl Bohac, disclosed that in the month after the flood, 461 soldiers with the Guard drove 45,000 miles and put in 335 hours of flight time, rescuing 112 people, of which 66 were hoist rescues by helicopter. These statistics show the significant amount of work and funding that went into rescue and recovery efforts stemming from the flood. Our work is not done.

This year, it is the COVID-19 virus that is affecting our state. Several cases were confirmed in Douglas County and notification was made this past week of the first presumptive positive coronavirus case in northeast Nebraska. In an effort to prevent a sudden peak of illnesses that could overwhelm our healthcare system, schools have cancelled classes, athletic events have been cancelled or fans restricted, nursing homes have limited visitors, and other plans are being made. Local public health departments are key players in these decisions. The number for the North Central District Health Department covering Boyd, Holt, Knox and Rock Counties is (402) 336-2406 and the number for the Northeast Nebraska Public Health Department covering Cedar and Dixon Counties is (402) 375-2200. A good website for general information is: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.Again, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the issues before us. 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.

The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board met on Friday, February 28, to review their forecast for the current fiscal year and the next fiscal year. The board increased the previous forecast by $115 million for fiscal year 2019-20 and by $25 million for fiscal year 2020-21, for a total increase of $140 million over the two-year period. Most of the increase can be attributed to year-to-date actual receipts, as revenues from November through February were $111 million above the October forecast.

The $115 million increase for the current fiscal year is above the forecast certified in July and by statute, revenues above the certified forecast go to the Cash Reserve Fund. This increased the unobligated balance of the Cash Reserve Fund to $731 million. The $25 million increase in next fiscal year’s forecast will be retained in the General Fund, increasing the variance from the required 3% minimum reserve for the current biennial budget.

Economic experts advise that a cash reserve fund should equal 12-16% of the budget. With the additional $115 million, it brings the cash reserve to 14%, which is right where we should be.

With the revised positive forecast, it makes it even more imperative that the Legislature passes property tax relief yet this year. Senator Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the Revenue Committee, is working with school districts in an attempt to address their concerns with LB 974, but hasn’t reached a compromise at this time. Other property tax relief options waiting in the background are LB 1073, introduced by Bennington Senator Wendy DeBoer, LB 930 introduced by Albion Senator Tom Briese, and LR 300 CA, introduced by Bayard Senator Steve Erdman.

Under LB 1073, the valuation of agricultural land would be lowered from 75% to 55% of its actual value within the school funding formula, the local effort rate would be decreased from $1.00 to $0.99, and basic funding aid would be incorporated into the formula. This basic funding aid would provide new state aid to non-equalized school districts, amounting to 7.5% of the basic funding of each school district. LB 930 provides a statutory minimum of $275 million for the Property Tax Credit Fund. This bill could be a vehicle for other proposals as well. LR 300 is a constitutional amendment to repeal the sales, income and property taxes, replacing them with a consumption tax on new goods and services.

I had the opportunity to tour the new addition of the O’Neill Public High School. I was very impressed with the planning that went into the project. The administration, teachers and students were all very proud of their new school.

As legislators continue in full-day debate, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the legislation that is before us. 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.

This past week, the Legislature hit the half way mark in this year’s 60-day legislation session. The public hearing process is complete and senators will now meet in full-day session. Discussion will focus on bills that have been given priority status either by a senator, a committee, or the speaker. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on April 23.

LB 424, introduced by Grand Island Senator Dan Quick, proposes to allow municipalities throughout Nebraska to create a joint land bank with one or more other municipalities through an interlocal agreement or join an existing land bank. Currently, only cities in Douglas and Sarpy counties are authorized to create land banks and only Omaha could create a stand-alone land bank. An amendment to LB 424 would also allow Lincoln to create a stand-alone land bank.

LB 424 was debated last year, but the vote to stop the filibuster and advance the bill fell two votes short of the necessary 33 votes. Senator John Stinner of Gering, who prioritized the bill last year, did so again this year, giving the bill new life. Senators spent three hours debating the issue this past week. According to the speaker’s rules, Senator Quick will have to show that he has the necessary 33 votes for the bill to be placed on the agenda again.

A land bank is a tax-exempt political subdivision that acquires, manages and develops vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties into productive use. I signed on as a co-sponsor of LB 424 because I have seen in my hometown how this legislation could benefit all communities in Nebraska, not just the larger ones. Oftentimes, it is too costly or time consuming for private investors to rehabilitate blighted properties. These properties become an eyesore and an expense for cities to provide basic upkeep. Opponents claim that land banks decrease the property tax base when they purchase property because it becomes tax-exempt. However, after a land bank can secure and clean the property, the property is more likely to be attractive to individuals or private developers to purchase and rehabilitate the property, thereby resulting in an increase in valuation of the property and thus an increase in the property tax base.

LB 962, the Nebraska Fair Pay to Play Act, was given first round approval on a 36-4 vote this past week. The Nebraska Fair Pay to Play Act allows athletes to receive payment for their name recognition, images used, and athletic reputation. It eliminates the compensation cap on scholarships provided to athletes and allows athletes to sign with a licensed agent. It does not require colleges to pay athletes. This legislation would allow athletes to sign sponsorship deals, teach summer camps, or hire an agent without being penalized by losing their athletic scholarship or amateur status under NCAA rules.

Omaha Senator Megan Hunt explained that other students are not prohibited from earning income from their skills or talents, but due to NCAA restrictions, student athletes are prohibited. NCAA rules also require that universities limit the value of an athletic scholarship. However, the universities make significant profits from college sports.

LB 962 is modeled after a California law. At least 20 states are considering similar legislation. After the California bill passed, the NCAA Board of Governor’s reversed their historic stance and voted to allow student athletes to be paid for the use of their name, image and likeness, but the details haven’t been worked out yet.

As the Legislature begins all day debate, I encourage you to contact me with your opinion on the bills before us. 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.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2020 – U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Donald “DJ” LaVoy today announced that USDA is providing funds to rural projects that support regional economic and community development planning.

This Strategic Economic and Community Development (SECD) funding is authorized through a Farm Bill provision for applications submitted through the following programs:

To apply for the funding, applicants must meet underlying program requirements and submit the Form RD 1980-88 to the nearest USDA office. Program funds available under SECD expire on June 30, 2020. Additional information is available on page 11947 of the Feb. 28, 2020, Federal Register.

Interested parties can learn more about this opportunity during a webinar on Thursday, March 12 at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Register for the webinar at https://globalmeetwebinar.webcasts.com/starthere.jsp?ei=1280242&tp_key=afc1a74d59.  In Nebraska, contact Community Programs staff at 402-437-5551 opt 3; for Business Programs staff 402-437-5551 opt 4.

USDA encourages applications that will support recommendations made in the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB) to help improve the quality of life in rural America. Applicants are encouraged to consider projects that provide measurable results in helping rural communities build robust and sustainable economies through strategic investments in infrastructure, partnerships and innovation. Key strategies include:

  • Achieving e-Connectivity for Rural America
  • Developing the Rural Economy
  • Harnessing Technological Innovation
  • Supporting a Rural Workforce
  • Improving Quality of Life

USDA also encourages applications that will support the Administration’s goal to combat substance use disorder, including opioid misuse, in high-risk rural communities by strengthening the capacity to address prevention, treatment and/or recovery.

 

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28, 2020 – Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue today announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) intends to make available up to $100 million in competitive grants for activities designed to expand the sale and use of renewable fuels.

The Department plans to publish application deadlines and other program information in the Federal Register this spring.

USDA will make the grant funds available under the Higher Blends Infrastructure Incentive Program (HBIIP). Its purpose is to increase significantly the sale and use of higher blends of ethanol and biodiesel by expanding the infrastructure for renewable fuels derived from U.S. agricultural products. The program is also intended to encourage a more comprehensive approach to marketing higher blends by sharing the costs related to building out biofuel-related infrastructure.

Grants will be available to help transportation fueling and biodiesel distribution facilities convert to higher-ethanol and biodiesel blends by sharing the costs related to installing, retrofitting and/or upgrading fuel storage, dispenser pumps, related equipment and infrastructure.

USDA plans to make available approximately $86 million for implementation activities related to higher blends of fuel ethanol, and approximately $14 million for implementation activities related to higher blends of biodiesel.

For additional information, see page 11946 of the Feb. 28, 2020, Federal Register.  In Nebraska, contact Energy Coordinator Jeff Carpenter at 402-437-5554 or jeff.carpenter@usda.gov.

USDA will encourage applications that will support recommendations made in the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity (PDF, 5.4 MB) to help improve the quality of life in rural America. Applicants are encouraged to consider projects that provide measurable results in helping rural communities build robust and sustainable economies through strategic investments in infrastructure, partnerships and innovation. Key strategies include:

  • Achieving e-Connectivity for Rural America
  • Developing the Rural Economy
  • Harnessing Technological Innovation
  • Supporting a Rural Workforce
  • Improving Quality of Life

In February 2020, Secretary Perdue unveiled the Agricultural Innovation Agenda, a department-wide initiative to align resources, programs and research to position American agriculture to better meet future global demands. Investing in the availability of innovative fuels for American consumers supports this vision while we fulfill our motto to “Do Right and Feed Everyone.”

It’s that point in the legislative session when only bills with priority status make the agenda. The deadline for selecting priority bills was Friday, February 21. Every senator is authorized to select one bill as his/her personal priority bill. Committees are allowed to select two bills and the Speaker of the Legislature can designate up to 25 bills as speaker priority bills. Since committees are limited in the number of bills that they can select, they tend to incorporate a number of other bills into the committee amendments when the bill is advanced and prioritized.

As I mentioned last week, I selected LB 770 as my personal priority bill. It allows disabled veterans to qualify for a free lifetime park permit. LB 770 was given second round approval this past week and is now ready for Final Reading.

Some of the other bills that have been designated as a priority include the following:

LB 147, introduced by North Platte Senator Mike Groene, amends the Student Discipline Act, to allow teachers to use reasonable physical intervention in certain situations.

LB 627, introduced by Lincoln Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of prohibited types of discrimination.

LB 720, introduced by Seward Senator Mark Kolterman, creates the ImagiNE Nebraska Act to replace the Nebraska Advantage Act, which provides tax incentives for businesses that meet specified investment and employment criteria.

LB 814, introduced by Lincoln Senator Suzanne Geist, prohibits the performance of dismemberment abortion.

LB 962, introduced by Omaha Senator Megan Hunt, creates the Nebraska Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to earn money from their name, image, and likeness rights, or athletic reputation and permits them to sign with a licensed agent.

LB 1202, introduced by Elkhorn Senator Lou Ann Linehan, creates the Opportunity Scholarships Act, authorizing tax credits for contributions to organizations that provide scholarships for students to attend private schools.

Three pieces of legislation designated as a priority relate to property tax relief:

LB 974, introduced by the Revenue Committee, would lower the valuation of property and add a foundation factor to the school finance formula.

LB 1073, introduced by Bennington Senator Wendy DeBoer, would lower the valuation of agricultural land, as well as decrease the local effort rate and add basic funding aid to the school funding formula.

LR 300 CA, introduced by Bayard Senator Steve Erdman, would prohibit all forms of taxation other than a consumption tax, which would apply to all new goods and services.

Of the three pieces of legislation that dealt with property tax relief, only LB 974 has been advanced to the floor of the Legislature. Under LB 974, agricultural land would be reduced from 75% to 55% and residential and commercial real estate from 100% to 87% of actual value for school taxing purposes. Foundation aid would be phased in and by the third year, 15% of state sales and income tax receipts would be allocated to school districts on a per pupil basis. The allocation is estimated at $2,416 per student. Beginning with fiscal year 2023, schools would be guaranteed that 15% of their basic funding needs would come from state sources. Limits on school spending would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.

Senators began debating LB 974 this past week and reached the three hour mark, where the sponsor of the legislation, Revenue Chair Senator Lou Ann Linehan, must show the speaker that she has the necessary 33 votes for the bill to be placed on the agenda again. Schools, both large and small, have expressed concern with LB 974. Their concern is that the funding isn’t sustainable and that they would not be able to make up for the loss in property tax revenue. Senator Linehan pledged to work with school districts in an effort to reach a compromise.

As the Legislature discusses priority bills, I encourage you to inform me of your opinion on them. 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.

One of the bills that I introduced this session was LB 770. It authorizes a free lifetime park permit for disabled veterans. This past week, LB 770 was advanced from the Natural Resources Committee on an 8-0 vote, I designated it as my priority bill, and the Legislature gave it first-round approval on a 38-0 vote.

Under LB 770, a veteran would be eligible for the free permit if they are a Nebraska resident, honorably discharged, and rated 50% or more service connected disabled or 100% disabled non-service connected and receiving a pension from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. From my experience in the military, the disabled veteran is the most worthy of receiving this benefit.

I worked with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs on this legislation. I suggested an increase in nonresident park permits as a way to compensate for the free park permits to disabled veterans, considering that the vast majority of visitors to Lake McConaughy are from Colorado, where the cost of a park permit is $80. The commission calculated the projected cost and suggested an increase in the maximum amount they can charge for an annual nonresident park permit, raising the cap to $65, and increasing the cap on the daily permit for nonresidents from $8 to $12.

In researching the park permit fees in other states, I found that of the 40 states that have park permits, 19 offered free permits to disabled veterans. Another 8 states offered free or reduced price park permits to the military, of which 5 states offered benefits to both disabled veterans and the military.

LB 974, the Revenue Committee’s proposal for property tax relief, was advanced from the Revenue Committee this past week on a 6-2 vote. It proposes to lower the valuation of property and add a foundation aid factor to the school funding formula. I look forward to debate on this issue, as I think it is the most important topic before the Legislature this year.

Senator Steve Erdman of Bayard introduced LR 300, which is a constitutional amendment that would ban all forms of taxation (including the sales, income and property taxes) and replace them with a consumption tax. If passed by the Legislature, the proposed constitutional amendment would be on the November 2020 general election ballot.

The consumption tax would apply to all new goods and services. The sponsor of the resolution envisions a pre-bate to compensate for taxes paid for necessities up to the poverty level. A pre-bate is similar to a rebate, but given prior to expenditures.

The public hearing on LR 300 CA was held this past week before the Revenue Committee. There are many questions surrounding this resolution, which can be expected as it would radically change our tax system. I signed on as a co-sponsor to LR 300 CA, as I believe that we must explore all options in our quest to provide significant property tax relief to Nebraskans.

With the recent announcement that the final bridge on the state system was reopened as a result of the damage sustained from the March 2019 flood, there have been some questions about the replacement of the bridge across the Niobrara River between Boyd and Holt Counties. This statement referred to bridges on state highways, whereas the Stuart/Naper bridge is on a county road. I have been in contact with the Holt County Supervisor chairman, the Nebraska Department of Transportation, and the engineering company that is working on the project.  Bids could be let early this summer. However, the final plan reviews cannot take place until the environmental documents are complete. The Department of Transportation assured me that this project is at the top of their priority list. Funding for the project will come from federal aid and county sources.

The legislative session is more than one-third complete. As the Legislature continues to debate issues before them, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I have heard from quite a number of constituents expressing their opposition to LB 58, the “red flag” bill. It is good to know their stance on this legislation pertaining to the temporary removal of guns from a person who may present a danger to themselves or others. Should LB 58 be debated by the full Legislature, I am planning to oppose it. 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.

Currently, forty-nine state senators serve in the Nebraska Legislature. Under the Nebraska Constitution, this number could be increased to fifty senators, but an even number of senators could result in a vote ending in a tie, requiring the Lieutenant Governor to cast the deciding vote. Speaker of the Legislature, Senator Jim Scheer, introduced LR 279, which is a constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to increase the number of state senators up to fifty-five. If LR 279 is passed by the Legislature, the proposed constitutional amendment would be placed on the November 2020 ballot for voters to decide its fate.

Each senator represents approximately 39,000 Nebraskans. District boundaries are refigured every ten years after the census through a process called redistricting. As the population continues to move to the urban areas of our state, the geographical boundaries of rural areas will increase in size. The intent of LR 279 CA was to reduce or at least keep the boundaries of rural districts from growing larger. However, opponents pointed to the additional cost of six more lawmakers and doubted that this proposal would benefit rural lawmakers, predicting instead that the added districts would be in the metropolitan area. According to the speaker’s rule, after three hours of debate on legislation that is being filibustered, it is pulled from the agenda until the sponsor can prove there are thirty-three votes in support of the measure for it to be discussed again. Whether Speaker Scheer has the votes is unknown at this time.

This past week, I introduced LB 995 before the Appropriations Committee. LB 995 seeks to appropriate $150,000 annually for the Legal Education for Public Service and Rural Practice Loan Repayment Assistance program (RLAP). This program provides loan repayment assistance to attorneys that either work for tax exempt charitable organizations that provide legal services to low-income people or attorneys that practice in designated legal profession shortage areas. Currently, Boyd County has no attorney and Rock County only has one attorney. Cedar, Dixon, Holt and Knox each have ten attorneys are less within the county, according to statistics compiled by the Nebraska State Bar Association. The shortage of attorneys in rural areas results in people having to drive hundreds of miles for legal assistance. Furthermore, as Nebraska’s population continues to age, many attorneys in rural areas are reaching retirement age. Therefore, it is important to attract young attorneys to these areas of the state.

Applicants for the RLAP must agree to remain employed for at least three years or the loan assistance must be repaid. The maximum annual amount that may be awarded to a participant is $6,000, with a lifetime cap of $42,000. The average debt of a law school graduate is estimated to be between $125,000 and $150,000.

RLAP was created in 2008 but was not funded. In 2014, an appropriation of $500,000 was granted and in 2017, a transfer from a different fund was used to sustain the RLAP for a couple years. I became interested in this program when a constituent contacted me about loan assistance and I found out that the fund was depleted. Permanent funding for this loan repayment assistance program may provide that necessary encouragement for students to practice law in rural communities or in public service jobs where the initial salary is less than what is offered in bigger cities or larger law firms. The executive director of the Nebraska State Bar Association, the dean of the Nebraska College of Law, the dean of the Creighton University School of Law, the executive director of Legal Aid of Nebraska, and a recipient of the program testified in support of LB 995 at the public hearing. No one testified against it.

If you have any comments on bills that are before the Legislature, either in committee or on the floor, I encourage you to inform me of your thoughts. 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.

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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