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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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.