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The Legislature passed the one-third mark this week in the 90-day legislative session. The Appropriations Committee also presented their preliminary recommendations for the biennial budget. This provides a starting point for discussion of the various budget actions suggested so far. After the Appropriations Committee finishes its committee work, it will develop formal recommendations to be presented to the Legislature by mid to late March, at which time floor debate will take place.
Although we are in the middle of a pandemic, the state’s financial status is surprising good, having improved significantly since last year. Current projections reflect a balance of $49 million above the minimum reserve at the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year, a noticeable improvement from the previous projection of a $170 million shortfall. The committee’s proposal includes $130 million per year for funding legislation advanced to the floor. At this point, it does not contain funding for the Governor’s major initiatives, which will compete for this funding.
The Government, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee received testimony this past week on two controversial issues introduced by Senator Julie Slama. LB 76 would reinstate the winner-take-all system for electing presidential candidates, awarding all electoral votes to the candidate who received the highest number of votes in the state. LR 3 is a proposed constitutional amendment, giving voters a say on whether to require a photo ID prior to voting.
Only two states, Maine and Nebraska, allow their electoral votes to be split. Since 1991, Nebraska has awarded three of its five electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in each of its three congressional districts. The other two electoral votes go to the statewide winner. This method has resulted in the awarding of one electoral vote to President Barack Obama in 2008 and one to President Joe Biden in 2020. Since 1991, there have been more than a dozen attempts to change our system back to winner-take-all, but all have been unsuccessful. Proponents of LB 76 say now is the time to return to the system used in 48 other states. Opponents argued that our current system attracts more attention to Nebraska in the presidential race and to change it would signal to voters their votes don’t matter as much.
LR 3 CA states that voter identification is necessary in order to combat voter fraud, preserve the relative power of each eligible citizen’s right to vote, modernize election infrastructure, and ensure the integrity of the election process. Thirty-five other states require voter identification. Opponents argued it will make it more difficult for some to vote, and it isn’t necessary, as there is little evidence of voter fraud in Nebraska.
Last year the Legislature passed LB 1107, creating a property tax credit that Nebraskans can claim when filing their state income taxes. The credit is based on the amount of property taxes paid to schools. The credit will provide up to $125 million in property tax relief for the 2020 tax year, increasing to $375 million annually when fully phased in. This is in addition to the $275 million that is appropriated annually to the Property Tax Credit program, reflected on property tax statements.
In order to determine the amount eligible for the refundable income tax credit, the Nebraska Department of Revenue has created a tool for taxpayers to look up the amount of school district property taxes paid. The look-up tool can be found at revenue.nebraska.gov. If a taxpayer claims a different amount of credit than what they are entitled to, their refund may be delayed. Therefore, taxpayers are encouraged to use this tool.
If you are opposed to or in support of legislation or if you have any questions, please 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 email@example.com and my telephone number at the Capitol is (402) 471-2801.
Governor Ricketts testified before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee this past week expressing his support for LB 388, the Nebraska Broadband Bridge Act. The purpose of the program is to facilitate and fund the development of broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas. LB 388 contains intent language to appropriate $20 million annually to the Public Service Commission to be distributed as grants. Providers, cooperatives, or political subdivisions could apply for the grants. Recipients of the grants must provide certain broadband speeds and matching funds equal to 50% of the development costs.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when students attended class remotely and parents worked from home, it became readily apparent that broadband speeds were not sufficient statewide. The funding proposed in LB 388 is included in the Governor’s budget recommendations and is in addition to the $29.5 million in federal CARES Act funds that the governor designated for rural broadband projects last year. Governor Ricketts estimated that this funding would help serve an additional 30,000 residents in the next two years.
Senator Ben Hansen of Blair introduced LB 644 before the Revenue Committee this past week. LB 644 proposes to adopt the Property Tax Request Act and has been referred to as a Truth in Taxation law. The purpose of the bill is to increase transparency when political subdivisions raise their property tax levies. Whenever a governing body of a county, city, village, school district, natural resources district, educational service unit, or community college intends to increase its property tax request over that of the previous year, a postcard must be mailed to all affected taxpayers, informing them of the date, time and location of the public hearing and the amount of the political subdivision’s property tax request. The public hearing must be held in the evening to better allow citizens to participate in the process.
The Legislature is in the middle of the public hearing process. Due to the pandemic, senators are conducting public hearings both in the morning and the afternoon. Only a couple of mornings are scheduled for debate by the entire Legislature during the next month, in an effort to avoid the situation where all senators are in the same location for an extended period of time. Because of social distancing requirements, several hearing rooms are not large enough for a committee to meet, requiring some juggling of the schedule. Due to the ongoing HVAC project, one-fourth of the capitol is under construction, further limiting available space. Some committees are being urged to schedule bills so they can finish early, in order to make room for other committees to meet. The Judiciary Committee, which meets three days a week, will be the last committee to complete the public hearing process, having more than 150 bills referenced to them.
This is my third year serving in the Legislature, representing the 40th district. I continually encourage constituents to contact me with their input on legislation or if they need assistance with governmental issues. More than 1,200 families have contacted me since I began my term, sometimes multiple family members, and some dozens of times. Your input helps me represent the district more effectively. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.
In 2019, I introduced and prioritized LB 243, which created the Healthy Soils Task Force. LB 243 was passed by the Legislature on a 43-0 vote. A 17-member Healthy Soils Task Force was formed, which met during the last few months of 2019 and all of 2020. The task force was charged with developing a comprehensive healthy soils initiative for the State of Nebraska. The final report from the task force was submitted to Governor Ricketts and the Agriculture Committee on December 31, 2020. A link to the final report entitled “Soil Health for Nebraska Wealth” can be found on the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s website when searching for the Healthy Soils Task Force or at: https://nda.nebraska.gov/healthysoils/HSTF_FinalReport.pdf
This year I introduced Legislative Resolution 5 because I felt the Nebraska Legislature should formally accept the Healthy Soils report, findings, and recommendations. This would reiterate the message that the Legislature supports soil health and wants to see accelerated action to protect and enhance our soils, building on the soil health programs already in existence. Soil affects the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. The report encourages implementation through a voluntary grassroots effort. This was my intent from the beginning and I made it known that I was against mandates at every step of the process. Furthermore, LR 5 encourages the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Natural Resources, and other state agencies to assist in these efforts. The public hearing on LR 5 was held before the Agriculture Committee this past week. Several testifiers spoke as proponents, no one opposed the resolution, and one person testified in a neutral capacity.
Jeff Steffen of Crofton and Lisa Lunz of Wakefield served on the Healthy Soils Task Force with me, representing the Natural Resource Districts and production agriculture respectively. I want to thank them for the countless hours that they devoted to this cause. The task force drew upon best practices in other states and from expertise in Nebraska. They held 25 listening sessions involving 31 groups. This input was incorporated into the final report, along with 28 letters of support.
This past week, the Revenue Committee held a public hearing on LR 11, which is a proposed constitutional amendment that would replace the income tax, the sales tax, the property tax, and the inheritance tax with a consumption tax. An accompanying bill, LB 133, would spell out how to enact the consumption tax. Under the consumption tax proposal, taxable property and services would be taxed at a rate of 10.64%. The sale of land, the purchase of fuel, the purchase of taxable property or services for business, investment or educational purposes, and the purchase of used property would be exempt from the consumption tax. Qualifying families would receive a monthly consumption tax allowance based on the federal poverty rate. Although it sounds like a worthy proposal for further study, I think it is unlikely that the proposal will pass in the Legislature, as no other state has this type of tax system.
Broadening the sales tax base was also discussed by the Revenue Committee during the first week of February. Currently, all goods are taxed unless specifically exempted by statute, while services are exempt from the sales tax unless specifically taxed. Under LB 422, introduced by Albion Senator Tom Briese, all services, except for business inputs, would be presumed taxable. This would allow the tax rate to be lowered from 5.5% to 5%. Although I think this proposal has merit, there is a great deal of opposition to it, as it would tax such things as medical care, automotive repair, haircuts, and dry cleaning.
Again I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the legislation before us. I can be reached at email@example.com. My mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.
During a typical legislative session, senators would meet as a body in the morning and split into different committees in the afternoon for the public hearing process. Due to the pandemic, senators briefly check-in first thing in the morning and then break into their committees for public hearings in both the morning and the afternoon. If a senator has tested positive for COVID or has been exposed to someone that has, it is easier to connect virtually during the public hearing process. Therefore, during these first couple months before the vaccine is more widespread, senators will have very limited floor debate, saving that for the later months of this 90-day session.
Four of the bills that I introduced were heard in public hearings this past week, including three on Monday. Due to the record snowfall in Lincoln that day, testimony was brief. LB 77, which prohibits an insurance company from increasing rates for a service member based solely on the fact that they discontinued their motor vehicle insurance coverage while deployed abroad, has already advanced to General File.
On Thursday, January 28th, I introduced LB 395 before the Natural Resources Committee. LB 395 would give the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission more flexibility to work quickly with landowners and hunters to control crop damage, by giving them additional tools to more effectively manage the state’s big game population. The legislation would expand the authority to designate a special deer depredation season or extend an existing deer hunting season to also include antelope and elk. Such seasons are designated when there is excessive property damage. The depredation season would be opened up to nonresidents, who would be charged a higher permit fee than residents. LB 395 increases the number of landowner antelope and elk permits and establishes an “Earn a Bull” program, serving as an incentive for landowners to provide access for antlerless elk hunting on their property. The deputy director of the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission testified in support of LB 395, as did a representative of the Nebraska Sportsmen’s Foundation. No one testified against the bill.
The chair of the Revenue Committee, Senator Lou Ann Linehan, introduced LR 22 this past week, at the request of the Governor. LR 22 is a proposed constitutional amendment that would cap the real property tax revenue of a political subdivision at 3% of the amount raised in the prior fiscal year. Such cap could be exceeded upon approval by the majority of legal voters at a special election. The cap would not apply to bond retirement or property taxes raised from real growth of a political subdivision. Farm organizations and the Platte Institute were among those appearing in support of LR 22 but counties, cities, school districts, and community colleges noted their opposition. LB 408, introduced by Senator Tom Briese, accomplishes the same goal but would be placed in statute rather than in the constitution.
The state’s website to register for the COVID-19 vaccination was unveiled this past week. At the site, vaccinate.ne.gov, Nebraska residents will fill out a short questionnaire to register. Those eligible in the current phase, will be able to schedule their vaccine, pending supply and appointment availability. Those ineligible at this time will receive an email when their phase is ready for vaccinations.
When a person is selected in the phase they are eligible for and they provided an email address, they will receive an email with instructions on how to schedule the vaccination. If a phone number was entered instead, they will receive a text. For persons without a computer or mobile phone access, they are encouraged to ask a friend or relative for assistance. They may also call the State Vaccine hotline at 833-998-2275 (toll-free) or 531-249-1873 to register or they may contact their local Public Health Department. If persons have already registered for the vaccine through their local health department, they should not register again (unless they are younger than 65 and have high risk health conditions), as local health departments will transfer their information to the state’s system.
Phase 1A of the vaccination plan, covering frontline health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities, has mostly concluded across the state and areas are moving into Phase 1B. This phase includes those who are 65 years and older, those with a high risk medical condition, and those working in critical industries that are unable to work remotely, including first responders, educators, those in utility and transportation sectors, and food processing workers. It will take several months to reach all eligible in this phase.
As we continue with the public hearing process, I encourage you to contact me with your opinions on the legislation being heard by the various committees. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.
In early December, the former Chair of the Executive Board, along with chairs of the standing committees, sent an email to senators suggesting that they limit the number of bills introduced. This would assist with safety measures being developed for senators and the public in preparation for the legislative session during a pandemic. However, 684 bills were still introduced during the ten days of bill introduction. Although this number was less than the 739 bills in 2019, it was more than the 667 bills introduced in 2017 and the 655 bills in 2015.
I introduced four bills and one resolution that will have a public hearing. Three of the bills I introduced will be heard on the very first day of public hearings.
I introduced LB 75 at the request of the Nebraska Association of County Officials. It would clarify what happens if a township form of government is discontinued but there is a library involved. Under LB 75, the county board would be required to hold a hearing within one year to determine whether the township library would be disposed of, merge with another library, or continue operation. A decision on the disposition of the library would be made within 60 days. The public hearing on LB 75 will be held before the General Affairs Committee.
A former Northeastern Nebraskan asked that I introduce LB 77. It would prohibit an insurance company from increasing rates for a member of the armed forces based solely on the fact that they had discontinued their motor vehicle insurance coverage while deployed overseas. This has been referred to as the Patriot Penalty and occurs in approximately 21 states, including Nebraska. The public hearing on LB 77 will be held before the Banking, Commerce and Insurance Committee.
The final bill that I introduced that will have a public hearing on January 25th is LB 78. Currently applications for the Gold Star Family, D.A.V., former Prisoner of War, and Purple Heart license plates require a signature. By signing, the applicant acknowledges that filing a false application violates the Motor Vehicle Registration Act and could be subject to prosecution. However, the information submitted on their application is not verified. LB 78 would require applicants to register with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. DMV would then be able to verify an applicant’s eligibility using this registry, which is already being used to verify information for Military Honor license plates. The public hearing will be held before the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.
The Speaker of the Legislature has developed procedures for the public hearing process during the pandemic. The capacity of the hearing rooms will be limited to accommodate social distancing, testifiers will be requested to limit their time in the hearing room to the bill of interest, masks are required (except when testifying), and handouts should be limited or eliminated. There are new procedures to allow a senator who has tested positive or is in quarantine to participate remotely.
It is recognized that input from the public is very important to our unique one house system and COVID has made this difficult. Therefore, options for public input have been expanded for those concerned about testifying in person. Testifiers will be able to submit their testimony in person prior to the start of hearings and this testimony will be treated as if it was given during the hearing. Furthermore, the public will be given another way to contact senators, in addition to emailing each senator. There will be a new feature added to the Legislature’s website (NebraskaLegislature.gov) for the submission of written statements on pending legislation at any stage of the process. (Search for the bill you would like to submit a statement on and click the corresponding button near the top of the bill page.)
Senators adopted permanent rules this past week which will be utilized throughout the session. The Rules Committee had suggested three minor changes which were adopted by the body.
Senator Steve Halloran proposed an amendment to the rules to require a voice vote on legislative leadership positions rather than a secret ballot. This amendment was offered to the Rules Committee but they did not recommend it for consideration by the entire Legislature. Our Unicameral is based on nonpartisanship. Senators are elected without a party affiliation, in an effort to allow the body to work together to avoid the partisan problems that have created roadblocks at the federal level. Supporters of the proposed change mentioned the need for transparency but opponents said it would dismantle what our institution is based on, pressuring senators to vote down party lines. I believe senators should elect the best person for the position based on their background and their character. This amendment to the rules lost on a 19-30 vote.
As the committee hearing process begins, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts on the various bills. I can be reached at email@example.com. My mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.
Governor Pete Ricketts delivered his State of the State address to the Legislature this past week. He highlighted his 2021-23 state budget recommendations for senators. This will be his last biennial budget proposal, as his eight years in office will be completed at the end of next year.
Governor Ricketts recounted the devastating flood in 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic that followed in 2020. He commended Nebraskans for responding in the Nebraska Way – by working together to overcome the challenges.
The governor’s budget proposal limits the two-year average growth in state spending to 1.5%, but still accomplishes his proposed priorities of property tax relief, military families and veterans, public safety, and investment in broadband internet.
The governor included $1.36 billion in property tax relief in his budget recommendations. This includes $550 million through the Property Tax Credit Fund (shown on property tax statements), approximately $600 million for the newly passed refundable income tax credit based on the amount of school district property taxes paid, and $214 million in property tax exemptions under the current homestead exemption program. (The amount appropriated to the income tax credit will increase until it reaches $375 million by the fifth year, after which it will increase annually based on the percentage change in overall statewide valuations.) At the request of the governor, Senator Lou Ann Linehan introduced LR 22, a proposed constitutional amendment to limit the growth of property taxes to three percent. Although the governor supports limits on local spending in order to ensure that property tax relief works, he emphasized his support for public schools and has proposed to fully fund state aid for K-12 schools, as he has done every year as governor.
In continuing his quest to make Nebraska the best state in the nation for military families and veterans, the governor has included $50 million towards the establishment of a public-private partnership to assist in building the projected $1 billion headquarters for U.S. Space Command, estimated to create 1,400 jobs. Although it was recently announced that Redstone Arsenal in Alabama was selected as the preferred site for this project, Nebraska is not giving up and plans to continue their work with the Biden administration. At the request of the governor, Senator Tom Brewer introduced LB 387 to exempt 100% of military retirement income from the state income tax. This would complete the work done last year, when legislation was passed to exempt 50% of military retirement. I have designated this legislation as my priority bill. Finally, the governor is working with Senator Rita Sanders on additional steps to cut red tape to allow military spouses with teaching licenses in other states to teach while their families are deployed here.
For many years, Nebraska has had a severe prison overcrowding problem. To help protect public safety, the governor is endorsing a new $230 million facility, projected to house 1,500 inmates. An initial investment of $115 million is included in the governor’s budget proposal. The facility is projected to be operational by 2025.
Many Nebraskans still do not have access to broadband and even more households lack adequate broadband speeds. Nebraska was able to use federal pandemic funding to begin connecting households with broadband. To further this goal, the governor’s budget includes an investment of $40 million in rural broadband over the two-year period.
A public hearing was held by the Rules Committee on proposals for rule changes, submitted by senators. One of the more controversial proposals was from Executive Board chair, Senator Dan Hughes. It proposed to exclude news reporters from the executive sessions of the legislative committees. Senator Hughes said that their presence limits a senator’s ability to speak freely and frankly in making decisions on the direction of a bill. Representatives of the press urged the committee to reject the proposal, as they gain valuable insight when permitted to listen to the discussion, thereby allowing for more accurate reporting on the status of legislation. Another proposal would change the voting process for the election of committee chairs from a secret ballot to a roll call vote. Arguments for the rule change include increased transparency but opponents fear it will cause senators to vote down party lines instead of for the most qualified person. The Rules Committee will submit their recommendations and the Legislature will debate their suggested rule changes beginning on January 21.
As the Legislature finishes introducing new bills and begins the public hearing process, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the legislative issues before us. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.
The One Hundred Seventh Legislature, First Session, began on Wednesday, January 6th under different circumstances from other years. Due to the pandemic, families of the newly-elected and re-elected senators were not allowed to sit on the floor, but had to be seated up in the balcony. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administered the oath to the newly-elected and re-elected senators, who remained at their seats instead of gathering up front for the swearing-in ceremony. There were eight new senators taking their oath, of which three had previously served in the Legislature but were affected by term limits, requiring them to sit out for at least four years before running again.
There were no legislative staff or media sitting at the sides of the chamber, as media must now report from the balcony and legislative staff are only allowed on the floor when their senator’s bill is being discussed. Plexiglas dividers were installed to separate the desks of senators and masks are encouraged.
One of the biggest concerns is how to conduct the public hearing process. In Nebraska, every bill that is introduced is guaranteed a public hearing, whereby the public can testify in support of, in opposition to, or in a neutral capacity. Some of these hearings can attract a large number of testifiers, making compliance with social distancing requirements difficult. Information on how the Legislature will proceed with the public hearing process will be available soon.
On the first day of the legislative session, senators were elected to leadership positions. Lincoln Senator Mike Hilgers ran unopposed for Speaker of the Legislature. Senator Dan Hughes of Venango, filled Senator Hilgers’ previous position of chair of the Executive Board, also running unopposed. Omaha Senator Tony Vargas retained the vice-chair position of the Executive Board over Senator Julie Slama of Peru.
Senator Mike Groene of North Platte lost his position as chair of the Education Committee to Fremont Senator Lynne Walz and Lincoln Senator Matt Hansen lost his Business and Labor chair to Senator Ben Hansen of Blair. I ran for the chair of the Natural Resources Committee, but lost to Senator Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, who previously served as vice chairman. Gering Senator John Stinner retained his chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee, as did Elkhorn Senator Lou Ann Linehan of the Revenue Committee. Omaha Senator Steve Lathrop will continue to chair the Judiciary Committee.
I will again serve on the Natural Resources Committee, which meets weekly on Wednesday through Friday, and was selected to serve on the Business and Labor Committee on Mondays and the Agriculture Committee on Tuesdays. Previously, I served on the Banking, Commerce and Insurance Committee on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Bills can be introduced during the first ten days of this 90-day session. Senators are currently in the process of finalizing changes to drafts in order to get them submitted by January 20th.
This session will mark my third year of serving the constituents of District #40, which covers Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox, and Rock counties. During this session, lawmakers will work on redistricting. Every ten years, after new census figures are available, the legislative boundaries must be redrawn to reflect population changes.
I want to again remind you of the Legislature’s website at NebraskaLegislature.gov. It contains a wealth of information. Viewers can read the text of bills, search state laws, find their senator, follow the progress of a certain bill, read the Unicameral Update and watch the Legislature live through video streaming.
During the legislative session, I will be in Lincoln during the week and back home in Creighton on the weekends. When I am not in the office, my staff will be able to assist you. Alex Brechbill is my administrative assistant and he answers the phone and is responsible for my schedule. Kim Davis, my legislative aide, works on legislation and constituent issues.
In order to effectively represent District #40, I encourage your input. My email address is email@example.com and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My telephone number at the State Capitol is (402) 471-2801.
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