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There are few staff to monitor Nebraska’s vast swaths of farmland, thousands of cattle feedlots, large hog operations and chicken farms. And the agencies’ own regulations don’t give the staff many tools to combat malpractice.
By Yanqi Xu
November 18, 2022
The farmer was growing impatient. He folded his arms. Shook his head angrily.
He and dozens of other central Nebraska farmers had gathered for mandatory training in Columbus a few weeks before Christmas last year. In response to stubbornly high nitrate levels, the Lower Loup Natural Resources District had designated a slice of the region a “Phase 3 area.” That designation led to a few new requirements – like this training to help farmers manage their nitrogen fertilizer use and reduce nitrate leaching.
The farmer didn’t like this. He told NRD leaders that he had been drinking water containing nitrate at 40 parts per million – quadruple the safe drinking water standard – all his adult life. He was fine, he told them.
During the morning session, he stormed out.
“I’m gonna go pollute the water,” he told the NRD’s assistant manager, Tylr Naprstek, right before he left, Naprstek recalled.
There was precious little Naprstek could do.
He couldn’t fine the farmer. He couldn’t send a cease and desist letter. He couldn’t issue a written or verbal warning. He couldn’t do much except mandate this training. And ask nicely.
“We can try to educate, and as long as he stays within the boundaries of our rules and regs, that’s really all we can do,” said Naprstek.
Even as Nebraska’s water grows increasingly laced with nitrate – a reality that deeply worries the experts studying links between elevated nitrate and pediatric cancers – the regulators meant to keep our water clean either can’t, or won’t, do much to stop practices known to cause nitrate levels to spike.
Local NRDs and the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy have few staff to monitor Nebraska’s vast swaths of farmland, thousands of cattle feedlots, large hog operations and chicken farms. And even when they identify malpractice, the agencies’ own regulations don’t give the staff many tools to combat it, multiple NRD leaders said.
NRDs can place restrictions on when farmers can apply nitrogen fertilizer. They can mandate water testing and nitrate analysis. They can even hold mandatory training sessions like the one the Columbus farmer stormed out of.
But, crucially, they can’t stop a farmer from applying far more nitrogen fertilizer than is needed – fertilizer that can seep as nitrate into the water supply. Their managers can find themselves hamstrung by their own boards, which sometimes fight against the enforcement of rules that the board itself has previously approved and enacted, according to meeting minutes, interviews and emails obtained by the Flatwater Free Press under public records laws.
The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, charged with keeping cattle feedlots from polluting our water supply, can take years to react to feedlots showing sky-high nitrate levels. And even when they do, these regulators often take little action – even as they continue to hand out new feedlot permits “like Halloween candy,” wrote Mike Sousek, Lower Elkhorn NRD General Manager in an email he sent to every NRD leader in Nebraska.
Many farmers use their nitrogen fertilizer responsibly, both state and local leaders stress. They apply it using methods that leach fewer nitrates into our water supply. They take into account nitrogen already in the soil. They embrace technologies and best practices championed by the University of Nebraska, and they save money by using their nitrogen fertilizer more efficiently.
They are the agricultural equivalent of drivers, buckled into their seats, driving comfortably near the speed limit.
But, in Nebraska, there’s little way to enforce rules already in place, rules meant to protect our groundwater.
There’s no one to stop the other driver, the one barreling 90 miles per hour down the highway, crossing the centerline, putting everyone on the road in danger.
“There’s no nitrogen police,” Sousek said.
For a glance at how Nebraska’s enforcement can be slow and toothless, look at Engelmeyer Farms.
The West Point feeder cattle and hog facility has had high nitrate in some of its downstream wells since 2007. No one drinks from these wells, but sky-high readings are evidence that nitrate is leaching into the water supply.
In 2011, nitrate readings peaked at an astronomical 413 parts per million.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit for nitrate is 10 parts per million.
Only in August – fifteen years after the initial high readings – did the NDEE conduct a “compliance status inspection” of Engelmeyer Farms because of high nitrate, according to the state’s available public records.
Three prior, more general inspections found the feedlot owner failed to provide proof that they properly inspected waste or manure application tools. Despite the high levels – some of the highest ever recorded in Nebraska – the state’s only guidance was that Engelmeyer Farms needed better record-keeping.
The NDEE’s enforcement at Engelmeyer Farms actually exceeds the work that the department does at other feedlots with high nitrate levels, according to public records.
Five feedlots near Wisner frequently reported far higher nitrate levels than their surroundings in the past 10 years, a Flatwater Free Press review of Wisner area livestock facilities with monitoring data available showed.
Inspectors sometimes noted concerns during visits to these feedlots.
On all five of these feedlots, the department’s groundwater section recommended nothing beyond continued monitoring.
There are 2,600-some active permits for concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in the state. Most are cattle feedlots, large hog operations or chicken farms.
Only 367 have been required to install monitoring wells and report water quality results, according to a list provided by state regulators in April.
Four or five staff members in the groundwater section – who have many other duties – are also tasked with reviewing the tests these CAFOs submit twice a year, said NDEE Groundwater Section Supervisor David Miesbach.
“I see it all the time. If I got alarmed by every time I saw something over 10 ppm, it would be a tough day,” said Miesbach.
Miesbach defended the department’s work, saying he and a small staff work with livestock operations diligently, identifying the worst cases, trying to determine where the nitrate is coming from and experimenting with numerous ways to bring levels down.
The department does regulate manure runoff. However, once the manure is applied to farm fields, it becomes local NRDs’ responsibility, NDEE leaders said.
Livestock operations have planted trees and built new waste lagoons to try to improve water quality, he said.
Some of these measures could cost the owners millions of dollars, Miesbach explained. The high cost is one reason the state needs to thoroughly study the site before asking owners to change, he said.
The Flatwater Free Press requested the total number of CAFOs that state regulators have worked with, as well as the total number of livestock producers known to have nitrate issues.
The NDEE didn’t provide a list of livestock facilities it has worked with to address high nitrate. Miesbach said he couldn’t detail when the NDEE will fully determine the causes of high nitrate in livestock facilities with high readings, or how long it will take to address those problems.
The Flatwater Free Press also made a public records request for five years of emails from roughly 80 department employees that mentioned the keywords, “nitrate,” “nitrogen,” “nutrient” and “fertilizer.”
The department quoted the newsroom $44,103.11 to obtain those public records.
This week, the Flatwater Free Press sued the NDEE, claiming the department offered a “legally insufficient and invalid estimate” for those public records.
To Jim Bendfeldt, a longtime farmer near Kearney, there’s nothing more refreshing than drinking cool water his irrigation wells pump in the summer. His family members often cup their hands and scoop water flowing from the irrigation pipes in his fields.
But he won’t let his grandchildren have more than a few gulps, because some of his irrigation wells are high in nitrate.
Slightly less than a quarter of all the Central Platte NRD’s certified irrigated acres – that’s some 225,000 acres – have average nitrate levels that exceed 15 parts per million, 150% the federal safe drinking water standard.
In the past four years, farmers in this area have self-reported using much more nitrogen fertilizer than UNL recommended – on average, 22% more, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis of data obtained in a public records request.
Some local regulators believe that these self-reported figures are low. Bendfeldt, also an NRD board member, said sales records would show that farmers in the area are using even more. The NRD has no authority to ask for these sales records or identify who’s overapplying nitrate.
“We have no authority to do anything other than accept the online records … and take each producer (at their) word,” he said.
Many farmers and agricultural interest groups cast the nitrate problem as a legacy issue that stems from past practices. They argue that golf courses and lawns are to blame. At NRD board meetings, they protest that more studies are necessary before regulators institute rules that restrict how they farm. They say authorities need to tailor regulations and account for weather, geology and other factors.
“I think there can’t be just a flat standard,” said Nebraska Farm Bureau President Mark McHargue. “We have to base it on science all the way through, so that involves, what types of crops you’re growing, what’s your rotation, what your rainfall is, what your slope on the soil is, what your organic matter is in your soil.”
But the science shows that most nitrates in our water come from fertilizer applied to crops. Years of results from these “nitrate fingerprinting” tests in multiple NRDs point to commercial fertilizers as the most common culprit. The bulk of these fertilizers are applied to corn, said multiple NRD leaders.
Data requested by the Flatwater Free Press shows that farmers in many parts of Nebraska continue to put on more fertilizer than UNL recommends – even though critics say that the UNL recommendations are focused on yield, and should be lower if the damage to our water supply is taken into account.
The free market can help, some argue. Farmers have no incentive to overapply nitrogen, particularly with fertilizer prices so high.
“If farmers blindly apply nitrogen without knowing what’s in the soil or what’s in their manure or what their crop needs are, they’re literally throwing money out the window, and they’re not going to do that,” said Andy Scholting, the founder of Nutrient Advisors, a consultant to both livestock and crop producers.
But an entire industry is built around encouraging Nebraska farmers to use more fertilizer, argues Ronda Rich, an Upper Big Blue NRD board member.
Agronomists are often paid on yield, she said. People who sell fertilizer also advise farmers on how much fertilizer to buy.
Armed with few tools, local regulators can’t do much to combat this, she said.
Yet the regulators themselves are far from blameless, said Tim Gragert, a Republican state senator from Creighton. Gragert once worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which helps farmers with soil health. He sits on the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, and authored new laws, one that created a task force that studied nitrate and another that strengthened nitrate education.
He doesn’t mince words on Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts.
“They’ve already been given that authority to do what they need to do. They’re not doing it,” he said.
In late 2020, staff in the Lower Elkhorn NRD proposed that an area should be elevated to Phase 2 in parts of Cuming, Colfax and Dodge counties, subjecting the area to heightened regulations to control nitrate leaching.
They did so after nitrate levels had met the threshold laid out in the district’s own rules – rules the elected NRD board had previously approved.
But the board decided not to go along with its own rules. It tabled the motion to go to Phase 2 – which would have imposed more regulations, including a ban on fall and winter application of nitrogen fertilizer, an 80-pound maximum of nitrogen fertilizer per single application, and mandatory soil and water sampling. Instead, it voted to conduct more testing.
“We seem to want to just kick this can down the road to just study,” Sousek said at the board’s September meeting. “We’ve had this in place in Pierce County for 20 years and we’re still studying, and the problems aren’t getting any better. ”
After a long pause, he continued: “If we aren’t gonna follow our own rules, maybe we need to change our rules.”
This sort of tension isn’t uncommon. Leaders of natural resources districts – local government units created by the state to protect natural resources – often find themselves being slowed down or opposed by board members, who are locally elected, when the leaders try to enforce rules related to water quality.
At the same meeting, Matt Steffen, a board member from West Point, argued that the rules should differentiate different soil types and the board should wait for the test results to come in. “This information is going to greatly help people understand.”
Mark Hall, the chair of the board, agreed that it’s best to wait for more study.
“We’re talking about what I would consider maybe a 70-year-old problem, and we’re going to make a decision within one year to affect the whole area. I would rather be a little conservative and make sure we understand the science before we make a change,” he told the Flatwater Free Press.
That inaction frustrates both NRD staffers and board members who favor regulation, who argue that their own test results have shown nitrate levels are getting higher – and that they likely affect area residents’ health. For example: Nebraska has the highest pediatric cancer rate west of Pennsylvania, and many of these cancers, researchers say, are linked to high nitrate levels.
Board member Joel Hansen urged the full board to at least vote on creating the Phase 2 area.
“The board’s making the decision not to follow our own rules by not doing anything,” Hansen said in an interview.
But being a board member who favors regulation is often a good way to lose your board seat.
In the November election, Hansen was defeated by Plainview farmer Jim Aschoff, who was once issued a cease and desist order for failing to submit an annual report on his fertilizer use, yield goal and his land’s water quality.
What happened in Lower Elkhorn NRD isn’t an isolated case.
In 2019, a board committee of the Upper Big Blue NRD discussed introducing a rule to ban the application of anhydrous ammonia, a nitrogen fertilizer, in the fall in areas where median nitrate level reaches a threshold. The committee then voted to not move forward with this rule change.
Later that year, the board proposed another rule to require split application, a method of applying fertilizer to reduce the amount of nitrate that seeps into the water. Another proposed rule would have capped the amount of fertilizer that can be applied in certain areas before April 1.
More than a dozen residents, mostly farmers, spoke at the public meeting to oppose the rules or ask for additional studies. The board then voted to remove the proposed changes.
Three years after the board scrapped these rule changes, nitrate levels have spiked. Eight of the district’s 12 zones had an increase in median nitrate levels. In three of these zones, at least half of the sampled private wells — which provide drinking water to rural residents — now have nitrate levels higher than the 10 ppm safe drinking water limit, according to the NRD’s most recent test results.
The NRD Phase System, Explained
Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts commonly create phase areas to address high nitrate. Each NRD sets their own rules and thresholds for these different phases, but all have trouble enforcing the requirements these phases are meant to trigger.
Phase 1: Areas that have the lowest levels of nitrate. Usually no reporting or other requirements, depending on the NRD. Some NRDs require training and groundwater analysis for nitrate at this level.
Phase 2: “Special management practices” typically start here. They sometimes include bans on commercial fertilizer application in the fall and winter, because applying fertilizer then is more likely to cause nitrate leaching into the water supply.
Phase 3: Additional requirements are sometimes put into place. In Phase 3, some NRDs try to discourage the use of anhydrous ammonia by requiring that farmers also use an inhibitor chemical that helps stop this type of fertilizer from leaching nitrate into the soil. Some NRDs require split application, which limits the amount of nitrogen fertilizer at any one time.
Phase 4: Only certain NRDs even have a Phase 4 on the books – a phase actually meant to limit the amount of fertilizer that can be used.
But no NRD has ever designated any area Phase 4, NRD leaders said.
Central Platte NRD General Manager Lyndon Vogt said there probably should be some areas in this phase. “If we were to go to a Phase 4, we don’t have the ability to enforce that,” Vogt said. “I think everyone’s struggling with what that next step is.”
Self-reported data from the district shows farmers on average have applied more than the UNL recommended level of nitrogen fertilizers in the past four years.
Rich, the Upper Big Blue NRD member, said her board, packed with members with tight connections to agriculture, has failed its duties in educating the public about the threat of nitrate.
Some board members actively seek to hamstring efforts to strengthen regulations, she said. Some board members repeatedly vote no on issuing cease and desist orders to farmers who fail to comply with the district’s rules – even though those rules, like reporting your nitrogen fertilizer use, don’t even carry penalties even if the farmer’s fertilizer use is sky-high.
Rich lost her re-election in November, falling to a challenger who has two brothers already on the NRD board.
At the September board meeting, staff brought in a new University of Nebraska Medical Center study that shows geographic correlation between areas with high pediatric cancer and birth defect rates and areas with high nitrate levels, Rich recalled. The researchers used the NRD’s own data.
The water committee’s chairman John Miller said, “There are some things in there that I personally am not sure are valid.” Miller then quickly ended the discussion on high nitrate and cancer.
A network of consistently monitored wells in the Upper Big Blue district shows that, in the past decade, nine of the district’s 12 zones have seen nitrate levels increase.
Two of the wells that supply Wisner’s drinking water have been getting worse for years, and one veered into dangerous territory this year after its nitrate levels shot as high as 11 parts per million.
The town in northeast Nebraska’s Cuming County has issued multiple drinking water notices to its roughly 1,200 residents, and has been forced to provide bottled water to pregnant people, nursing mothers and infants under six months old.
In the meantime, a feedlot a few miles outside town has shown consistently high levels of nitrate in its water. Earlier this year, a monitoring well at the feedlot skyrocketed to 232 parts per million.
State regulators have inspected the feedlot twice since 2018. They have found no issues. They requested nothing from the feedlot’s owners.
In an interview in October, Miesbach confirmed that the monitoring data shows high nitrate, but said he hadn’t yet contacted the feedlot.
This northeast area of Nebraska is home to some 1,800 livestock facilities, the most of any region in the state.
Fewer than 100 of these feedlots and other animal operations even have on-site monitoring wells, said Sousek, the NRD director in the area – meaning that state regulators are flying mostly blind.
Sousek thinks these feedlots, regulated by the NDEE, have contributed to his district’s high nitrate in groundwater, he said in emails obtained by the Flatwater Free Press under public records law.
“On one hand (NDEE) is preaching to the NRD’s that we need to clean this mess up to meet standards, on the other hand they’re handing out permits like Halloween candy,” wrote Sousek in an email he sent to every NRD manager in Nebraska.
The NRD itself has repeatedly stopped short of more aggressively regulating farmers’ use of nitrogen fertilizer.
It has only recently begun sending cease and desist orders to farmers when the farmers repeatedly failed to fill out crop reports. It has declined to bring lawsuits and levy fines against those who refuse to comply with these orders related to nitrate management, though Sousek noted that many farmers do comply after conversations with NRD staff members.
And Sousek’s own board has repeatedly declined to increase regulations, even in areas where nitrate levels are spiking.
As this continues, the water quality in many small Nebraska towns continues to move in one direction.
Nine small towns in Sousek’s district have had at least one nitrate reading above 10 parts per million – the federal safe drinking water standard – since 2017.
In emails obtained by the Flatwater Free Press, the NRD director sometimes sounds a sorrowful note. Like there’s little he and any other regulators can ultimately do. Like nothing will ever change.
“The real legacy issue as I see is our resistance to change in what we consider best management practices, the legacy of doing what we have always done, the statement of…we are doing everything right,” Sousek wrote in an email sent to UNL researchers in February 2021. “We continue to add to the problem.”
Can we incentivize our way out of high nitrate levels?
There’s another way to get nitrate levels in our drinking water down in Nebraska, say some farmers and ag industry leaders.
Use the carrot, not the stick.
Tim Mundorf, the director of soil management at Central Valley Ag, a co-op headquartered in York, argues that more and better incentives can spur farmers to change practices that leach nitrate into the water. Roughly half his clients use at least one of the best management practices.
“We, as a society, need to be on board that we’re going to help the farmer bear some of those costs if we’re going to ask the farmer to change his practices,” Mundorf said. “Those incentives could be better. And I think some of that’s coming.”
Others argue that carrots might help, but only if accompanied by sticks.
Economic incentives alone won’t solve the problem, said Silvia Secchi, a professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in the economic impacts of agriculture.
“Our policies that essentially try to pay farmers to do the right thing are not very good at getting at the problems,“ said Secchi. “The system is set up to fail.”
When the incentives don’t work, some farmers’ behavior won’t change, because the farmer doesn’t solely bear the cost of unclean water.
“The consequences of that overapplication did not accrue to the farmers; they accrued to the rest of us in the pollution of groundwater and surface water,” Secchi said.
The Nebraska Homeowner Assistance Fund (NHAF) provides relief to pandemic-impacted homeowners that have experienced a COVID-19-related financial hardship that began or continued after January 21, 2020.
The NHAF recently announced that it has added assistance for past-due utilities and internet services, future payments for those with a deferred balance on their primary mortgage, and increased assistance for qualified homeowners from $30,000 to $40,000.
Qualified homeowners may receive up to $40,000 in assistance for:
Funds will be distributed until they run out, and they do not need to be paid back. Homeowners must qualify under the NHAF income limits and will be required to provide certain documentation to support the application. Learn more at https://nebraskahaf.com or call 1-844-565-7146.
From the Omaha World-Herald, 9/29/2022.
“Effective actions revolve around making sure soil is healthy and alive. When soil has depleted topsoil or little humus, few worms or fungi and other microorganisms, lacking texture and structure, it is no longer an organized living ecosystem. Over years of customary farming practices, most soils have lost organic matter, surface armor, ability to absorb heavy rains and shifted and depleted their biological diversity.
Needed is an all-out effort to protect and regenerate our soils. A system of farming applying principles of soil health to the practice of farming and ranching is called regenerative agriculture. With over 90% of Nebraska’s total land area in agriculture, we have potential to help fight climate change and improve water quality. Many farmers and ranchers are adopting healthy soil management practices, but not all. No-till is the most widely adopted practice, however, a variety of additional practices need to be adopted to achieve full benefit. Which ones depends on the circumstances of each farm or ranch.
At the state level, LB 925 passed during the 2022 legislative session created the Resilient Soils and Water Quality Act. This law charged the Department of Natural Resources with the responsibility to create a producer coalition called the “Producer Learning Community” and develop a statewide network of demonstration and research farms. Producer led coalitions provide another approach to education and learning proving successful in surrounding states, however not yet formalized in Nebraska. Farmers trust farmers; therefore, producer-to-producer peer learning and mentorships complement University, NRCS, NRD and other efforts in Nebraska to increase awareness of the benefits of adopting healthy soil practices and how to achieve them.”
Read the full editorial here:
Applications remain open for the 2023 Legislative Page Program. Legislative pages will be selected this fall to work during the upcoming legislative session from January to June 2023. Pages respond to requests from senators on the legislative floor. They also run errands, deliver messages, photocopy materials, assist the presiding officer, staff committee hearings, and perform other duties as assigned. Pages are paid approximately $11/hour and must be able to work 20 hours a week. You MAY also be able to receive credit hours through your school. Applications are available online and are due by Friday, October 7 at 5:00 PM. The page selection committee will meet in October to select individuals to fill those positions.
If any students attending college in Lincoln are interested in this position, please contact my office as I would be happy to write a letter of recommendation. My administrative assistant served as a page and he said it was a great opportunity to learn how the Nebraska Legislature operates firsthand.
For more information and to apply online, please visit https://nebraskalegislature.gov/unicampages/.
Please contact the Office of the Clerk of the Legislature with questions or if you need more information at (402) 471-2271 or email email@example.com
Although tax season has passed, I want to remind property owners that they can still claim the expanded property tax credits on their Nebraska state income taxes. About 40% of Nebraskans failed to claim this credit on last year’s taxes, leaving about $200 million of tax refunds unclaimed.
For tax year 2021, the credits amounted to approximately 25% of property taxes paid to K-12 public schools. This amount is projected to increase to approximately 30% for the 2022 tax year. Additionally, for taxes paid next year, taxpayers will also be eligible for a new approximate 30% credit on property taxes paid to community colleges.
If taxpayers failed to claim this refundable income tax credit on their property taxes, it can be claimed retroactively going back three years. Taxpayers would need to file an amended return for previous years (tax year 2020 or 2021). For information on how to claim the refundable income tax credit, go to revenue.nebraska.gov/about/nebraska-property-tax-credit.
The income tax credit is in addition to the Property Tax Credit program, in which funding has increased to $313 million annually. This property tax relief is reflected on your property tax statement and is automatically deducted from your property tax bill.
The NHAF is available to help Nebraska homeowners who have experienced or continue to experience a financial hardship associated with the COVID-19 pandemic after January 21, 2020. The fund was established for the purpose of preventing homeowner mortgage delinquencies, defaults, foreclosures and displacement of homeowners.
In addition, the NHAF may assist with resolving property title issues to ensure a homeowner has marketable title to their property. Homeowners must qualify under the NHAF income limits and will be required to provide certain documentation to support the application.
If you have questions or wish to apply, please contact https://nebraskahaf.com/ or call 1-844-565-7146.
The One Hundred Seventh Legislature, Second Session, has adjourned sine die. The last day was filled with last minute items, the governor’s closing speech, and ceremonial procedures. The thirteen senators that won’t be back in January, either due to term limits or deciding not to seek a second term, were recognized. Although I won’t be running for another term, I will miss my colleagues and am thankful for being given the chance to serve with them in representing the State of Nebraska.
When I ran for office, my priorities were property tax relief, helping veterans, pro-life issues, and water quality. I believe that healthy soil is directly related to the quality of water. During my first year in office, I sponsored legislation that created the Healthy Soils Task Force. Among the recommendations from the task force, was the creation of a producer learning community (PLC). This was accomplished through LB 925, a bill I introduced this year. The PLC is an agricultural producer-led nonprofit voluntary organization dedicated to fostering the learning and sharing of knowledge related to the protection and improvement of soil and water quality.
In 2019, I was a co-sponsor of LB 209, which updated abortion informed consent statutes to include information on the abortion pill reversal process. In 2020, I co-sponsored LB 814, which prohibited dismemberment abortion. Both of these bills passed. This year, I was a co-sponsor of both LB 781, which would make abortions illegal if a fetal heartbeat is detectable, and LB 933, which would ban abortions in Nebraska if Roe vs. Wade is overturned this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, neither of these bills became law.
As a veteran who served for 40 years and by the grace of God avoided serious injury, I wanted to help those who were less fortunate. In 2020, I sponsored legislation to provide disabled veterans with free lifetime state park permits. I co-sponsored legislation that initially excluded 50% of military retirement benefits from state income tax and later offered a full exemption. Last year, I introduced legislation to prohibit an insurance company from adding a surcharge or increasing premiums for a member of the armed forces if they choose to discontinue their motor vehicle insurance coverage while they are deployed. This year, I introduced a bill to remove the 10-year limitation on access to state tuition assistance for members of the Nebraska National Guard.
In 2020, the Legislature passed LB 1107 which provided for a statutory minimum of $275 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program (shown on your property tax statement). The legislation also created a new refundable income tax credit based on the amount of school district property taxes paid. The annual funding began at $125 million increasing to $375 million by tax year 2024. This year, with the passage of LB 873, the refundable income tax credit will increase to $548 million for the 2022 tax year and $560.7 million next year, significantly higher amounts than anticipated just a couple years ago. Furthermore, a new refundable income tax credit for property taxes paid to community colleges was also implemented, beginning with an appropriation of $50 million this year and increasing to $195 million by 2026. The Property Tax Credit program has since grown to $313 million for tax year 2022. Therefore, property tax relief from these two programs will soon top $1 billion annually.
It has been an honor to serve the constituents of Legislative District #40. I welcomed your input and listened to what you had to say, while holding firm to the values and beliefs that I ran on. I have met so many wonderful people in the district and have learned a great deal from you. The past four years have been an extremely valuable experience and for that I thank you.
I would also like to thank the local papers who publish this column during the legislative session. This helps keep the constituents of the 40th legislative district informed on what is happening in Lincoln.
Even though the legislative session has ended and I will be home in Creighton the majority of the time, I will still travel to my State Capitol office periodically and my staff will be there full-time. If you need assistance with state issues, I can be reached at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.
The Legislature passed nearly 100 bills during the first three days of this past week. We will now recess for several days, thereby giving the Legislature the opportunity to override any potential governor veto prior to adjourning sine die. Governor Ricketts has five days (not counting Sunday) to either sign or veto the bills. He also has the option to let the legislation become law without his signature.
Bills passed include all five bills that I introduced this year, in addition to one carry-over bill from last year. My bills dealt with the removal of the 10-year limitation on tuition assistance for members of the National Guard; common sense changes in the child labor law and the short-time compensation program; the authorization of funds in the College Savings plan to be used for loan payments; the creation of a Producer Learning Community dedicated to improve soil and water quality; the addition of a donor registration question on annual applications for hunting and fishing permits; and the requirement for a public hearing on the fate of the library, if a township form of government is discontinued.
Other bills passed include:
LB 1023 contains the STAR WARs recommendations, proposing an addition to the Weigand Marina at the Lewis and Clark State Recreational Area, a new event center and lodge at Niobrara State Park, and a new boat launch near the Village of Niobrara. This bill also includes funding for the initial steps of a possible lake between Omaha and Lincoln.
LB 1015 gives the Department of Natural Resources the authority to develop, construct, manage, and operate the Perkins County Canal Project, under the South Platte River Compact. The Governor recommended $500 million to fund this effort to secure Nebraska’s water supply from being diverted for projects initiated in Colorado. However, the Legislature only appropriated $53.5 million to contract with a firm to determine the cost of a canal, the conceivable amount of water that could be diverted, the timeline of permitting, and the potential drinking water benefits.
LB 809 authorizes the Department of Environment and Energy to enter into agreements to provide grants and loan forgiveness to certain public water systems and municipalities for drinking water and wastewater treatment projects. The agreements may cover up to 75% of the eligible project cost, up from the current 50% match.
LB 1024 allocates $335 million of federal ARPA funds, along with some cash reserve funds, and general funds for economic recovery and incentive measures, in an effort to rejuvenate areas in North and South Omaha, as well as other areas of the state with high concentrations of low-income residents.
Currently in Nebraska, to obtain a concealed carry permit, an applicant must undergo a criminal background check, pay a $100 fee, and complete an approved handgun training and safety course. Under LB 773, also referred to as constitutional carry, persons wanting to carry a concealed weapon would no longer need to get a permit. LB 773 was successfully pulled from the Judiciary Committee and overcame a filibuster during the first stage of debate. However, the cloture motion to end the filibuster at the second stage of debate fell two votes short, meaning the bill was pulled from the agenda and will not be debated again this year. Prior to the cloture vote, an amendment aimed at gaining the Omaha Police Department’s support for the bill by allowing them to retain their gun registration requirement failed on a 13-29 vote. Senator Tom Brewer, the primary sponsor of LB 773, vowed that he will be back next year with similar legislation.
The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn sine die on Wednesday, April 20th. During the last week of this legislative session, 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.
Many major issues were dealt with this past week in the Legislature, with the most significant being the passage of LB 873. When fully implemented, LB 873 will result in almost $900 million in annual tax relief. The legislation sets a floor for the refundable income tax credit of $548 million in 2022 and $560.7 million in 2023. This guarantees an approximate 25% refund for property taxes paid to school districts. Additionally, a similar income tax credit will be implemented for property taxes paid to community colleges. Funding for this portion will begin at $50 million this year and increase to $195 million in 2026. The funding for these refundable income tax credits will continue to grow annually by the statewide valuation growth, capped at 5%.
In addition to property tax relief, LB 873 also contains income tax relief. The top income tax rate for both individuals and corporations will be reduced to 5.84% and the tax on Social Security income will be completely phased out by tax year 2025. I was proud to be able to vote in support of such a significant tax relief package.
The Legislature overwhelmingly overrode all but one of the Governor’s line-item vetoes in the budget bills. The Legislature built into the budget a 15% increase in provider rates to help providers address severe worker shortage issues, partially due to a significant increase in pay for similar state positions. The Governor reduced funding from Developmental Disability, Medicaid, Medicaid Nursing Facility, Child Welfare, and Community Corrections Providers Rates to an approximate 5% increase. With the successful override motion, the full 15% increase in provider rates was restored.
Senators passed LB 1014 on a 40-4 vote. It specifies how the $1.04 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding will be spent. Included within LB 1014 is $7 million for the Cedar Knox Rural Water Project.
The Legislature debated LR 264, a constitutional amendment proposing to eliminate the property tax, the state income tax, the sales tax, and the inheritance tax. These taxes were to be replaced with a consumption tax on new goods and services, with no exemptions for items such as medical services, new homes, groceries, or repairs. The consumption tax rate was projected to be 8.97%, but this figure was disputed by a research tank, which predicted the tax rate would have to be approximately 20% to be revenue neutral.
LR 264 CA was debated for several hours before a vote was taken on the advancement of the proposed constitutional amendment. Twenty-five votes are necessary for advancement, but only nineteen senators supported the bill, with fourteen voting against it. Although I felt that any proposal which addresses property taxes warrants discussion, there were many unanswered questions associated with this tax proposal. There will be an interim study to explore best practices for the implementation of a consumption tax in Nebraska.
Another bill that failed to advance was LB 920, the prison reform bill. The legislation attempted to address our state’s severe overcrowding problem by enacting the recommendations identified through an analysis of our correctional system conducted by the Crime and Justice Institute. Several of the items were controversial and some senators viewed them as soft on crime. After eight hours of debate, a motion was made to invoke cloture so that a vote could be taken on the advancement of the bill. Thirty-three votes are necessary, but the motion only received 26 votes, meaning that the legislation will not be debated again.
The same fate occurred with LB 933, which would ban abortions in Nebraska if Roe vs. Wade is overturned this summer by the United States Supreme Court. However, the cloture motion for LB 933 was almost successful, falling only two votes short. I was a co-sponsor of LB 933 and was disappointed that it was filibustered and didn’t advance.
During these last few days as the Legislature votes for the final time on many bills, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. 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 Legislature gave final approval to the budget bills. During the 90-day legislative session, the biennial budget is crafted. During the 60-day session, adjustments are made. This was a much more demanding task this year due to the increased revenue projections and the influx of federal money due to the pandemic.
The budget was filibustered at every stage of debate, not because of what was in it, but due to the possible amendments that could have been added. The budget sets aside $175 million for a potential new state penitentiary but does not appropriate these funds. The chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Steve Lathrop, does not want the prison funding appropriated prior to discussion of prison reform. He stressed that even with the new prison, we’d be 1,300 beds short by the time it opened.
LB 920 contains the policy options identified through the Nebraska Criminal Justice Reinvestment Working Group process, resulting from the analysis conducted by the Crime and Justice Institute. The working group is made up of criminal justice leaders from across the state, led by the Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Steve Lathrop, Governor Pete Ricketts, and Chief Justice Mike Heavican. The goal was to identify evidence-based strategies and data-driven reforms. The report found that unlike other states, Nebraska’s incarceration rate has been increasing over the last decade. Nebraska’s imprisonment rate increased 17% since 2011, while the national imprisonment rate decreased over this period. The length of stay for incarcerated individuals has increased 38% in the last decade, driven largely by increasing sentence lengths and decreasing parole rates. Corrections expenditures have grown over 50% since 2011. Still, recidivism remains a concern, with 30% of those released in 2018 returning to prison custody.
LB 920 contains consensus items ranging from a streamlined parole process, to reducing “jamming out” releases, to expanding problem-solving courts. It also includes items that didn’t reach a consensus from the working group including the creation of a geriatric parole mechanism, modification of a drug possession penalty, discouragement of the use of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent felonies, and a means to ensure consecutive sentences are used consistently and appropriately across the state.
Last week, an attempt was made to combine LB 723, which sets a floor for the refundable income tax credit at approximately 25% of property taxes paid to school districts, LB 825, which phases out the tax on Social Security income, and LB 939, which reduces the top rate of the individual and corporate income tax to 5.84%. The combined amendment to LB 825, which also includes a new refundable income tax credit for a portion of property taxes paid to community colleges, fell one vote short of the necessary 33 votes required on a cloture motion. A successful cloture motion ends debate, allowing for the advancement of the bill. Usually, an unsuccessful cloture motion results in the measure being done for the year. However, with the importance of these tax cutting measures, another attempt was made to amend these items into an unrelated bill. This time, the comprehensive amendment to LB 873 was successful. LB 873 now offers significant property and income tax relief to Nebraskans and I am hopeful that it is soon passed by the Legislature.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to a proposed constitutional amendment pertaining to unfunded mandates. LR 263CA would prohibit the Legislature from imposing new program expenses on political subdivisions without full reimbursement by the state. If passed by the Legislature, the measure will be on the general election ballot this November.
Senators also gave first-round approval to LB 876, which amends the Nebraska Racetrack Gaming Act, reflecting that voters approved casino gambling at horseracing tracks through a 2020 ballot measure. There are currently 6 tracks in Nebraska – in Lincoln, Omaha, Grand Island, Hastings, Columbus, and South Sioux City. As amended by the committee amendments, those interested in building a new racetrack enclosure would have to wait for the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission to conduct a detailed study looking at the potential impact on the state. The Commission would approve or deny licenses based on its analysis. Proposals for new tracks have come from Bellevue, York, Norfolk, North Platte, Ogallala, Gering, and Kimball.
As we head into the last days of this legislative session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation before the Unicameral. 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.
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