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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 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.