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

**This post will be updated as more resources become available**

NEMA has established a hotline for Nebraskans impacted by flooding. Impacted persons with questions should call (402) 817-1551. Additional resources can be found by visiting www.nema.nebraska.gov

 

*******Updated information above 3/20/2019 at 12:15 PM*******

 

On March 12, Governor Pete Ricketts declared a state of emergency to deal with both the blizzard in the west and the flooding throughout the state. Since then, the counties of Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox & Rock have submitted emergency declarations to NEMA (Nebraska Emergency Management Agency), along with numerous cities. NEMA is working to expedite a major disaster declaration, waiting to do the damage assessments until later, as there is no doubt that Nebraska will qualify for a federal disaster funding through FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).
 
There are two types of assistance from FEMA – Public assistance and individual assistance.
 
PUBLIC ASSISTANCE:
 
Public assistance will help repair public infrastructure. The state and local governments will each pay 12.5% of the costs and FEMA pays 75%. Local leaders are to contact the county emergency manager who in turn contacts NEMA with their needs.
 
INDIVIDUAL ASSISTANCE:
 
Individual assistance helps businesses and individuals. It is usually difficult to qualify for individual assistance, but officials believe we will qualify when considering the number of homes that received major damage. A number of factors are considered, such as the insurance held and level of income. If Nebraska qualifies, a FEMA specialist will be of assistance. Information would be distributed and an announcement would be made in the counties that the programs are available.
 
As we wait to find out what assistance is available through FEMA, NEMA officials gave the following advice:
 
  • Document your losses – pictures, damage estimate, etc.
  • Contact your insurance agency – determine what you may be eligible for
  • Get legal paperwork together – mortgage, deeds, etc.
  • Document your income levels
 
 

*******Updated information above 3/18/2019 at 4:45 PM*******

The following services will serve as resources to contact if you have been affected during the recent flood:

NEBRASKA DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE:

Farmers and ranchers impacted by the flood and in need of hay, feed stuffs, fencing materials, volunteer help, equipment, etc. – call 1-800-831-0550. Persons wanting to donate any of the above can call the same number.

More disaster relief resources for farmers and ranchers available at: http://www.nda.nebraska.gov/resources/

LIVESTOCK:

Livestock Indemnity Program – a USDA-FSA disaster assistance program that helps producers recoup losses experienced by adverse weather events. Notify local FSA office of livestock losses within 30 days and document losses.
Emergency Livestock Assistance Program – another USDA-FSA disaster assistance program that covers some livestock losses that do not fall under LIP. It may financially assist with livestock feed losses, such as bales that are destroyed in the flood.

Emergency Conservation Program – can provide some cost-share assistance to rehabilitate farmland and pasture damaged by natural disasters and help restore fences. Contact your local FSA county office.

NEBRASKA FARM BUREAU:

Disaster Relief Fund – provides emergency aid to farmers, ranchers and rural communities affected by storms and flooding. Apply at: www.nefb.org/index.php…

Persons can donate to Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation or at: www.nefbfoundation.org/ways-to-give/disaster-relief-fund
Agriculture Disaster Exchange – where Farm Bureau members can seek and offer help at: www.nefb.org/ag-disaster-exchange

VETERANS:

Veterans affected by flooding – contact your County Veteran Service Officer to see if qualify for food, clothing and emergency housing

GENERAL ASSISTANCE:

For help with home clean-up, cutting trees, removing drywall, insulation, flooring, furniture and appliances or other physical labor-type jobs – call the Crisis Clean Up Hotline at (833) 566-2476 or (402) 556-2476 to get on a needs list

For assistance with food, shelter, clothing and personal goods – call 211

DONATIONS:

Monetary donations – Nebraska/SW Iowa Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund www.redcross.org/local/nebraska.html

Livestock feed (hay drive) – Curt Zimmerer, Verdigre (402) 841-2835

LB 243, the bill I introduced to create the Healthy Soils Task Force, was advanced from the Agriculture Committee on a 7-0 vote. No one testified against it at the public hearing earlier this session. I have designated it as my priority bill, assuring that it will be discussed by the full Legislature.

The purpose of LB 243 is to promote a more widespread use of healthy soil practices among farm and ranch landowners and operators in Nebraska in order to improve the health, yield and profitability of the soil, increase its carbon sequestration capacity, and improve water quality. The Director of the Department of Agriculture, as well as the chairs of the Agriculture and the Natural Resources Committees, would be members of the task force. The Governor would appoint the additional fourteen members, who are to have expertise in methods used for incorporating healthy soil stewardship practices into working agricultural operations and for optimizing environmental services provided through such practices.

The Healthy Soils Task Force is to develop a comprehensive healthy soils initiative, as well as develop an action plan to carry out the initiative. The task force shall examine how to provide farmers with research, education, technical assistance, and demonstration projects; examine options for financial incentives to improve soil health; and examine the contribution of livestock to soil health. Furthermore, the task force is to identify goals and timelines for improvement of soil health through voluntary partnerships among agricultural producers and other entities. Finally, the task force is to review the new farm bill and identify opportunities to leverage funding under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program of the USDA and other conservation programs. The action plan is to be completed by January 1, 2021, at which time the task force will terminate.

Water quality and how it relates to soil health are very important to me and many Nebraskans. Healthy soils will increase crop resilience to drought, reduce soil erosion, result in higher per-acre crop yields, increase water retention, enhance water quality, and increase carbon sequestration in the soils. Many healthy soil practices are widely known, such as deep soil testing, nutrient management, cover crops, no till and irrigation water management. The task force will study why there isn’t more widespread usage of such practices and develop methods aimed at increasing their use. The most recent Ag Census showed that approximately 2% of Nebraska cropland was growing a cover crop. No till was being used on about 50% of cropland acres.

I have made it abundantly clear that I am not interested in creating new mandates for the agricultural sector. My vision is to make more information available and accessible on the advantages of improved soil health by demonstrating the economic and environmental benefits of healthy soil management practices. I believe that LB 243 will result in a win for the producer, a win for the consumer, and a win for the environment.

The Legislature passed LB 284 this past week, a bill introduced by Senator John McCollister of Omaha. This bill requires remote sellers, those without a physical presence in the state, to collect and remit sales tax on sales into the state. Although this tax has always been owed by the purchaser, if not collected by the seller, few persons actually paid it. Due to an outdated Supreme Court ruling, states could not require remote sellers to collect the sales tax, placing an unfair burden on local stores, selling similar products. South Dakota passed a law requiring remote sellers to collect sales tax, with the intention of taking it to the Supreme Court, in an effort to overturn the previous ruling, which occurred last summer. In order to not place a hardship on small business, the collection duty is limited to those making sales of more than $100,000 or 200 individual transactions in a calendar year into our state. These are the same thresholds used in the South Dakota law. The legislation also requires the marketplace (i.e. Amazon, Ebay) to collect and remit for third party sellers. With voluntary compliance and the passage of LB 284, state revenue is increased annually by approximately $40-$50 million.

The recent flooding has created devastation throughout our legislative district. Cities and counties are experiencing tremendous hardship. I sympathize with those who are dealing with destruction of personal and public property. Senators were briefed by the Nebraska National Guard Adjutant General, Daryl Bohac, who serves as the director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, and by the assistant director, Bryan Tuma. NEMA is ready to assist. They ask that requests come through the county emergency managers. I have contacted the emergency managers from the counties in our legislative district and have tried to touch base with many county sheriffs and city administrators, offering my assistance. Another means of assistance is 2-1-1, which can help connect callers with needed health and human services. With the widespread damage, restoration will be a lengthy process.

As senators finish up the committee hearing process and continue to select bills for prioritization, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at tgragert@leg.ne.gov or (402) 471-2801. My mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.

The Revenue Committee heard testimony this past week on LB 720, which would adopt the ImagiNE Nebraska Act. LB 720 proposes to rewrite Nebraska’s business incentive program. The legislation encourages the creation of higher paying jobs, simplifies the process, improves the transparency and accountability of the program, and reduces the number of years in which credits can be redeemed.

The primary current business incentive program, the Nebraska Advantage Act, is set to sunset next year. Senator Mark Kolterman of Seward, the sponsor of LB 720, stressed the on-going need for incentives to attract top employers while encouraging the growth of existing businesses. Although others questioned whether these incentives were the best use of our state’s tax dollars, Senator Kolterman emphasized that allowing our business incentives to end with no substitute in place would be disastrous for Nebraska.

Under LB 720, applicants would work with the Department of Economic Development, rather than the Department of Revenue, for the purpose of building and sustaining a relationship between businesses and the state. Various tax benefits would be available to taxpayers that meet the required levels of employment and investment. Twenty-two senators have signed on as co-sponsors of LB 720.

The Legislature spent approximately three hours discussing LB 627. Introduced by Lincoln Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, this bill would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Proponents argued that young people are bypassing our state for jobs because we are one of only twelve states that don’t offer this protection for LBGT individuals. Opponents countered that sexual orientation or gender identity should not be a protected class of individuals, that it could encourage lawsuits, and that it could restrict the religious beliefs of business owners. Under the speaker’s rules, the sponsor of LB 627 will have to prove that she has thirty-three votes in order for the bill to be placed on the agenda again, which appears unlikely.

My first bill was passed by the Legislature this past week. LB 406 will assist the State Treasurer’s Office in more efficiently administering the Unclaimed Property Program.

The Corps of Discovery Welcome Center closed last month. It is located on Highway 81 in Nebraska, just across the border from Yankton. I initiated a meeting with representatives of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, the Tourism Commission, and economic development organizations in Northeast Nebraska. The purpose of the meeting was to see if we can find a way to keep this building open and staffed, as it plays a very important role in promoting Nebraska, as tourists cross the river into Nebraska.

The Unicameral Update is a daily source of information, covering legislative activity. It can be found on the homepage of the Legislature’s website at nebraskalegislature.gov. Furthermore, a print publication of the weekly Update contains the same articles that appear online. Interested persons can subscribe to the free publication by calling (402) 471-2788 or by subscribing online.

I wanted to make sure that high school students with an interest in law, government, leadership or public speaking are aware of the 2019 Unicameral Youth Legislature, held June 9-12. It is a 4-day legislative simulation conducted at the State Capitol. Students will act as senators and sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, and debate legislation. Registrants are encouraged to apply for a Speaker Greg Adams Civic Scholarship award, which covers the full cost of admission. Registration forms can be obtained at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.

Although I am in Lincoln during the week, I try to attend functions in my legislative district when I am back home on the weekends. I will be in Wakefield on Saturday, March 23, for a Town Hall meeting at the Legion Hall from 1-3 p.m. If you would like to discuss legislation or another issue and I don’t see you in the district, please contact my legislative office 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.

The first cloture vote was taken this past week on LB 399, a bill that updates the civic education standards in our K-12 schools. Cloture is a method used to stop a filibuster. After six hours of debate, a motion can be made to invoke cloture. If thirty-three senators vote in support of the cloture motion, it immediately shuts off debate, allowing for a vote on the pending motion or amendment and then on the advancement of the bill. The cloture vote was successful and LB 399 advanced to the second stage of debate, where another filibuster is likely.

Most of the initial opposition to LB 399 focused on the requirement for students to take the civics portion of the naturalization test used by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to measure student mastery of the social studies standards in 8th and 11th grade. The Education Committee amendments dealt with concern over the use of this test by giving districts three options to choose from: require the naturalization test; require the student to attend a governmental meeting followed by a project or a paper; or require the student to complete a project or paper and a class presentation about a person or event commemorated by one of the holidays listed in the bill, such as George Washington’s birthday or Veterans Day. Just a couple senators continued to oppose the bill and extended the debate, requiring the cloture motion.

The first priority bill was debated by the Legislature this past week. Every senator is allowed to designate one bill as their priority bill. Senator Tom Brewer of Gordon selected LB 155 as his priority bill. LB 155 removed from statute the statement that the use of eminent domain by public power for transmission for privately developed renewable energy generation facilities is a public use. The purpose behind LB 155 was to prevent public power districts from using eminent domain for the benefit of private wind companies. NPPD is planning to construct a 345,000-volt transmission line (R-Project) in Northern Nebraska, to increase the reliability of the transmission system. Many Sandhills residents do not want wind projects crossing their property and feeding into this line. Opponents of LB 155 feared it would send a “closed for business” message to the renewable energy industry and cited the economic benefits from wind projects. Some were concerned that this could prevent public power from using eminent domain for transmission to any such project.

After several hours of debate, LB 155 failed to receive the necessary twenty-five votes for advancement, falling two votes short. I supported the bill because I believe that eminent domain should be used very infrequently and that it should only be used for a public good.

Senators began discussing property tax relief this past week. LB 183, introduced by Senator Tom Briese of Albion, would reduce the assessed value of agricultural land solely for the purpose of educational bonds. As amended, LB 183 would lower the value of agricultural land from 75% to 50% of actual value for this purpose. In some areas, rural landowners pay a disproportionate share in the funding of K-12 schools, but are outnumbered by non-rural residents when voting on school bond issues. The intent of LB 183 is to help equalize the tax burden for new school buildings and renovations. LB 183 was given initial approval on a 29-1 vote, but will now wait to see what package the Revenue Committee advances on property tax relief, to determine how it fits in.

The Appropriations Committee presented their preliminary report this past week to the Legislature. It is quite similar to the Governor’s recommendation, containing approximately $24 million more than the Governor’s budget, for a two-year budget of $9.4 billion. When presenting the preliminary report, the Appropriations Committee chairman warned that further cuts may be necessary after the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board meets. The following day, the forecasting board lowered projections for the current fiscal year and the next two years by approximately $110 million. The forecasting board will meet again in April and the projected revenue at that time will be used in the final biennial budget.

One of the meetings I attended this past week presented information on 2-1-1. This is an information and referral system linking Nebraska residents to health and human services, community and disaster response, and government programs. This program is free and serves the entire state.

As the Legislature continues with debate in the morning and public hearings in the afternoon, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts on the issues before us. 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.

As a member of the Natural Resources Committee, we heard testimony on LB 46 this past week. LB 46, introduced by Omaha Senator Ernie Chambers, proposes to eliminate the mountain lion hunting season. He has introduced similar legislation since the Legislature passed LB 928 in 2012 to allow the Game and Parks Commission to issue mountain lion hunting permits. This bill was passed while Senator Chambers was term-limited out of the Legislature from 2009 through 2012. Previously, state law allowed a farmer to kill a mountain lion on their property if it was threatening people or livestock or anyone if they were defending themselves or another person.

After the passage of LB 928, the Game and Parks Commission divided the state into four management units. Sufficient data must be collected on the mountain lion population in a unit before a hunting season can be held. A season was held in 2014 and again this year.

Senator Chambers referred to mountain lions as majestic, regal animals. He testified that there has never been a confirmed attack against a human being and only a few documented instances against livestock in Nebraska. Several years ago, Senator Chambers gained passage of legislation authorizing mountain lion conservation license plates, which has become the most popular specialty plate design.

No one testified in support of LB 46, but the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission testified in opposition. A furbearer and carnivore program manager with the commission testified that they strive to maintain a balance between what the wildlife population and habitat will support and what the people of Nebraska will accept. Due to the substantial increase in the Pine Ridge area to fifty-nine cats, which has almost doubled since 2015, it was decided to hold a season again this year. The committee has taken no further action on LB 46.

LB 254 received first-round approval this past week. The legislation, introduced by Omaha Senator John McCollister, creates the Fair Chance Hiring Act to require certain prospective employers to evaluate a job applicant’s qualifications without an initial inquiry about the applicant’s history of criminal law violations. This proposal is known as “ban the box” legislation. LB 254 attempts to give those with a criminal record a better chance of finding a good job, rather than being instantly rejected for their record. Statistics show that the best indicator of whether a former inmate will reoffend is whether that person can get a job.

At the public hearing, representatives of various business groups testified against the bill. They spoke of the need to know about convictions to determine if someone is appropriate for the job. They said the state should not force businesses to go through the cost of considering applications for people with disqualifying convictions. To address their concerns, a compromise amendment was offered to allow employers to continue asking job applicants about their criminal history on the initial application, but those who do would have to give applicants a chance to explain their situation and their rehabilitation progress.

LB 424, introduced by Grand Island Senator Dan Quick, would expand the Nebraska Municipal Land Bank Act to allow any municipality to create or join an existing land bank. Currently only municipalities in Douglas or Sarpy County are so authorized. Land banks are one of the tools that can be utilized by municipalities to facilitate the return of vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties to a productive use.

Proponents of LB 424 testified that a land bank would help add affordable housing and would reduce the time law enforcement spends patrolling abandoned buildings. They stated that Omaha has used this tool effectively and they hope other cities will be afforded the same restorative neighborhood revitalizing tools. Opponents cautioned that the legislation would allow a land bank to acquire properties instead of private developers, who would have difficulty competing with the tax breaks and other benefits. Furthermore it would reduce property taxes collected by a municipality. LB 424 has twenty-five co-sponsors. Similar legislation was passed by the Legislature last year, but vetoed by the Governor after the Legislature adjourned.

We have reached the limit for chaplains giving the morning prayer before the Legislature. If any member of the clergy would still like to participate, please keep it in mind for next year’s session.

Senators have reached the one-third mark in this year’s 90-day session. As we continue with the next two-thirds, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation before us. I can be reached at tgragert@leg.ne.gov . My address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509 and my telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2801.

Every day before the Legislature convenes, a state senator leads the Pledge of Allegiance in the legislative chamber. I have already volunteered to lead the pledge on January 16 and will sign up again. I think it is important to set this precedence before the senators get to work each day, to instill a sense of patriotism amongst senators and to carry on a very important American tradition.

The Education Committee and the Revenue Committee held hearings this past week on several bills that were introduced to provide property tax relief and alter the school finance system to reduce the burden on property taxpayers, especially rural landowners, in supporting our K-12 schools.

LB 497, introduced by Henderson Senator Curt Friesen, was heard before the Revenue Committee. It is supported by the Nebraska Agriculture Leaders Working Group, made up of the Nebraska Cattleman, Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Pork Producers Association, Nebraska Soybean Association, Nebraska State Dairy Association and the Nebraska Wheat Growers Association. This legislation seeks to phase-in over a three-year period a minimum state aid guarantee for school districts to equal 50% of basic funding as determined by the state aid formula. Furthermore, for school taxation purposes only, a reduction in the value of agricultural land from 75% to 40% would be phased-in over the next three years. The local effort rate in the state aid formula would be lowered to $0.9750 and an annual maximum property tax authority would be set for each school district, to help ensure that the additional state aid is used to lower the property tax request.

To fund the property tax relief, LB 497 proposes to repeal the $10,000 personal property exemption, repeal certain sales tax exemptions (for such things as real property and motor vehicle maintenance, dry cleaning, pet services, food, personal care, travel agencies and zoo admissions), increase the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack and increase the excise tax on alcohol. Since the state budget would not be impacted by the additional aid until the 2020/2021 fiscal year, the new revenue would allow for a transfer of $150 million to build up the Cash Reserve Fund.

LB 314 was introduced by Albion Senator Tom Briese and also heard before the Revenue Committee. This legislation recognizes that Nebraska relies too heavily on property taxes to fund K-12 education. LB 314 proposes to increase the Property Tax Credit Program by $468 million. Currently, $224 million is appropriated annually for the tax credit program which is reflected on property tax statements. LB 314 would also increase the reimbursement rate for special education, restore the allocated income tax returned to school districts to 20%, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit from 10% to 15%. Finally, the legislation calls for a school finance study.

To fund the proposals in LB 314, several sales tax exemptions would be eliminated. The exemptions are similar to those in LB 497, except LB 314 would tax candy, soft drinks and water, instead of all groceries. As introduced, it also would raise the sales tax by ½ cent, add a surcharge on high income earners, end the tangible personal property tax exemption, eliminate state income tax itemized deductions (except medical), increase cigarette taxes and increase the excise tax on alcohol.

Senator Briese offered an amendment at the hearing to strike the increase in the excise taxes on alcohol, replacing it with a 3% increase on sales tax on alcohol and expanding the tax increase on cigarettes to all tobacco products. Local craft breweries were concerned that the 345% increase in the excise tax would severely curtail their business and the amendment aims to resolve the cash flow issue.

At this time, it is hard to predict which bill or bills will advance from the Revenue and Education committees and what amendments will be offered. I signed on as a co-sponsor of LB 497 to show that I am supportive of property tax relief. However, I am open to studying any proposal advanced to the floor of the Legislature proposing to reduce property taxes. I am supportive of eliminating certain sales tax exemptions, as they give specific people a break on taxes, but result in a higher rate that everyone must pay. It is bound to be challenging discussion.

I am interested in your thoughts on property tax relief. 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 at the Capitol is (402) 471-2801.

Public hearings are in full swing. The Judiciary Committee went until after 9 p.m. one night this past week hearing bills regarding issues related to conversion therapy and discrimination based upon sexual orientation. One afternoon, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard testimony on ten bills related to license plates, of which six would add new options for specialty plates. The executive board met over the lunch hour to hear testimony on proposed constitutional amendments to increase legislators’ salaries and to lower the age requirement for persons running for the Legislature. The Governor testified before the Revenue Committee in support of his proposal to exempt 50% of military retirement benefits from the state income tax.

The Natural Resources Committee, on which I serve, heard testimony for more than three hours on one bill dealing with eminent domain. Senator Tom Brewer of Gordon introduced LB 155 to remove the statute stating that public power building transmission to a renewable energy project is a public use. In effect, this would remove the ability of public power to use eminent domain to provide transmission lines and related facilities for a privately developed renewable energy generation facility.  The legislation amends a law passed in 2010 that first opened the state to privately developed renewable energy projects.

Since Nebraska is a public power state and thus could not take advantage of the federal production tax credits that subsidize wind energy projects, the Legislature authorized private companies to build wind energy facilities. Private companies could utilize the federal tax credits, thereby making the project more financially feasible. As the cost of wind development projects have decreased, the federal production tax credits are set to be phased out entirely by 2024.

Senator Brewer has been fighting wind and transmission projects because he represents the Sandhills region. He is concerned with the route of the R-Project, a transmission line from NPPD’s Gerald Gentlemen Station near Sutherland to an existing substation east of Thedford. From there the transmission line would proceed east and connect to a second substation in Holt County. I believe the transmission line is necessary to enhance reliability and relieve congestion. Senator Brewer is concerned that private developers will use this line for wind energy facilities. I agree that eminent domain shouldn’t be used to benefit private companies. It should only be used by our public utilities on projects that are for the public good.

LB 66 was discussed on the floor of the Legislature but failed to receive first-round approval with a vote of 19-23. Twenty-five votes are necessary for advancement. LB 66 would have required cities to incorporate early childhood development in their comprehensive development plans. Discussion focused on where the daycare facilities are located within the city, whether bus lines go near them, etc. These issues may pertain to larger cities, but are not applicable to smaller towns. Although I realize the importance of addressing early childhood education in our communities, I believe that this discussion is better suited for local school boards than city government.

LB 306, introduced by Bellevue Senator Sue Crawford, would create a new category of good cause for voluntarily leaving employment for purposes of unemployment benefits. The new category would be to care for a family member with a serious health condition. The benefits would not be charged against a specific employer’s account. Committee amendments clarify that such individual must make all reasonable efforts to preserve employment before voluntarily leaving their job. LB 306 received first-round approval on a vote of 29-11.

In addition to debate by the full Legislature in the morning and committee hearings in the afternoon, I try to attend as many events as I can. I enjoy the opportunity to visit with constituents that attend these events. If you are ever at the State Capitol, make sure to contact me. 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, Nebraska 68509.

This past week, public hearings were held on both of the bills that I introduced: LB 243 and LB 406. LB 243, which proposes to create the Healthy Soils Task Force, was heard before the Agriculture Committee. Nineteen people testified in support of my bill, no one opposed it, and representatives from the Nebraska Corn Growers Association and the Natural Resources Conservation Service spoke in a neutral capacity. Supporters included representatives from Natural Resources Districts and the Nebraska Pork Producers, the former assistant Vice Chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources (IANR) at the University of Nebraska, and Jeffrey Steffen from Crofton.  

The public hearing for LB 406, which I introduced at the request of the Unclaimed Property division within the State Treasurer’s office, was heard before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. A representative of several insurance companies and a utility company expressed concern with one provision of the bill, which proposed to remove the ability to report properties in the aggregate for items less than $25, thereby requiring the owner’s name and address on all items reported. This portion was meant to ensure that property owners are getting all the money due to them when they file a claim. However, testifiers were concerned that it would increase their client’s workload and costs. Consequently, this portion of the bill will be removed and the issue studied over the interim.

The Revenue Committee heard testimony on three bills (LB 18, LB 284, and LB 291) this past week that were introduced as a result of the South Dakota v. Wayfair case. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer that states could require remote sellers (those without a physical presence in the state) to collect sales tax. Current Nebraska statutes don’t explicitly mandate collection. The three proposals followed the South Dakota law which required collection if the online retailers had $100,000 worth of sales or at least 200 transactions. Furthermore, LB 284 and LB 291 both require online marketplaces (such as etsy & eBay) to collect and remit for smaller vendors for whom they facilitate sales. Twelve states have passed similar marketplace facilitator provisions, although the issue was not part of the Supreme Court’s decision. LB 18 proposes that revenue from internet sales is used for property tax relief, a concept the governor supports. However, the State Tax Commissioner indicated there is not a clear way to identify which tax revenue is attributable to remote sellers. The Tax Commissioner emphasized that the committee can count on no new revenue from these proposals, but the fiscal office disagreed, projecting approximately $18 million in added tax revenue over the biennium due to the mandate on marketplace platforms.

LB 373, proposed by Senator Tom Brewer of Gordon, would require counties that allow the construction of new wind turbines to have zoning regulations, which address set-backs, noise, and decommissioning. For two years, while developing the guidelines, wind turbines would need to be at least 3 miles from a residence. The bill also establishes a civil cause of action for citizens who feel a wind energy facility has diminished their property value. Proponents of the legislation, primarily landowners that live nearby to wind turbines, testified that they don’t have a voice in the process. They mentioned concern with noise and shadows created by the turbines. Opponents, who were many, warned that the legislation would stifle rural economic development and interfere with local control. They cited the increased jobs the projects bring to an area, the increased tax revenue, and the added income for landowners.

Every morning when the Legislature convenes in session, the day begins with a prayer. Chaplains from across the state are given the opportunity to deliver the prayer to state senators on the floor of the Norris Legislative Chamber in the State Capitol. Since I am new to the office this year, I was not able to get letters out before the legislative session began, but will be sending them in the near future to those whose information is available. In the meantime, if any members of the clergy are interested in this, please contact Alex in my office at (402) 471-2801, and he will work with the Clerk of the Legislature’s staff to schedule a day for you to visit the Capitol and deliver the morning prayer. My address is P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509 and my email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov.

During the 10-day period allowed for bill introduction, senators introduced 739 bills, as well as 7 constitutional amendments. Two years ago, during the last 90-day legislative session, 667 bills were introduced. In both 2013 and 2015, 655 bills were introduced during the first 10 days. The Judiciary Committee typically has the heaviest workload and with the increased number of bills introduced this year, the committee will have difficulty scheduling public hearings for more than 120 bills by the end of March. There has been some discussion of changing the Judiciary Committee from a 3-day committee to one that meets every day, as the Appropriations Committee does.

I introduced two bills. My primary goal this year is to listen and learn. I did sign on as a co-sponsor to a number of bills.

The first bill I introduced is LB 243. It proposes to create the Healthy Soils Task Force. The Task Force would consist of the Director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, two representatives from Natural Resources Districts, two academic experts, five representatives from production agriculture, two from agribusiness and one from an environmental organization. The chairs of the Legislature’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committees would also serve on the task force.

Under LB 243, the task force would develop a comprehensive healthy soils initiative. They are to develop a comprehensive action plan using specified standards as measures to assess improved soil health. With the assistance from outside resources, the task force would examine how to provide farmers with research, education, technical assistance, and demonstration projects; examine options for financial incentives to improve soil health; and examine the contribution of livestock to soil health.

I worked with several scholars with experience in agriculture and natural resources on this legislation. I decided to introduce it because soil health and water quality are important to me, having worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service for more than 30 years, and to all Nebraskans, as improving the health of Nebraska’s soil is the most effective way for agricultural producers to increase crop and forage productivity and profitability while also protecting the environment.  

The other bill that I introduced was on behalf of the Unclaimed Property division of the Nebraska State Treasurer’s office. LB 406 updates and modernizes current statute, making the process more efficient.

The State Treasurer’s office publishes an annual unclaimed property report in Nebraska newspapers annually. Last year, the report included almost 31,000 names from properties received in 2017. However, since this is published only once a year, property owners need to be aware that they can check online at any time for unclaimed property at treasurer.nebraska.gov. Currently, there is $170 million in Nebraska unclaimed property and 350,000 names of people, businesses and organizations in the treasurer’s database. More than $14 million was paid out in 2018.

Some of the bills that I co-sponsored include:

  • LB 209 requires that a physician, 24 hours prior to preforming an abortion, must tell the woman that it may be possible to reverse the effects of a medication abortion if she changes her mind.
  • LB 263 fixes a glitch relating to the taxation of military retirement benefits, allowing National Guard and reserve members to utilize the 40% income tax exclusion for 7 years option.
  • LB 153 would replace the current income tax exemption for military retirees with one that excludes 50% of military retirement benefits from the state income tax.  
  • LB 291 requires remote sellers to collect sales tax. It would establish a threshold for economic nexus of $100,000 in sales or 200 sales transactions, which is the same threshold used in the South Dakota law, upheld by the Supreme Court. It would also require an online marketplace (i.e. Amazon, eBay) to collect and remit the sales tax for third party sellers.
  • LB 696 expands the military honor license plates, allowing for specific Army National Guard and Air National Guard plates.

This past week, I had the pleasure of visiting my hometown school. I presented a legislative resolution to the Creighton football team, recognizing the Bulldogs for an impressive season that concluded with the Class D1 championship.

Again I urge you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on issues before the Legislature. 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.

On Tuesday of this past week, Governor Pete Ricketts presented his State of the State Address to the Legislature, which outlines his budget recommendations for the next biennium. On Thursday, Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican presented the State of the Judiciary. He spoke about justice reinvestment, the role the courts play in that process, and the initiatives that have been implemented to increase access to our courts.

Although the state is strong and growing, Governor Ricketts acknowledged that our number one industry, agriculture, is struggling with low commodity prices. He relayed that when talking to Nebraskans, property tax relief is their number one priority. The governor’s proposal contains $51 million each year in direct property tax relief, accomplished by increasing the annual appropriation to the Property Tax Credit Fund to $275 million. Furthermore, at the request of the governor, Senator Brett Lindstrom introduced Legislative Bill (LB) 303, which creates a floor for the Property Tax Credit Fund, prohibiting the amount of property tax relief from going lower than $275 million.

Another recommendation from the governor for property tax relief would require a constitutional amendment (CA), which first must receive approval from the Legislature and then from the majority of voters. The proposal, introduced by Revenue Committee chair Senator Lou Ann Linehan, establishes a 3% cap on property taxes levied by local governments, such as schools, cities, and counties. The two exceptions would be for bond payments or if residents in a political subdivision voted for an increase at a special election.

Other senators are introducing alternative proposals for property tax relief. I will provide more information on this topic in a future newsletter, as tax relief will be one of the most important issues we deal with this year.

The governor’s budget proposal would allow retired military veterans to exclude 50% of their military retirement benefits from state income taxes. He noted that five of our surrounding six states do not tax veterans’ retirement benefits and wants to make Nebraska a more attractive state for veterans. Senator Tom Brewer introduced LB 153, the tax relief measure for veterans, at the request of the governor. I signed on as a co-sponsor of the legislation.

K-12 schools are fully funded under the Governor’s proposal. Higher education received increases to fully fund salary and health insurance. The governor also proposed the creation of a Nebraska Talent Scholarship Program. The $4,000 scholarships would assist the university, state colleges and community colleges attract more students in targeted programs, ranging from engineering to health care. Funding for approximately 2,000 scholarships is included in his budget recommendations.

The governor has proposed a capital construction project for two new high security housing units. This would increase capacity by up to 384 beds at the Lincoln Corrections Center and help ease the overcrowding in our prison system.

Even with the new initiatives, the budget proposed by the governor limits spending growth to 3.1 percent. A significant portion of the new spending is attributable to fully funding the school state aid formula and for implementing Medicaid expansion. The governor’s recommendations contain no tax increases.

Although the Legislature’s Planning Committee recommended increasing the state’s cash reserve to $700 – $800 million, the governor’s proposal reflects a balance of $348 million, after transferring approximately $50 million for the Capitol Construction project at the Department of Corrections.

Because there is some talk of eliminating or reforming business tax incentives, the governor informed senators of his thoughts on this subject. He emphasized that incentives are an important tool for attracting new investments and jobs, but hinted that he would support efforts to make incentives simpler, more transparent and accountable, and with a greater focus on higher paying jobs.

As the public hearing process gets underway, I encourage you to inform me of your thoughts on the legislation that has been introduced. 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 at the Capitol 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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