NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

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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

The One Hundred Seventh Legislature, First Session, began on Wednesday, January 6th under different circumstances from other years. Due to the pandemic, families of the newly-elected and re-elected senators were not allowed to sit on the floor, but had to be seated up in the balcony. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court administered the oath to the newly-elected and re-elected senators, who remained at their seats instead of gathering up front for the swearing-in ceremony. There were eight new senators taking their oath, of which three had previously served in the Legislature but were affected by term limits, requiring them to sit out for at least four years before running again.

There were no legislative staff or media sitting at the sides of the chamber, as media must now report from the balcony and legislative staff are only allowed on the floor when their senator’s bill is being discussed. Plexiglas dividers were installed to separate the desks of senators and masks are encouraged.

One of the biggest concerns is how to conduct the public hearing process. In Nebraska, every bill that is introduced is guaranteed a public hearing, whereby the public can testify in support of, in opposition to, or in a neutral capacity. Some of these hearings can attract a large number of testifiers, making compliance with social distancing requirements difficult. Information on how the Legislature will proceed with the public hearing process will be available soon.

On the first day of the legislative session, senators were elected to leadership positions. Lincoln Senator Mike Hilgers ran unopposed for Speaker of the Legislature. Senator Dan Hughes of Venango, filled Senator Hilgers’ previous position of chair of the Executive Board, also running unopposed.  Omaha Senator Tony Vargas retained the vice-chair position of the Executive Board over Senator Julie Slama of Peru.

Senator Mike Groene of North Platte lost his position as chair of the Education Committee to Fremont Senator Lynne Walz and Lincoln Senator Matt Hansen lost his Business and Labor chair to Senator Ben Hansen of Blair. I ran for the chair of the Natural Resources Committee, but lost to Senator Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, who previously served as vice chairman. Gering Senator John Stinner retained his chairmanship of the powerful Appropriations Committee, as did Elkhorn Senator Lou Ann Linehan of the Revenue Committee. Omaha Senator Steve Lathrop will continue to chair the Judiciary Committee.

I will again serve on the Natural Resources Committee, which meets weekly on Wednesday through Friday, and was selected to serve on the Business and Labor Committee on Mondays and the Agriculture Committee on Tuesdays. Previously, I served on the Banking, Commerce and Insurance Committee on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Bills can be introduced during the first ten days of this 90-day session. Senators are currently in the process of finalizing changes to drafts in order to get them submitted by January 20th.

This session will mark my third year of serving the constituents of District #40, which covers Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox, and Rock counties. During this session, lawmakers will work on redistricting. Every ten years, after new census figures are available, the legislative boundaries must be redrawn to reflect population changes.

I want to again remind you of the Legislature’s website at NebraskaLegislature.gov. It contains a wealth of information. Viewers can read the text of bills, search state laws, find their senator, follow the progress of a certain bill, read the Unicameral Update and watch the Legislature live through video streaming.

During the legislative session, I will be in Lincoln during the week and back home in Creighton on the weekends. When I am not in the office, my staff will be able to assist you. Alex Brechbill is my administrative assistant and he answers the phone and is responsible for my schedule. Kim Davis, my legislative aide, works on legislation and constituent issues.

In order to effectively represent District #40, I encourage your input. My email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My telephone number at the State Capitol is (402) 471-2801.

Nebraska CARES Act funds are still available to livestock producers, charitable organizations, licensed health providers and centers of worship now through Nov. 13.

The grants, administered by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED) and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) with federal CARES Act funding, provide qualified livestock producers, charitable organizations, licensed health providers and centers of worship with working capital to pay for operational expenses and PPE, with the purpose of helping sustain them during the economic downturn or preparing them to bounce back.

There is no fee to apply for the grants, and, with a nearing deadline of Nov. 13, it is recommended to apply as soon as possible. Grant payments are expected to be released before Dec. 28, with award recipients notified by Nov. 25.

Applications are now live. For more information, go to: https://coronavirus.nebraska.gov/Programs&Grants?utm_source=Omaha%20World%20Herald&utm_medium=Sponsored%20Article&utm_campaign=Cares%20Grants&utm_content=SponsoredContent

For original source, go to: https://omaha.com/sponsored/cares-act-funds-available-for-more-nebraskans-deadline-to-apply-is-nov-13/article_614b345a-ee0a-55ee-967d-fab1d5067196.html

Governor Pete Ricketts announced new grant programs to continue growing Nebraska in the midst of the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic.  As part of the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the State of Nebraska received $1.084 billion in federal assistance to address coronavirus-related needs across the state. The Governor announced targeted grant programs to support businesses in industries particularly hard-hit due to the pandemic.  These include direct-payment grants for the following categories of business:

  • Restaurants and Bars – $20 million
  • Cosmetic, Massage, and Body Art Services – $22 million
  • Event Centers and Sports Arenas – $20 million
  • Hotels and Convention Centers – $34 million
  • Ethanol Producers – $15 million
  • Zoos – $6.05 million
  • Movie Theaters – $3.2 million

Grant applications open October 21, 2020 and will close November 13, 2020.  To apply, visit coronavirus.nebraska.gov/Programs&Grants as of October 21st.  The grants will be issued by December 30, 2020.

A toll-free number will be released on the website (below) once the application period opens. The toll-free number will get you in contact with representatives who will be available to address your questions.

The Governor gave a status update on the funds utilized so far by the State’s existing grant programs.  He then announced that the State will award a second round of grants within the following programs:

  • Community CARES Grant Program
    • 5 million of additional funds will be awarded to assist non-profits and care providers as they respond to needs arising from the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Business and Livestock Producer Stabilization Grant Program
    • On a first come, first served basis, $25 million will go to fund a new round of grants to eligible businesses and ag producers who have not yet received assistance.

Additionally, the State is allocating up to $40 million to support hospital capacity across Nebraska.  These funds will be provided to General Acute Care Hospitals as they demonstrate the need and ability to increase capacity to care for COVID-19 patients.

The State is also earmarking an additional $100 million to reimburse State agencies for eligible coronavirus expenses.  Expanded financial support will also be available to local governments to cover payroll costs from March 1st through May 31st for workers on the frontline of coronavirus response such as dispatchers, corrections teammates, and public health staff.

Information on the grant programs can be found at: https://coronavirus.nebraska.gov/Programs&Grants.

Read the full “State of Nebraska: Coronavirus Relief Fund Programs” presentation here: https://files.constantcontact.com/31198439401/cb0e5ec5-9f28-4144-9c27-031f4796e82c.pdfSo

 

The Legislature has completed its work for this 60-day legislative session which took an extended break from the middle of March until July 20, due to COVID-19. Although what was accomplished earlier this session seems like it was a long time ago, I was pleased with the work done during the last 17 days of the session. On its final day, the Legislature passed LB 1107, providing for property tax relief, a revamped business tax incentive program, and a pledge to provide matching funds for a major project at UNMC, if primarily funded by the federal government.

Although I would have rather altered our school finance formula to require more state funding for our schools, I was pleased with the compromise amendment in LB 1107. School districts, both large and small, united to oppose the school finance changes, as they feared loss of future funding, as well as the loss of local control. Primarily due to their opposition, the measure did not have sufficient votes to pass.

The compromise reached in LB 1107 provides for a statutory minimum of $275 million annually for the Property Tax Credit Fund, which is shown on property tax statements. It also creates a new refundable income tax credit based on the amount of school district property taxes paid. The annual funding for the income tax credit will increase from $125 million the first year to $375 million by the fifth year. Increases are based on revenue growth, with safeguards to protect our budget. By the fifth year, $650 million will be appropriated annually for property tax relief from these two programs. Furthermore, the $375 million in funding for the income tax credit will increase annually based on the percentage change in overall statewide valuations. By 2025, the income tax credit is estimated to result in an approximate 15% reduction in school taxes paid, which is in addition to the amount of relief shown on your property tax statement.

LB 814, which prohibits dismemberment abortion, was also passed by the Legislature on the final day. I signed on as a co-sponsor of this bill. Debate earlier in the week centered on the constitutionality of the measure. Senator Ernie Chambers noted that a previous Supreme Court ruling said that any interference with the dilation and evacuation procedure (D&E) would place an undue burden on a woman’s right to have an abortion. He requested an attorney general’s opinion, which ruled that the measure was likely constitutional because it did not impose a substantial obstacle on access to abortion in Nebraska.

Two other bills that I co-sponsored, LB 153 and LB 424, were passed by the Legislature this past week. LB 153 will exempt 50% of military retirement from the Nebraska income tax. It will take effect in 2022.  LB 424 will allow Municipal Land Banks in smaller cities, as well as cities in Douglas and Sarpy counties. I believe it will provide another tool to help rural communities rehabilitate blighted properties.

Six senators are affected by term-limits this year. They include Senators Jim Scheer, Ernie Chambers, Kate Bolz, Sue Crawford, Sara Howard and Rick Kolowski. It was an honor having served with them. Norfolk Senator Scheer has served as the Speaker of the Legislature for the past four years. Omaha Senator Chambers has been term-limited out of office for the second time. At age 83, he has served 46 years in the Legislature. Senators who are term-limited must sit out for four years before they are eligible to run again.

I will be back in Creighton now that the Legislature has adjourned. The Legislature is set to convene on January 6, 2021. During the interim, I will try to get around the district as much as possible. I will still travel to Lincoln periodically for meetings and office work. If I’m not in Lincoln, my staff will be able to assist you. My contact information is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov and my office telephone number is (402) 471-2801.

 

Emotions ran high again this week, as legislators tried to complete their priorities during the last few days of this legislative session. As I had hoped, the Revenue Committee advanced a package that joined property tax relief, business tax incentives, and a major project at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. This proposal was contained in a compromise amendment to LB 1107, a placeholder bill introduced by the Speaker of the Legislature, Senator Jim Scheer of Norfolk.

The current Property Tax Credit Fund, reflected on your property tax statement, is funded at $275 million per year. Under the compromise amendment, this amount of funding would become a statutory minimum.  Furthermore, if the initiative petition to legalize casino gambling at horseracing tracks is approved by voters, seventy percent of the taxes collected on the casino revenue would go into the Property Tax Credit Fund, which would be in addition to the $275 million.

The compromise amendment creates an additional method for property tax relief, by authorizing a refundable income tax credit based on the amount of school district property taxes paid during the prior year. This income tax credit could be claimed by individuals or on corporate returns. Beginning this year, $125 million would be appropriated for the income tax credit. This amount would be increased as revenue growth allows, until it reaches $375 million by the fifth year. If net receipts exceed the forecast by 3.5% but the cash reserve is below $500 million, then 50% of the excess is added to the initial $125 million. If net receipts exceed the forecast by 3.5% and the cash reserve contains at least $500 million, then all of the excess is added to the $125 million to increase the amount of the income tax credit. Once the $375 million level is met, the funding would increase annually based on the percentage increase in the total assessed value of property statewide over the prior year. The amendment also repeals the personal property tax exemption.

The Nebraska Advantage Act, our current business tax incentives program, sunsets at the end of this year. The amendment contains an amended version of LB 720, which adopts the ImagiNE Nebraska Act. As part of the compromise, caps are placed on the amount of funding available for incentives. During the first and second year of the program, the caps are set at $25 million, increasing to $100 million for the following two years and $150 million for the fifth year. After that, the cap will be equal to 3% of state net tax receipts. The language allowing the governor to approve additional applications over the cap was removed from the amendment.

Prior to COVID-19, the federal government decided to undertake a major investment to strengthen our country’s capability to deal with large scale emergencies. The compromise amendment contains the intent of LB 1084, to pledge $300 million in matching funds to help secure a potential public-private hospital and training center at UNMC if $1.3 billion has been received from the federal government and through private donations. The project is referred to as the Nebraska Transformational Projects Act or NExT. No appropriation would occur before the Property Tax Refundable Income Tax Credit amount reaches $375 million. If Nebraska would be selected for this project, it would significantly expand UNMC, grow our economy, and strengthen partnerships with the federal government.

Senators approved the compromise amendment to LB 1107 and gave the bill first-round approval on a 43-2 vote. I realize it isn’t everything that people wanted and that the relief has been phased in over a longer period of time due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, but in five years, the Legislature will be appropriating $650 million annually towards property tax relief. I feel that this is a significant investment.

LB 814, which would prohibit dismemberment abortion, was also given first-round approval this past week on a 34-9 vote. The bill withstood six hours of debate and a cloture motion.

Legislative pages are selected each fall to work in the upcoming legislative session, beginning in January. Pages respond to requests from senators on the legislative floor. They also do such things as run errands, deliver messages, photocopy materials, assist the presiding officer, and staff committee hearings. Pages are paid and must be able to work 20 hours a week. Applications are available online at nebraskalegislature.gov/unicampages and are due by October 2. 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 and a good learning experience.

I have been hearing from many constituents expressing their opinions on legislation. I encourage this input, as it gives me a good perspective from the people of the 40th legislative district. 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, NE  68509.

 

The Legislature passed the budget bills this past week, containing their recommendations for adjustments to the biennial budget that was passed last year. Now it will be up to the Governor whether he signs the legislation or uses his line-item veto authority.

Earlier in the week, senators gave second-round approval to the budget bills after a lengthy debate. An amendment to LB 1008 was offered by Omaha Senator Machaela Cavanaugh to direct how the remaining funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities Act (CARES Act) is spent, rather than letting the governor allocate it. The amendment specified using relief funds to help struggling families through such means as housing assistance, food assistance, and childcare subsidies. The chair of the Appropriations Committee opposed the amendment, warning that the state may need it if the virus surges again. Furthermore, Congress is currently discussing whether to give states more flexibility with this funding, allowing it to be used to cover revenue shortfalls. The amendment fell short on a 16-28 vote.

Another amendment was offered by Henderson Senator Curt Friesen to strike several million dollars from the bill. The sponsor withdrew his amendment prior to a vote after a number of senators objected to it, stating that it would be harmful to such entities as service providers for the disabled, public health, and rural housing.

Last week, senators approved a motion to suspend the rules and permit the introduction of a bill beyond the first ten days of the legislative session. LB 1222, introduced by Omaha Senator Justin Wayne, proposes to adopt the Municipal Police Oversight Act. The public hearing for LB 1222 was held July 31st before the Urban Affairs Committee, which Senator Wayne chairs. This week, Omaha Senator Tony Vargas attempted to introduce a bill regarding additional safety measures at meatpacking plants in response to COVID-19, but the motion fell two votes short of the necessary thirty votes. Following the unsuccessful motion, Senator Vargas offered his proposal in the form of an amendment to LB 667, a bill he introduced that was being held in the Business and Labor Committee. The public hearing on his amendment will be held on August 6th. I was supportive of both motions, as I believe these issues warrant a public hearing.

LB 147, which would alter the Student Discipline Act, was debated for six hours this past week. The bill allowed teachers to use reasonable physical intervention to safely manage the behavior of a student and required schools to have a policy on removing and returning a child to class. North Platte Senator Mike Groene, the sponsor of the bill and the Education Committee chair, offered a motion for cloture to end the filibuster and vote on the advancement of the bill. His motion fell one vote short of the necessary thirty-three votes, meaning that the bill will not be on the agenda again this year.

Changes to the federal tax code contained in the CARES Act will lower state revenue collections by approximately $250 million over the next three years. This is because Nebraska’s income tax structure automatically adopts federal tax changes. (The $250 million reduction in revenue is in addition to any losses that may occur from reduced economic activity.) In response, Albion Senator Tom Briese offered an amendment to LB 1074, a Revenue Committee priority bill, to eliminate this automatic conformity, proposing to decouple Nebraska’s tax code as it relates to the CARES Act.

For example, prior to the CARES Act, federal tax code limited the amount of non-business income that could be offset by excess business losses. This limitation was $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for married couples. The CARES Act would remove this limitation and would account for approximately $190 million of the projected $250 million loss in revenue to our state.

Since this amendment was a new subject matter, a public hearing was held on July 27th before the Revenue Committee. LB 1074 has yet to appear on the agenda, so no action has been taken on this amendment.

As the Legislature enters the last few days of this legislative session, I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts on pending legislation. 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.

State senators resumed the legislative session on July 20, after breaking for almost four months due to the coronavirus. We are set to complete this 60-day session on August 13.

During this first week back, we immediately began debating the major issues left pending. Senators voted 30-8 to pull LB 814 from the Judiciary Committee and place it on General File so that it can be debated. LB 814 would prohibit live dismemberment abortion and provide for criminal penalties for physicians who perform such abortions. I am a co-sponsor of LB 814.

LB 1106 is the current vehicle for property tax relief. It was discussed for three hours, and due to the speaker’s rules, it won’t be placed on the agenda again unless the sponsor can show there are 33 votes in support. As amended, LB 1106 proposes to lower the taxable valuation for school districts over a three-year period. Residential and commercial property would be lowered from 100% to 87% and agricultural land would be lowered from 75% to 55%.  It also incorporates a foundation aid factor into the school finance formula. Every school would receive this per pupil funding, which would increase over a three-year period to approximately $2,340 per pupil (based on current figures), and must be at least 15% of a school district’s basic funding. The basic allowable growth rate for schools would be 2% under LB 1106. School districts oppose this portion, but over the last 10 years, budget growth has averaged about 1.45%. It also assures that new construction would require a vote of the people.

During the debate on LB 1106, the chair of the Appropriations Committee pointed out that the state already spends a significant amount on property tax relief. Increased by $51 million last year, the Legislature now appropriates $275 million per year to the Property Tax Credit Fund, making it the 4th largest item in the state’s budget.

LB 720, the ImagiNE Nebraska Act, was debated for 1½ hours during the second stage of debate, before the speaker pulled the bill according to his rules. Thirty-three votes will be necessary for it to be placed on the agenda again. This is the revamped business incentives package, replacing the Nebraska Advantage Act, which expires at the end of this year. In order to remain competitive with other states, I believe we need some sort of business tax incentives. However, I also believe that rural senators need to stay strong and not allow LB 720 to pass unless LB 1106 is also approved. By joining them together, I feel this is our best chance for property tax relief yet this year.

LB 424 would enable any municipality in the state to join a Municipal Land Bank. LB 424 received first-round approval this past week on a 26-11 vote. Currently, only cities in Douglas and Sarpy counties are authorized to create land banks. A land bank is a tax-exempt political subdivision that acquires, manages, and develops vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties into productive use. I signed on as a co-sponsor to LB 424 because I believe this bill will benefit all communities not just the larger ones. It can be too costly or time-consuming for private investors to rehabilitate blighted properties, which become an eyesore and an expense for cities to provide basic upkeep.

LB 147, which would change the Student Discipline Act, also was debated for three hours, after being successfully pulled from the Education Committee last year. The legislation would direct all school districts to have a policy on the process of removing and returning a student to a classroom, allowing the teacher to decide if a student should be removed for intervention purposes. It authorizes the use of physical intervention to manage the behavior of a student when a child engages in dangerous behavior that places the student, other students, or the teacher in danger, but prohibits its use as a penalty for disapproved behavior.  Parents are to be notified if physical intervention is used or if a student is removed from a classroom. As I understand, school administrators, school boards, and teachers are all in support of this legislation.

My priority bill, LB 770, was passed by the Legislature on a 48-0 vote. LB 770 allows disabled veterans a lifetime park permit at no charge. Eligible recipients must be a Nebraska resident, honorably discharged, and rated 50% or more service-connected disabled or 100% disabled non-service connected. I believe this unanimous vote sent a great message to those who have sacrificed for our country.

The Economic Forecasting Advisory Board met this past week, after the Governor and the Executive Board chair requested an additional meeting, to update state revenue projections based on COVID-19. The board lowered projections, but not as much as predicted based on data presented. Rather than having $138 million for spending on bills with a fiscal impact, lawmakers will now have $90 million to spend. This is less than the $95 million estimated in first year costs for just the property tax relief bill. Furthermore, projections for state revenue for the following biennium have been decreased from a positive $400 million to a $400 million shortfall.

As the Legislature works during the next three weeks to complete this session, I encourage your input. 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.

The Legislature was called back into session on Monday, March 23, to pass emergency funding relating to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). An amendment was added to LB 1198, a bill that originally sought to appropriate funding for the restoration of the doors to the legislative chamber. LB 1198 had already received first-round approval from the Legislature. An amendment offered by the chair of the Appropriations Committee, Senator John Stinner, struck the original content of the bill and replaced it with an appropriation of $83.6 million from the Cash Reserve Fund to the Governor’s Emergency Cash Fund, to be used for the fight against COVID-19.

The Governor sought $58.6 million, but the Legislature added an additional $25 million in the event that additional funds are necessary. This amount would transfer back to the Cash Reserve Fund if not needed.

The largest amount of emergency funding, $38.2 million, would be used for Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Public Health local response efforts. It would provide additional funding for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies to local jurisdictions (including tribal nations) and support to local health departments for staffing, PPE, call centers, and information technology. Veterans Hospitals and DHHS Care Facilities would receive an additional $13 million for staffing expenditures resulting from staff quarantine or isolation requirements. There is also funding provided for lab testing, lab equipment, software programming, and UV light boxes to allow for the reuse of respirators.

LB 1198, as amended, was passed by the Legislature on Wednesday, March 25. Since LB 1198 contained the emergency clause, the bill went into effect with the Governor’s signature.

Senators have 17 days remaining in this legislative session. At this time, I cannot predict when the Legislature will complete its work. When we are called back, our primary focus will be the budget. However, there are many other issues that are still pending, such as property tax relief and the package of bills aimed at resolving issues at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers. I am hopeful that during this break, a compromise can be reached on the school finance/property tax relief bill, so that it can move forward.

Earlier, the IRS granted federal income tax relief to taxpayers by extending the tax filing and payment deadlines for federal income taxes from April 15, 2020 to July 15, 2020. It was announced this past week that the State of Nebraska is providing this same income tax relief to state income taxpayers. However, the Governor did urge those not affected by the coronavirus to still pay by April 15, to help the state manage its cash flow. The governor stated at a press conference this past week that he was not considering delaying the deadline for paying property taxes because these taxes are a very important source of revenue for local governments.

During this uncertain time, don’t hesitate to contact me if my office can be of assistance. I can be reached at tgragert@leg.ne.gov. My telephone number at the State Capitol is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.

Many unprecedented events have taken place over this past week. In my March 13 newsletter, I wrote about the Legislature giving first-round approval to the budget bills. Since then, COVID-19 has completely overshadowed everything else. Terms such as “community spread” and “social distancing” have become part of our daily language. The Legislature postponed its session beginning March 17 until it is safe and necessary to call members back into session. However, the speaker may call us back in soon to approve COVID-19 emergency funding. The Governor has requested $58.6 million for public health, testing, staffing, equipment, and programming needs to fight the spread of COVID-19.

On Monday, March 16, the Governor announced restrictions on public gatherings of more than 10 people for the next 8 weeks. Since these are guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they can’t be enforced by law enforcement officers. However, the Governor strongly urged compliance by Nebraskans.

At the time of this writing, the Chief Medical Officer with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has ordered Directed Health Measures (DHM) for Douglas, Cass, Sarpy, and Washington Counties through April 30, 2020. These DHMs contain the prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people and further restrict bars and restaurants from serving customers on site. The prohibition of more than 10 people includes churches, schools, daycare facilities, fitness centers, libraries, theaters, sporting events, concerts, weddings, and funerals. It does not apply to such places as airports, bus stations, healthcare facilities, offices, shopping malls, grocery stores, retail stores, and courts. Any person violating a DHM ordered by DHHS is guilty of a Class V misdemeanor for each offense.

Also on Monday, the Nebraska Education Commissioner announced that state education officials recommended that all 244 school districts in the state transition to remote learning by Monday, March 23. The state Education Department received approval from the federal government for schools to get waivers so they can continue to serve breakfasts and lunches to students. Education leaders are working to determine if legislation is needed due to the suspension of state rules regarding testing, attendance, and the required number of school days.

The Department of Labor announced resources available to Nebraskans who are unable to work or are working reduced hours due to this health crisis. Employers can apply for the Short-Time Compensation program, which allows employers to uniformly reduce affected employees’ hours by 10-60% while permitting the employees to receive a prorated unemployment benefit. Beginning March 22, through May 2, the waiting week for benefits and the work search requirements have been waived. Furthermore, benefits will not be charged against individual employers accounts. Money will be paid out of the general trust fund as the job losses are not the fault of individual employers. Callers to the department may want to leave a call back number, as wait times could be rather lengthy.

At a Governor’s press conference, the grocery industry assured Nebraskans that there is no food shortage. Some items may not be available because people purchased more than needed. The Governor issued an executive order last week to waive the weight restrictions on food delivery trucks and the restrictions on hours worked by drivers, to help with the shortage of drivers in the grocery industry.

Although the vast majority of cases are from the Omaha area, two cases have been reported from Knox County. The number for the North Central District Health Department covering Boyd, Holt, Knox and Rock Counties is (402) 336-2406 and the number for the Northeast Nebraska Public Health Department covering Cedar and Dixon Counties is (402) 375-2200. Another number residents can call is 2-1-1. Calls will be answered 24/7 and staff will assist callers with questions about the virus, current recommendations, or resources available in the community.

During this time, my staff will be in and out of the office, as it has been suggested that they work from home as much as possible. However, my staff and I are monitoring emails and answering telephone calls. My contact information is 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, NE 68509.

The Appropriations Committee presented their recommendations for the budget to the Legislature this past week. The budget bills were also given first-round approval from the Legislature. Over the interim, the financial status of the current biennium has improved significantly. The variance from the minimum General Fund reserve was estimated at only $0.2 million when we adjourned last year, but has since grown to $133.8 million. Furthermore, the rainy day fund increased from $322.4 million to $731 million, representing 14% of the budget, the amount advised by financial experts. This can be primarily attributed to an increase in General Fund revenue, both actual and projected. The budget represents an average growth of 3.0% over the two-year period.

There were some significant increases since the two-year budget was passed last year. The largest deficit request that was funded was $46 million to replenish the Governor’s Emergency Program, which was used for flood damage, and to fund the state’s portion associated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance program, where local governments and the state are each responsible for 12.5% of the costs, with FEMA funding 75%. Additionally, the Appropriations Committee included $9.2 million to assist counties with their 12.5% portion, if their costs totaled 20% or greater of the county’s 2018 taxes levied. Other deficit requests in the Committee’s budget recommendations include $10 million to maintain minimum staffing levels at the Lincoln Regional Center and the Norfolk Sex Offender Program, $9 million in higher than expected costs for the homestead exemption program, and $8 million for pay increases for Department of Correctional Services’ staff, in an effort to retain qualified staff and reduce the need for overtime.

The Legislature gave first-round approval to a package of bills that were introduced as a result of a lengthy investigation into the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTC), in light of a crisis at the girls’ facility in Geneva last summer. The legislation will require the Department of Health and Human Services to create a 5-year operations plan, to develop an emergency plan for each facility, to conduct annual facility reviews, to hire a superintendent for education programs, and to contract for a cost study and needs assessment for an inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit. Furthermore, by July of next year, the Kearney YRTC could only house boys and the Geneva YRTC could only house girls. Since the crisis, the Kearney YRTC has been housing both sexes, which has created problems.

One year ago, northeast Nebraskans were dealing with the disastrous flood that hit our area, as well as other parts of the state. I attended a briefing hosted by Governor Ricketts. Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said that more than 500 payments are in progress or completed on public assistance projects totaling more than $11 million. He also mentioned that a Long-Term Recovery and Resilience Plan will be unveiled by early summer. Director of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, Kyle Schneweis, revealed that Nebraska had 3,300 miles of closure and 27 bridges that were heavily damaged or destroyed at the height of the flooding. Within a month, 99% of the closed highways were reopen. The last bridge was reopened in February. The Adjutant General for the Nebraska National Guard, Major General Daryl Bohac, disclosed that in the month after the flood, 461 soldiers with the Guard drove 45,000 miles and put in 335 hours of flight time, rescuing 112 people, of which 66 were hoist rescues by helicopter. These statistics show the significant amount of work and funding that went into rescue and recovery efforts stemming from the flood. Our work is not done.

This year, it is the COVID-19 virus that is affecting our state. Several cases were confirmed in Douglas County and notification was made this past week of the first presumptive positive coronavirus case in northeast Nebraska. In an effort to prevent a sudden peak of illnesses that could overwhelm our healthcare system, schools have cancelled classes, athletic events have been cancelled or fans restricted, nursing homes have limited visitors, and other plans are being made. Local public health departments are key players in these decisions. The number for the North Central District Health Department covering Boyd, Holt, Knox and Rock Counties is (402) 336-2406 and the number for the Northeast Nebraska Public Health Department covering Cedar and Dixon Counties is (402) 375-2200. A good website for general information is: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.Again, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the issues before us. 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, NE  68509.

Sen. Tim Gragert

District 40
Room 11th Floor
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
(402) 471-2801
Email: tgragert@leg.ne.gov
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