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

The public hearing on the amendment to LB 289 that contained the Revenue Committee’s proposal for property tax relief was held April 24th before the Revenue, Education, and Retirement Committees. The public hearing started at approximately 4:00 p.m., after the Legislature adjourned early, and finished at 11:00 p.m. More than sixty people spoke at the hearing, with only four testifying in support of the measure.

Senator Lou Ann Linehan, the chair of the Revenue Committee, explained the amendment, which was introduced in an effort to provide long-term property tax relief for all Nebraskans. Nebraska places well among states in per pupil K-12 school spending. However, in terms of state funding as a percentage of overall funding, we rank 46th. Unsurprisingly, Nebraska ranks 3rd from the highest for local funding of our schools. With the proposed amendment, Nebraska would increase from 46th to 20th, when comparing state support for K-12 schools with other states. The proposed amendment would establish a foundation aid factor, amounting to a per student state revenue contribution of $3,474 per student for the 2019/2020 school year. The proposal would also lower the local effort rate in the school state aid formula and reduce the valuation of property by ten percent. It guarantees that every school district will receive at least one-third of its formula needs from state aid. School spending would be limited to the CPI inflation rate.

Most of the testifiers commended the committee for their work on property tax relief, but proceeded to criticize the portion of the plan that affected them or the people that they represent. The largest school districts warned that it would reduce their funding, realtors fought the increase in the documentary stamp fee, veterinarians feared the imposition of sales tax on services for pets, farmers resisted the loss of the Property Tax Credit program, cities lamented the reduction of property tax revenue, grocery store owners rejected the collection of sales tax on candy, pop and bottled water, and convenience store owners opposed the increase in the cigarette tax.

From studies I’ve seen, Nebraska ranks high in property tax burden among the states, about average in income tax burden, and somewhat low in sales tax burden. The proposed amendment to LB 289 seeks to increase the state’s sales tax rate from 5.5% to 6.25%, eliminate a couple of sales tax exemptions, and tax a limited number of services, in order to fund the property tax relief measure. I would rather see further broadening of the sales tax base than an increase in the sales tax rate.

In light of the opposing testimony, the Revenue Committee is meeting in executive session in an attempt to alter the funding sources for the property tax relief plan. Discussions have included retaining the current Property Tax Credit program (that gives $224 million worth of relief to taxpayers and is reflected on their property tax statements), eliminating more sales tax exemptions, and lowering the proposed sales tax increase.

The Legislature debated Senator Ernie Chambers’ annual bill to repeal the death penalty this past week. After approximately three hours of debate, LB 44 failed to advance to the second stage of debate on a 17-25 vote. In 2016, voters overturned the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty. Most senators felt it was too soon to attempt to change this, as it would ignore the will of the people.

I am continuing to work with local officials, NEMA and the Department of Transportation on the bridge projects and water issues, due to the recent flooding. I can assure you that state officials have prioritized these projects.

The Legislature will start meeting into the evening in order to get our work accomplished by the early part of June. I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation 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.

My priority bill, LB 243, received second-round approval this past week on a 46-1 vote, after a lengthy debate that had nothing to do with the legislation. It is now ready for Final Reading. Under LB 243, a Healthy Soils Task Force would be created, whose purpose is to develop a comprehensive plan to promote 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. I have already received letters from several people across the state, expressing their desire to serve on the task force. If the bill passes, I will pass their information on to the governor, who will appoint the task force members.

LB 15, which creates the Children of Nebraska Hearing Aid Act, received first-round approval on a 39-0 vote. The bill requires individual or group health insurance policies to provide coverage for children under the age of nineteen that includes hearing aids and associated services. The bill caps the benefits paid for hearing aids and services during the prior two-year period at $3,000. The bill would not apply to small employer group plans or policies providing limited-benefit coverage. Furthermore, health insurance plans are exempt if the cost of coverage exceeds 1% of all premiums collected under the plan. Thirty-one senators, including myself, signed on as co-sponsors to the bill, introduced by Bellevue Senator Carol Blood. LB 15 was designated as a speaker priority bill.

The Legislature began debating LB 483, which changes the way agricultural land is valued for property tax purposes. Currently, ag land is valued based on market sales. LB 483 proposes to value such land at its agricultural productivity value, which considers how much income can be earned off the land. Some of our surrounding states use a similar method of valuing ag land. The intent is not to reduce property valuations, but to provide for a fairer system. Governor Ricketts has expressed his support for the measure. However, some concern was expressed as to the constitutionality of the proposal. Our constitution allows ag land to be valued differently, but it has to be uniform and proportionate within the class of agricultural and horticultural land. Since the proposal caps valuation at the 2019 values, there was also concern that this is not a good year to serve as the base, with valuations that have just started to drop and with low commodity prices. The Legislature debated LB 483 for three hours. The sponsor of the bill, Senator Steve Erdman, will now have to show the Speaker that he has thirty-three votes in order for the bill to be placed on the agenda again.

The Legislature discussed at length an amendment to a Department of Revenue clean-up bill, LB 512, introduced by Elkhorn Senator Lou Ann Linehan. The amendment contains the provisions of LB 482, which would prorate property values for property tax purposes if a property becomes destroyed by a natural disaster. The current system unfairly taxes property owners for property which has been destroyed. This proposal became far more significant after the March flooding and is one way the Legislature can help Nebraskans who have experienced the devastating effects from the flood. I spoke in support of the amendment on the floor of the Legislature. I realize that counties and cities could experience reduced revenue for a short period of time, which will be difficult, but local governments have access to more federal public assistance than do individual homeowners. The sponsor of LB 512 will also have to show the speaker that there are thirty-three senators in support to continue the debate on this bill.

The Revenue Committee continues their work on a tax relief package that they hope to have completed by mid-April. Some ideas being discussed are more than doubling the state dollars allocated for property tax relief (currently $224 million), lowering the top corporate income tax rate, increasing the state sales tax rate, eliminating the sales tax exemption on pop, candy and bottled water, and raising taxes on tobacco, to bring them more in line with surrounding states.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation has developed a website, allowing Nebraskans to view updates on the progress of repairs to state highways and bridges. The website can be found at https://dot.nebraska.gov/news-media/nebraska-flood-2019.

Since my last newsletter, residents and business owners in six additional counties and one tribal area have been included in the disaster declaration making federal funding available to those eligible. The additional counties included Knox County and the Santee Sioux Nation. Boyd County is one of twelve counties still pending. Hopefully, by the time you read this, the decision will have been announced. To apply for individual disaster assistance, call FEMA at 1-800-621-3362 or register online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov. If you have been affected by the flooding and don’t know who to contact in regards to your specific needs, call 2-1-1. They will be able to point you in the right direction. Furthermore, you can contact my office at (402) 471-2801. My email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509.

March 28 marked the 50th day of this legislative session and the final day for committee hearings. All of the bills that were introduced have now had a hearing. Full day debate will begin on April 2. Senators are now focused on bills that have been designated as a priority either by a senator, a committee, or the Speaker of the Legislature.

The Revenue Committee is meeting in executive sessions to devise a package for property tax relief that can be presented to the full Legislature. The committee hopes to have the proposal ready by mid-April.

How the tax relief measure will mesh with necessary revenue to deal with the flooding and the blizzard conditions that hit Nebraska a couple weeks ago is hard to predict. There are many factors involved, such as state matches for federal dollars for public assistance to counties, income tax filing extensions, decreased farm income, increased unemployment, increased bankruptcies, etc.

Just two days after the Governor submitted his request last week, the president granted a disaster declaration for Nebraska. At that time, nine counties were approved to receive individual assistance and sixty-five counties and five tribal nations were approved for public assistance. Counties not initially approved could still be declared for individual assistance. Staff are assessing other areas of the state now and I believe more counties will be added. The six counties in the 40th legislative district – Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox and Rock – were all approved for public assistance, as was the Santee Sioux Nation, the Ponca and the Winnebago Tribes.

Individual assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster. Public assistance funding is available to state, tribal, and local governments on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work.

While waiting for FEMA to validate damages in our counties for individual assistance, property owners should report their damage to local officials or county emergency managers, call their insurance agent to determine if there is coverage, and document the damage. Once your county is designated, make sure to register with FEMA online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling toll-free 800-621-3362. When registering with FEMA, be prepared to provide your current address, the address of the damaged property, contact information where you can be reached, social security number, the occupants of your household, insurance and income information. Even if you are insured, make sure to register and don’t wait until you have settled with your insurer.

Last weekend, I visited Knox and Boyd Counties and it was amazing to watch neighbors and other Nebraskans helping those affected by the flooding. This past week, I was able to fly with Governor Ricketts to Santee and meet with the tribes affected by the flooding. Representatives of the tribes were each given the opportunity to update the governor on their situation and progress.

The Department of Transportation is continually working to get the roads and bridges repaired. On Highway 281, they are working to get a temporary bridge installed in the next two to three weeks, weather permitting. A permanent bridge will take at least a year. On Highway 12, west of Niobrara, the Niobrara River Bridge appears to be usable and they are planning to get a temporary bridge for the Mormon Canal as soon as possible. The bridge east of Niobrara on Highway 12 will be finished the first part of April, weather permitting. The Rural Water District #2 in Boyd County has accepted a bid for replacement of the water line, which was destroyed when Spencer Dam failed. The district is working with FEMA and the project will take approximately forty days. In the meantime, the district has renovated two farm wells to supply their lines. Outstanding work is being done by our local, state and federal officials.

If you have any questions on legislation or associated with the disaster, 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.

As the deadline passed this week for selecting priority bills, a different priority repeatedly resurfaced in the Legislature – the devastating flood affecting many Nebraskans and the urgent need to get relief to those in need. I visited the Lynch and Niobrara areas last weekend and am heartbroken by the destruction seen in our legislative district. After talking to many local people, I am continually impressed with the dedication, the willingness to help, and the perseverance of the county emergency managers, the first responders, city and county officials, the Department of Transportation workers, businesses, churches, and the constituents of the 40th district. We will get through this, but it’s going to be a long haul.

Seventy-nine of the ninety-three counties and numerous cities have submitted emergency declarations to the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). Governor Pete Ricketts has sent an expedited request to the federal government for a presidential disaster declaration. Vice President Mike Pence, who visited Nebraska this past week, said the Trump administration will expedite the declaration to assure that federal aid will soon be on the way. If we qualify for disaster assistance, which seems assured, it could include both public and individual assistance.

NEMA has compiled the damage impact assessments submitted by the counties. At this time, the estimated statewide impact totals $553 million for public infrastructure and $89 million for private property. These figures will be updated as local emergency management teams are able to assess the damage across their counties. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture estimates that the lost livestock and needed repairs will result in a $400 million loss. This doesn’t account for the losses due to delayed or cancelled spring planting. The Nebraska Department of Transportation projects a cost of more than $400 million to repair our state’s infrastructure, including at least 200 miles of paved roads on the state’s highway system that will require significant repair or reconstruction and fourteen bridges that need to be replaced and three others that need reconstruction.

I have information on my website regarding potential assistance from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) at http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist40/. My website also has a list of resources to call if in need of assistance. Furthermore, 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. Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Disaster Relief Project offers free legal assistance for low-income survivors of Nebraska’s floods, through both online resources and a network of trained volunteer lawyers across Nebraska. Low-income Nebraskans can apply for direct legal representation by applying online at disaster.legalaidofnebraska.org/apply or by calling the hotline at 1-844-268-5627. You can always call my office at (402) 471-2801 if you need assistance and I will try to direct you to the right resource.

Every senator is allowed to choose one bill as their personal priority bill, every committee can choose two bills and the speaker has the authority to select twenty-five bills as speaker priority bills. Priority status assures that the bill will be discussed by the full Legislature, if it has advanced from committee. Generally from this point on, only bills with priority status will be placed on the agenda. The speaker may also have a consent calendar, which is reserved for non-controversial bills that don’t warrant a priority designation.

Some of the bills designated as priority bills include:

LB 110, prioritized by Senator Anna Wishart, proposes to adopt the Medical Cannabis Act.

LB 147, chosen by the Education Committee, would allow teachers and administrators to maintain order in the classroom by allowing them to use necessary contact or physical restraint to subdue a student until they no longer present a danger.

LB 227, designated by the Agriculture Committee, is designed to protect farm operations and public grain warehouses from nuisance laws.

LB 289, prioritized by the Revenue Committee, is a placeholder bill. It will be used as the vehicle for property tax relief, once the committee develops their plan.

LB 483, selected by Senator Steve Erdman, proposes to change the way agricultural land is valued for property tax purposes from the current market based system to a productivity based system.

LB 657, introduced by Senator Justin Wayne and prioritized by Senator Tom Brandt, would permit the growth and cultivation of industrial hemp in Nebraska.

LB 686, selected by the Judiciary Committee, encourages continued efforts to reduce overcrowding in Nebraska’s correctional system.

LB 720, prioritized by Senator Mark Kolterman, would adopt the ImagiNE Nebraska Act, changing our current business tax incentive program.

Again, if I can be of assistance during the period of recovery from the flooding, please contact my office at (402) 471-2801. My email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov and 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.

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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