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

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.

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.

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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