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 to be held by the Revenue Committee, the Education Committee and the Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee on the property tax relief proposal, scheduled for April 18, was cancelled, due to the amendment to LB 289 not being ready in time. The hearing has been rescheduled for Wednesday, April 24 and the 82-page amendment was filed a week in advance, as required by legislative rules. The amendment could be further amended, based on testimony received at the hearing, prior to LB 289 advancing to the full Legislature.

Under the proposed amendment, a foundation aid factor would be added to the school state aid formula. Schools would receive $3474.40 for each student next year, resulting in every school receiving at least a third of its funding through state aid. Currently, more than two-thirds of school districts receive no equalization aid from the state and are funded primarily with property tax revenue. A lid would be placed on school spending, based on the consumer price index and growth within a school district.

The valuation of property will be reduced by 10%, with the valuation of residential and commercial property dropping to 90% and agricultural land to 65% of its value. The local effort rate in the school state aid formula will drop to 90 cents. The proposal represents a 50% increase in state funding for K-12 schools, resulting in $500,000 in property tax relief, which is projected to decrease school property taxes on average by 20%. The proposal would be funded by a ¾ cent sales tax increase, an increase in the cigarette tax to $1.00 per pack, the removal of some sales tax exemptions, including pop, candy, and bottled water, as well as taxing plumbing, heating and air-conditioning services, services provided by moving companies, and veterinarian care for pets.

Immediately after the amendment was filed, Governor Pete Ricketts issued a press release calling the proposal the largest tax increase in Nebraska history. He also criticized the elimination of most of the funding for the Property Tax Credit program.

The Legislature gave initial approval this past week to LB 657, the Nebraska Hemp Act. The passage of the 2018 Federal Farm Bill legalized the growth, cultivation, and processing of hemp across the country. Hemp is drought resistant, can serve as a rotational cash crop, and cannot contain over 0.3% THC. This is the chemical that produces the marijuana high. The legislation creates a process for farmers and cultivators to test their crop for THC compliance to ensure it complies with the Farm Bill.

Under LB 657 as amended, the hemp research pilot program authorized a couple years ago, based on the 2014 Farm Bill, would be expanded to enable wider participation for the 2019 growing season. LB 657 would provide the structure needed to prepare and implement a state plan to conform to the 2018 Farm Bill for the 2020 growing season and beyond. Other states around us have already passed legislation authorizing hemp and we need to get on board, in order to give farmers the opportunity to benefit from this crop.

The Legislature also gave first-round approval to LB 693, which adopts the Neighbor Spoofing Protection Act. The sponsor of the bill worked with the Attorney General’s office and the Public Service Commission on the legislation. The intent of the bill is to reduce the number of calls persons receive from numbers similar to their own, in a deliberate attempt to con people into answering the call. Supporters of the bill acknowledged that this would not entirely resolve the problem because many spoofing calls originate from the Internet or overseas and cannot be traced. LB 693 is patterned after a Kansas law and is among the growing attempt by states to place some constraint on this annoying practice, while Congress works on the issue as well.

LB 155, which as introduced, attempted to prevent public power districts from using eminent domain for the benefit of private wind companies. LB 155 fell two votes short of advancement earlier this session. After it was prioritized a second time, LB 155 was placed on the agenda again. The sponsor of the bill, Senator Tom Brewer, offered a compromise amendment, which resulted in the bill easily receiving first-round approval. The amendment would give landowners who didn’t want a connecting line across their property a chance to argue against it in court.

The Legislature has passed the two-thirds mark of this session. As we continue to discuss bills with priority status, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. 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 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.

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.

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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