NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

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Sen. Tim Gragert

Sen. Tim Gragert

District 40

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Our office received word this past week that Boyd County has been included in the disaster declaration, making federal funding available for individual assistance. Knox County had previously been included, as well as the Santee Sioux Nation. To apply for individual assistance, call FEMA at 1-800-621-3362 or register online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov. This is in addition to the counties and tribal areas that have qualified for public assistance.

The Legislature debated LB 227 for six hours this past week before advancing it to the second stage of debate. LB 227, introduced by Venango Senator Dan Hughes, amends the Nebraska Right to Farm Act (NRFA), which protected farmers against nuisance lawsuits brought by individuals who move into agricultural zoned areas. Although the NRFA protected farmers if they were there first, it did not protect them if any changes took place on the farm. Under current law, even the conversion of a non-irrigated farm to an irrigated farm or a transition of the operation within the family could remove the defense provided by the NRFA. LB 227 sought to remedy this.

LB 227 applies to the following situations: the conversion from one type of farm operation to another, a change in ownership or size of the operation, the enrollment in a government program, or the adoption of new technology. An amendment adopted in an effort to resolve concern expressed over neighbor’s rights, would allow lawsuits during a two-year period following any of the changes listed in the bill. If a subsequent change is made, the two-year period would start over. Farmers would still have to comply with county zoning and environmental regulations before any change could take place. Furthermore, lawsuits could be filed at any time if reasonable techniques to mitigate negative effects on the property of others are not employed. Prior to advancement of the bill, the sponsor pledged to work on additional amendments to resolve concerns with the bill.

The amendment that I referred to last week, allowing property taxes to be prorated for victims of a natural disaster, was adopted by the Legislature and LB 512 received first-round approval. I supported the amendment as I think it is unfair that property owners would have to pay property taxes for an entire year, if their home is destroyed part way through.

Another bill discussed this past week, LB 334, proposed to eliminate the Angel Investment Tax Credit program, which hasn’t been very successful, and instead transfer the funding appropriated to the Business Innovation Act. The Business Innovation Act funds grants and loan programs that encourage innovation and startup businesses in Nebraska. The chair of the Revenue Committee suggested that the $4 million appropriation should be used to replenish the Governor’s Emergency Cash Fund, which has dwindled from $5 million to $400,000 due to the recent flooding. Many senators, including myself, supported this suggestion. However, since the $4 million appropriation would not be available until next year, the Appropriations Committee voted to put $6 million in general funds into the emergency fund for the upcoming fiscal year and then use the $4 million plus an additional $1 million, to replenish the emergency fund in 2020-21.

The Revenue Committee has been working on a proposal to share with the full Legislature regarding property tax relief. They plan to hold a public hearing on their amendment to LB 289 on Thursday, April 18. The Education Committee and the Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee will join the Revenue Committee for the hearing. Possible components of the proposal include increasing the sales tax by ½ cent, eliminating the sales tax exemption on pop and candy, charging sales tax on plumbing and moving services, increasing the cigarette tax by 36 cents a pack, reducing the valuation of agricultural land for property tax purposes from 75% to 65% of its value and residential and commercial property from 100% to 90%, and adding a foundation aid component to the school state aid system.

My priority bill, LB 243, was passed by the Legislature on a 43-0 vote. It creates a task force that is to develop a healthy soils initiative and action plan. Another bill that I introduced, LB 406, was passed last month with the emergency clause, meaning that it went into effect when the Governor signed it. LB 406 updated statutes dealing with unclaimed property to ensure claimants receive all the unclaimed property rightfully due to them. The State Treasurer’s office recently notified me that the changes made in the law have already begun to simplify certain processes within their office. There is more than a half million dollars in unclaimed property in District #40. A list of unclaimed property can be found at: https://treasurer.nebraska.gov/up/. If your name is listed, the website also contains information on how to file a claim.

I would like to commend the North Central Sports Club, composed of student-athletes from Rock County High School in Bassett and Keya Paha County High School in Springview, for foregoing their spring trip and instead sending the money to a Verdel family that was severely impacted by the flood.

As the Legislature debates controversial issues, I appreciate hearing from constituents as to their views on the bills. 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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the bills that I co-sponsored include:

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

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

Again I urge you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on issues before the Legislature. I can be reached at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE  68509. My email address is tgragert@leg.ne.gov and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.

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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