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The One Hundred Sixth Legislature, First Session, has adjourned sine die. The Legislature passed some important bills and failed to agree on other critical issues. Of the forty-nine individual priority bills, thirty-four became law. Of the thirty-three committee priority bills, twenty-nine were passed by the Legislature.
LB 720, the ImagiNE Nebraska Act, was the priority bill of Seward Senator Mark Kolterman. It proposed to replace and update the Nebraska Advantage Act, which offered tax incentives to businesses for investment and employment growth. LB 720 was voted on two days after the property tax relief measure failed. Although I believe our state needs some type of tax incentives in order to compete with other states, I had to withhold my support for LB 720. I did not think we should proceed with appropriating funding for tax incentives prior to funding property tax relief. I felt we needed to keep these two issues as a package deal, if we wanted any hope of getting property tax relief passed next year, as property tax relief is my top priority. The vote to end debate on LB 720 fell three votes short. All bills pending at the end of this legislative session are automatically carried over to the 2020 session.
Priority bills that were passed include LB 686 dealing with prison overcrowding, LB 149 raising the legal age from 18 to 19 for purchasing and using cigarettes, tobacco and vaping products, and LB 657 allowing Nebraskans to grow, process, and handle hemp and hemp products. Priority bills left pending include LB 44 to eliminate the death penalty, LB 110 to allow for medical marijuana, LB 483 to change the method used to assess agricultural land, and LB 670 offering scholarships to private school students.
A balanced budget was passed, limiting spending growth to 2.9%, which was lower than the Governor’s recommendation. The budget included additional funding for the Property Tax Credit Fund, increasing the annual funding for this property tax relief program to $275 million annually.
Both of the bills that I introduced were passed. LB 243 creates the Healthy Soils Task Force, which will be appointed by the Governor in the next couple weeks. The task force will develop a comprehensive healthy soils initiative and action plan. LB 406 updated the statutes pertaining to the State Treasurer’s unclaimed property division.
An initiative petition drive calling for property tax relief is currently underway to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 general election ballot. The proposal would give taxpayers a refundable income tax credit in the amount of 35% of property taxes paid each year. Property taxes collected in 2018 amounted to just under $4.2 billion, of which 35% would be approximately $1.5 billion. Although budget cuts would be considered, to deal with this amount of property tax relief, the Legislature would most likely also have to increase taxes or broaden the tax base by repealing exemptions or taxing more services in order to fund the income tax credit proposal.
The residents of Northeast Nebraska that were victims of the March flooding still continue to be a top priority to me. The Legislature passed LB 512, which will require the County Board of Equalization to adjust the value of destroyed real property to its assessed value on the date of the damage. Current law required land and buildings to be valued for property tax purposes on January 1 of each year. The passage of this bill will put a process in place to reduce property values when damaged by a natural disaster between January 1 and July 1.
With the completion of the legislative session, I will be spending more time back in Creighton. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.