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 email@example.com. 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.