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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 email@example.com or (402) 471-2801. My mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.
As a member of the Natural Resources Committee, we heard testimony on LB 46 this past week. LB 46, introduced by Omaha Senator Ernie Chambers, proposes to eliminate the mountain lion hunting season. He has introduced similar legislation since the Legislature passed LB 928 in 2012 to allow the Game and Parks Commission to issue mountain lion hunting permits. This bill was passed while Senator Chambers was term-limited out of the Legislature from 2009 through 2012. Previously, state law allowed a farmer to kill a mountain lion on their property if it was threatening people or livestock or anyone if they were defending themselves or another person.
After the passage of LB 928, the Game and Parks Commission divided the state into four management units. Sufficient data must be collected on the mountain lion population in a unit before a hunting season can be held. A season was held in 2014 and again this year.
Senator Chambers referred to mountain lions as majestic, regal animals. He testified that there has never been a confirmed attack against a human being and only a few documented instances against livestock in Nebraska. Several years ago, Senator Chambers gained passage of legislation authorizing mountain lion conservation license plates, which has become the most popular specialty plate design.
No one testified in support of LB 46, but the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission testified in opposition. A furbearer and carnivore program manager with the commission testified that they strive to maintain a balance between what the wildlife population and habitat will support and what the people of Nebraska will accept. Due to the substantial increase in the Pine Ridge area to fifty-nine cats, which has almost doubled since 2015, it was decided to hold a season again this year. The committee has taken no further action on LB 46.
LB 254 received first-round approval this past week. The legislation, introduced by Omaha Senator John McCollister, creates the Fair Chance Hiring Act to require certain prospective employers to evaluate a job applicant’s qualifications without an initial inquiry about the applicant’s history of criminal law violations. This proposal is known as “ban the box” legislation. LB 254 attempts to give those with a criminal record a better chance of finding a good job, rather than being instantly rejected for their record. Statistics show that the best indicator of whether a former inmate will reoffend is whether that person can get a job.
At the public hearing, representatives of various business groups testified against the bill. They spoke of the need to know about convictions to determine if someone is appropriate for the job. They said the state should not force businesses to go through the cost of considering applications for people with disqualifying convictions. To address their concerns, a compromise amendment was offered to allow employers to continue asking job applicants about their criminal history on the initial application, but those who do would have to give applicants a chance to explain their situation and their rehabilitation progress.
LB 424, introduced by Grand Island Senator Dan Quick, would expand the Nebraska Municipal Land Bank Act to allow any municipality to create or join an existing land bank. Currently only municipalities in Douglas or Sarpy County are so authorized. Land banks are one of the tools that can be utilized by municipalities to facilitate the return of vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties to a productive use.
Proponents of LB 424 testified that a land bank would help add affordable housing and would reduce the time law enforcement spends patrolling abandoned buildings. They stated that Omaha has used this tool effectively and they hope other cities will be afforded the same restorative neighborhood revitalizing tools. Opponents cautioned that the legislation would allow a land bank to acquire properties instead of private developers, who would have difficulty competing with the tax breaks and other benefits. Furthermore it would reduce property taxes collected by a municipality. LB 424 has twenty-five co-sponsors. Similar legislation was passed by the Legislature last year, but vetoed by the Governor after the Legislature adjourned.
We have reached the limit for chaplains giving the morning prayer before the Legislature. If any member of the clergy would still like to participate, please keep it in mind for next year’s session.
Senators have reached the one-third mark in this year’s 90-day session. As we continue with the next two-thirds, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation before us. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . My address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509 and my telephone number at the capitol is (402) 471-2801.
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 email@example.com. My telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is District 40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, Nebraska 68509.
I’d like to introduce myself. I am Senator Tim Gragert, newly elected to represent District 40 in the Nebraska Legislature. District 40 consists of Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox, and Rock counties. I am a lifelong resident of Creighton and recently retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Army National Guard. My wife, Donna, and I have three children and three grandchildren. I am honored to serve the residents of northeast Nebraska in the Legislature.
The One Hundred Sixth Legislature began on Wednesday, January 9. Thirteen newly elected senators joined thirteen re-elected senators in taking the oath of office from Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican. Of the thirteen newly elected senators, one returned after sitting out four years due to term limits. Two of the thirteen newly elected senators were appointed by the Governor, following the resignation of the current senators due to election to a different office.
Following the ceremonial activities, in which my family joined me, senators got right to work with elections for the speaker and chairs of the committees. Every senator is assigned committees to serve on. I was selected for the Banking, Commerce & Insurance Committee, which meets on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, and the Natural Resources Committee, which meets on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. Committee hearings will begin later this month and continue through the end of March. In the Nebraska Legislature, every bill (except revisor bills which are purely technical in nature) is referenced to a committee based on the subject matter and is guaranteed a hearing, allowing the public to testify in support or opposition to the legislation. The Legislature will meet as a body in the mornings during the public hearing process and in all-day session beginning in April.
Bill introduction is allowed for the first ten days of the legislative session. Typically, approximately 700 bills are introduced during the 90-day session. The Legislature is predicted to discuss a wide range of issues including property tax relief, the school finance formula, and the implementation of Medicaid expansion, which was recently approved by voters.
My first few days have been eventful. I spent the first day in the office of former Senator Tyson Larson. The second day began in a hearing room before I was assigned to the 11th floor, along with five other newly elected senators. Due to the Heating, Air Conditioning, and Renovation Project (also known as the HVAC project) at the Capitol, which is expected to take approximately 8 years, one quadrant of the Capitol is off-limits. Divisions of the Legislature that were housed in the tower were moved off-site, so that all the senators could remain in the building. However, it will be more difficult for visitors to the Capitol to see their state senator. Since the offices in the tower are only accessible to senators and staff, visitors will have to use the telephones at the information area on the first floor to call their senator’s office. Staff will come down and escort visitors up the elevators. Although this will be an inconvenience, the HVAC project is sorely needed to replace an outdated system.
This year the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on June 6. During the legislative session, I will be in Lincoln during the week and drive home to Creighton on the weekends. If I am not in my office, my staff will be able to assist you. My administrative assistant is Alex Brechbill and my legislative aide is Kim Davis. Alex will answer the phone and is responsible for my schedule and Kim will work on legislation and constituent issues.
I would like to inform you of the Legislature’s website at NebraskaLegislature.gov, which contains a wealth of information. Viewers can read the text of bills introduced, search state statutes, e-mail senators, view the agenda for the day, read the Unicameral Update online, and even watch the Unicameral live.
As my first legislative session gets underway, I invite you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation that is before us. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My State Capitol telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is: Senator Tim Gragert, District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.