NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

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Sen. Tim Gragert

Sen. Tim Gragert

District 40

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This past week started out being very productive. The Legislature passed the budget bills on Final Reading and sent them to the Governor. He has five days to decide whether to sign them or to line-item veto specific items. The budget bills are the only bills that must pass this year, as the Nebraska Constitution states that each Legislature shall make appropriations for the expenses of the Government.

The Legislature also voted to pull LB 147 from the Education Committee and place it on General File. LB 147 was stuck in committee with a 4-4 vote. The motion to pull the bill was made by the chair of the Education Committee, Senator Mike Groene. It received 25 votes, the minimum required. LB 147 proposes to amend the Student Discipline Act. It would allow an administrator, teacher, or other school personnel to use reasonable physical contact to protect a student, staff, or other person from physical injury. If physical contact is used, school personnel must notify the parents of the student and inform them of the incident. The bill would also require an administrator to remove a student from a class upon request by a teacher or other school personnel if the student’s behavior is so disruptive that it seriously interferes with the learning environment. The goal is to return the student to class as soon as possible after appropriate interventions or supports have been implemented. The teachers’ union is supportive of LB 147, recognizing the need for such legislation. However, administrators have concerns and feel the bill may create more problems than it resolves. I thought it was a good idea to bring the bill to the floor of the Legislature in an effort to encourage the administrators and teachers to work together on a compromise over the interim.

The Revenue Committee worked for months on a proposal contained in LB 289. It provided significant property tax relief by establishing a foundation aid factor in the school state aid formula, guaranteeing that every school district receive at least one-third of its formula needs from state aid. To ensure that the increased state aid resulted in property tax relief, school spending would be limited to the CPI inflation rate plus growth. To provide revenue for the proposal, the state sales tax rate would be increased, a couple of sales tax exemptions eliminated and the sales tax imposed on a limited number of services. During a seven hour public hearing on the proposal, only four people testified in support and more than fifty testified in opposition. The committee worked on revisions prior to advancing LB 289, lowering the proposed increase in the sales tax rate and increasing the number of services taxed, but the larger school districts remained opposed to the proposal. After three hours of debate, the sponsor of LB 289 could not come up with the necessary 33 votes to place the bill on the agenda again, as required by the policy of the Speaker of the Legislature.

After it appeared that LB 289 would not be discussed again this session, Albion Senator Tom Briese offered an amendment to LB 183, a bill already advanced to the second stage of debate. The amendment proposed to place an additional $100 million in the Property Tax Credit fund, bringing the total to approximately $375 million in property tax relief, reflected on a taxpayer’s property tax statement. This amount would be appropriated to the Property Tax Credit fund annually until the school state aid formula is reworked and state aid is increased by at least 20%, thereby incentivizing the Legislature to work on reforming the formula, which is currently too dependent on property tax revenue. To fund the property tax relief, the proposal would have eliminated a number of sales tax exemptions and the personal property tax exemption, while increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit to assist the lower income with the broadened sales tax. After three hours of debate, Senator Briese offered a motion to invoke cloture, allowing for a vote to be taken on the advancement of the bill. However, the cloture motion fell ten votes short and LB 183 was removed from the agenda.

I supported LB 289 and LB 183. Even though I didn’t agree with everything in these bills (I would have preferred further broadening the sales tax base rather than an increase in the sales tax rate), they did present an opportunity to offer property tax relief to Nebraskans. I also supported the passage of the budget bills which contained an additional $51 million in annual funding for the Property Tax Credit fund. Although this past week was disappointing, I will continue to work to bring property tax relief to taxpayers.

I was happy to see that the Nebraska Department of Transportation has awarded the contract to Hawkins Construction of Omaha, allowing them to begin immediate work on the Highway 281 Bridge over the Niobrara River, south of Spencer. A temporary single lane shoofly is anticipated to be in service by August 1, with work scheduled to start on May 28.

As we enter the final week of this legislative session, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts. 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.

This past week, the Revenue Committee advanced LB 289, giving the full Legislature the opportunity to discuss property tax relief this session. The Appropriations Committee presented their recommendations for the next two-year budget to the Legislature as well. These two issues will be our primary focus during the remaining twenty days of this legislative session.

As amended, LB 289 contains an additional $500 million for state aid to schools. The amendment contains caps on spending, in an effort to assure that the increased state aid results in significant property tax relief. Furthermore, the valuation of property would be reduced by 10% of its actual value. To fund the property tax relief measure, the sales tax rate would be increased by one-half percent to 6%, lower than a previous recommended increase to 6.25%. The cigarette tax would be increased by 36 cents a pack and sales tax exemptions would be removed on candy, pop, bottled water, and ice. In addition, a couple dozen services that weren’t previously taxed would now be subject to taxation under the proposed amendment. Some of the services that would be taxed but haven’t been mentioned before include hair, nail and skin care, tattoos, parking, motor vehicle repair, dry cleaning, lawn care, and taxi rides. Approximately half of the current $224 million appropriated to the Property Tax Credit program would be dedicated for the increased state aid. Two senators on the Revenue Committee abstained from voting on the advancement of the amended version of LB 289, signaling that it will be a controversial discussion on the floor.

Governor Ricketts issued his first veto of the year this past week. LB 472 was introduced by Senator Myron Dorn, who represents Gage County. LB 472 allows a county board to impose a one-half cent sales tax to pay a judgment rendered against a county by a federal court for violation of federal law. The increased sales tax authority is intended to help Gage County, who must pay more than $28 million in damages to six men and women wrongly convicted in a homicide of a woman in 1985. The Governor opposed the measure that would increase the local sales tax without a vote of the people. Currently the county is paying these costs through property taxes alone, which falls disproportionately on rural residents. This legislation would help even the burden to all taxpayers in the county. The governor’s veto was easily overridden on a 41-8 vote, eleven votes above the thirty votes required.

Legislation was introduced to increase the age for using vapor products or e-cigarettes to 21 years of age, in an effort to reduce the use of vaping among high school students. It also would require a license to sell these products, as is required for those selling cigarettes and other tobacco products. The General Affairs committee amendments reduced the age to 19, but included all tobacco products. Advocates for vaping promote it as a way to help cigarette smokers quit, but others are concerned that the fruity flavor options are being marketed to kids. LB 149 received first-round approval with a 40-0 vote.

There have been many rumors regarding the offer of a floating bridge from South Dakota to be used over the Mormon Canal. I have visited with the Governor’s office and top officials from the Nebraska Department of Transportation. They have seriously considered this option, but found that it is far more complicated than appears on the surface. They also fear that it could actually extend the timeframe of the permanent bridge. The department hopes to have the contractor working at the site by the first of June, if not before. I realize this is a severe hardship, but trying to stay as positive as possible will help everyone involved. Please feel free to contact me and I will assist you in any way I can. 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 public hearing on the amendment to LB 289 that contained the Revenue Committee’s proposal for property tax relief was held April 24th before the Revenue, Education, and Retirement Committees. The public hearing started at approximately 4:00 p.m., after the Legislature adjourned early, and finished at 11:00 p.m. More than sixty people spoke at the hearing, with only four testifying in support of the measure.

Senator Lou Ann Linehan, the chair of the Revenue Committee, explained the amendment, which was introduced in an effort to provide long-term property tax relief for all Nebraskans. Nebraska places well among states in per pupil K-12 school spending. However, in terms of state funding as a percentage of overall funding, we rank 46th. Unsurprisingly, Nebraska ranks 3rd from the highest for local funding of our schools. With the proposed amendment, Nebraska would increase from 46th to 20th, when comparing state support for K-12 schools with other states. The proposed amendment would establish a foundation aid factor, amounting to a per student state revenue contribution of $3,474 per student for the 2019/2020 school year. The proposal would also lower the local effort rate in the school state aid formula and reduce the valuation of property by ten percent. It guarantees that every school district will receive at least one-third of its formula needs from state aid. School spending would be limited to the CPI inflation rate.

Most of the testifiers commended the committee for their work on property tax relief, but proceeded to criticize the portion of the plan that affected them or the people that they represent. The largest school districts warned that it would reduce their funding, realtors fought the increase in the documentary stamp fee, veterinarians feared the imposition of sales tax on services for pets, farmers resisted the loss of the Property Tax Credit program, cities lamented the reduction of property tax revenue, grocery store owners rejected the collection of sales tax on candy, pop and bottled water, and convenience store owners opposed the increase in the cigarette tax.

From studies I’ve seen, Nebraska ranks high in property tax burden among the states, about average in income tax burden, and somewhat low in sales tax burden. The proposed amendment to LB 289 seeks to increase the state’s sales tax rate from 5.5% to 6.25%, eliminate a couple of sales tax exemptions, and tax a limited number of services, in order to fund the property tax relief measure. I would rather see further broadening of the sales tax base than an increase in the sales tax rate.

In light of the opposing testimony, the Revenue Committee is meeting in executive session in an attempt to alter the funding sources for the property tax relief plan. Discussions have included retaining the current Property Tax Credit program (that gives $224 million worth of relief to taxpayers and is reflected on their property tax statements), eliminating more sales tax exemptions, and lowering the proposed sales tax increase.

The Legislature debated Senator Ernie Chambers’ annual bill to repeal the death penalty this past week. After approximately three hours of debate, LB 44 failed to advance to the second stage of debate on a 17-25 vote. In 2016, voters overturned the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty. Most senators felt it was too soon to attempt to change this, as it would ignore the will of the people.

I am continuing to work with local officials, NEMA and the Department of Transportation on the bridge projects and water issues, due to the recent flooding. I can assure you that state officials have prioritized these projects.

The Legislature will start meeting into the evening in order to get our work accomplished by the early part of June. I still encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation 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.

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.    

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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