NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

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Sen. Tim Gragert

Sen. Tim Gragert

District 40

The content of these pages is developed and maintained by, and is the sole responsibility of, the individual senator's office and may not reflect the views of the Nebraska Legislature. Questions and comments about the content should be directed to the senator's office at 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.    

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.

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 tgragert@leg.ne.gov and 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.

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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