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March 28 marked the 50th day of this legislative session and the final day for committee hearings. All of the bills that were introduced have now had a hearing. Full day debate will begin on April 2. Senators are now focused on bills that have been designated as a priority either by a senator, a committee, or the Speaker of the Legislature.
The Revenue Committee is meeting in executive sessions to devise a package for property tax relief that can be presented to the full Legislature. The committee hopes to have the proposal ready by mid-April.
How the tax relief measure will mesh with necessary revenue to deal with the flooding and the blizzard conditions that hit Nebraska a couple weeks ago is hard to predict. There are many factors involved, such as state matches for federal dollars for public assistance to counties, income tax filing extensions, decreased farm income, increased unemployment, increased bankruptcies, etc.
Just two days after the Governor submitted his request last week, the president granted a disaster declaration for Nebraska. At that time, nine counties were approved to receive individual assistance and sixty-five counties and five tribal nations were approved for public assistance. Counties not initially approved could still be declared for individual assistance. Staff are assessing other areas of the state now and I believe more counties will be added. The six counties in the 40th legislative district – Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox and Rock – were all approved for public assistance, as was the Santee Sioux Nation, the Ponca and the Winnebago Tribes.
Individual assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster. Public assistance funding is available to state, tribal, and local governments on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work.
While waiting for FEMA to validate damages in our counties for individual assistance, property owners should report their damage to local officials or county emergency managers, call their insurance agent to determine if there is coverage, and document the damage. Once your county is designated, make sure to register with FEMA online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling toll-free 800-621-3362. When registering with FEMA, be prepared to provide your current address, the address of the damaged property, contact information where you can be reached, social security number, the occupants of your household, insurance and income information. Even if you are insured, make sure to register and don’t wait until you have settled with your insurer.
Last weekend, I visited Knox and Boyd Counties and it was amazing to watch neighbors and other Nebraskans helping those affected by the flooding. This past week, I was able to fly with Governor Ricketts to Santee and meet with the tribes affected by the flooding. Representatives of the tribes were each given the opportunity to update the governor on their situation and progress.
The Department of Transportation is continually working to get the roads and bridges repaired. On Highway 281, they are working to get a temporary bridge installed in the next two to three weeks, weather permitting. A permanent bridge will take at least a year. On Highway 12, west of Niobrara, the Niobrara River Bridge appears to be usable and they are planning to get a temporary bridge for the Mormon Canal as soon as possible. The bridge east of Niobrara on Highway 12 will be finished the first part of April, weather permitting. The Rural Water District #2 in Boyd County has accepted a bid for replacement of the water line, which was destroyed when Spencer Dam failed. The district is working with FEMA and the project will take approximately forty days. In the meantime, the district has renovated two farm wells to supply their lines. Outstanding work is being done by our local, state and federal officials.
If you have any questions on legislation or associated with the disaster, 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, NE 68509.
The Revenue Committee heard testimony this past week on LB 720, which would adopt the ImagiNE Nebraska Act. LB 720 proposes to rewrite Nebraska’s business incentive program. The legislation encourages the creation of higher paying jobs, simplifies the process, improves the transparency and accountability of the program, and reduces the number of years in which credits can be redeemed.
The primary current business incentive program, the Nebraska Advantage Act, is set to sunset next year. Senator Mark Kolterman of Seward, the sponsor of LB 720, stressed the on-going need for incentives to attract top employers while encouraging the growth of existing businesses. Although others questioned whether these incentives were the best use of our state’s tax dollars, Senator Kolterman emphasized that allowing our business incentives to end with no substitute in place would be disastrous for Nebraska.
Under LB 720, applicants would work with the Department of Economic Development, rather than the Department of Revenue, for the purpose of building and sustaining a relationship between businesses and the state. Various tax benefits would be available to taxpayers that meet the required levels of employment and investment. Twenty-two senators have signed on as co-sponsors of LB 720.
The Legislature spent approximately three hours discussing LB 627. Introduced by Lincoln Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, this bill would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Proponents argued that young people are bypassing our state for jobs because we are one of only twelve states that don’t offer this protection for LBGT individuals. Opponents countered that sexual orientation or gender identity should not be a protected class of individuals, that it could encourage lawsuits, and that it could restrict the religious beliefs of business owners. Under the speaker’s rules, the sponsor of LB 627 will have to prove that she has thirty-three votes in order for the bill to be placed on the agenda again, which appears unlikely.
My first bill was passed by the Legislature this past week. LB 406 will assist the State Treasurer’s Office in more efficiently administering the Unclaimed Property Program.
The Corps of Discovery Welcome Center closed last month. It is located on Highway 81 in Nebraska, just across the border from Yankton. I initiated a meeting with representatives of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, the Tourism Commission, and economic development organizations in Northeast Nebraska. The purpose of the meeting was to see if we can find a way to keep this building open and staffed, as it plays a very important role in promoting Nebraska, as tourists cross the river into Nebraska.
The Unicameral Update is a daily source of information, covering legislative activity. It can be found on the homepage of the Legislature’s website at nebraskalegislature.gov. Furthermore, a print publication of the weekly Update contains the same articles that appear online. Interested persons can subscribe to the free publication by calling (402) 471-2788 or by subscribing online.
I wanted to make sure that high school students with an interest in law, government, leadership or public speaking are aware of the 2019 Unicameral Youth Legislature, held June 9-12. It is a 4-day legislative simulation conducted at the State Capitol. Students will act as senators and sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, and debate legislation. Registrants are encouraged to apply for a Speaker Greg Adams Civic Scholarship award, which covers the full cost of admission. Registration forms can be obtained at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl.
Although I am in Lincoln during the week, I try to attend functions in my legislative district when I am back home on the weekends. I will be in Wakefield on Saturday, March 23, for a Town Hall meeting at the Legion Hall from 1-3 p.m. If you would like to discuss legislation or another issue and I don’t see you in the district, please contact my legislative office at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2801.
The first cloture vote was taken this past week on LB 399, a bill that updates the civic education standards in our K-12 schools. Cloture is a method used to stop a filibuster. After six hours of debate, a motion can be made to invoke cloture. If thirty-three senators vote in support of the cloture motion, it immediately shuts off debate, allowing for a vote on the pending motion or amendment and then on the advancement of the bill. The cloture vote was successful and LB 399 advanced to the second stage of debate, where another filibuster is likely.
Most of the initial opposition to LB 399 focused on the requirement for students to take the civics portion of the naturalization test used by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to measure student mastery of the social studies standards in 8th and 11th grade. The Education Committee amendments dealt with concern over the use of this test by giving districts three options to choose from: require the naturalization test; require the student to attend a governmental meeting followed by a project or a paper; or require the student to complete a project or paper and a class presentation about a person or event commemorated by one of the holidays listed in the bill, such as George Washington’s birthday or Veterans Day. Just a couple senators continued to oppose the bill and extended the debate, requiring the cloture motion.
The first priority bill was debated by the Legislature this past week. Every senator is allowed to designate one bill as their priority bill. Senator Tom Brewer of Gordon selected LB 155 as his priority bill. LB 155 removed from statute the statement that the use of eminent domain by public power for transmission for privately developed renewable energy generation facilities is a public use. The purpose behind LB 155 was to prevent public power districts from using eminent domain for the benefit of private wind companies. NPPD is planning to construct a 345,000-volt transmission line (R-Project) in Northern Nebraska, to increase the reliability of the transmission system. Many Sandhills residents do not want wind projects crossing their property and feeding into this line. Opponents of LB 155 feared it would send a “closed for business” message to the renewable energy industry and cited the economic benefits from wind projects. Some were concerned that this could prevent public power from using eminent domain for transmission to any such project.
After several hours of debate, LB 155 failed to receive the necessary twenty-five votes for advancement, falling two votes short. I supported the bill because I believe that eminent domain should be used very infrequently and that it should only be used for a public good.
Senators began discussing property tax relief this past week. LB 183, introduced by Senator Tom Briese of Albion, would reduce the assessed value of agricultural land solely for the purpose of educational bonds. As amended, LB 183 would lower the value of agricultural land from 75% to 50% of actual value for this purpose. In some areas, rural landowners pay a disproportionate share in the funding of K-12 schools, but are outnumbered by non-rural residents when voting on school bond issues. The intent of LB 183 is to help equalize the tax burden for new school buildings and renovations. LB 183 was given initial approval on a 29-1 vote, but will now wait to see what package the Revenue Committee advances on property tax relief, to determine how it fits in.
The Appropriations Committee presented their preliminary report this past week to the Legislature. It is quite similar to the Governor’s recommendation, containing approximately $24 million more than the Governor’s budget, for a two-year budget of $9.4 billion. When presenting the preliminary report, the Appropriations Committee chairman warned that further cuts may be necessary after the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board meets. The following day, the forecasting board lowered projections for the current fiscal year and the next two years by approximately $110 million. The forecasting board will meet again in April and the projected revenue at that time will be used in the final biennial budget.
One of the meetings I attended this past week presented information on 2-1-1. This is an information and referral system linking Nebraska residents to health and human services, community and disaster response, and government programs. This program is free and serves the entire state.
As the Legislature continues with debate in the morning and public hearings in the afternoon, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts on the issues 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 email@example.com.
Every day before the Legislature convenes, a state senator leads the Pledge of Allegiance in the legislative chamber. I have already volunteered to lead the pledge on January 16 and will sign up again. I think it is important to set this precedence before the senators get to work each day, to instill a sense of patriotism amongst senators and to carry on a very important American tradition.
The Education Committee and the Revenue Committee held hearings this past week on several bills that were introduced to provide property tax relief and alter the school finance system to reduce the burden on property taxpayers, especially rural landowners, in supporting our K-12 schools.
LB 497, introduced by Henderson Senator Curt Friesen, was heard before the Revenue Committee. It is supported by the Nebraska Agriculture Leaders Working Group, made up of the Nebraska Cattleman, Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Pork Producers Association, Nebraska Soybean Association, Nebraska State Dairy Association and the Nebraska Wheat Growers Association. This legislation seeks to phase-in over a three-year period a minimum state aid guarantee for school districts to equal 50% of basic funding as determined by the state aid formula. Furthermore, for school taxation purposes only, a reduction in the value of agricultural land from 75% to 40% would be phased-in over the next three years. The local effort rate in the state aid formula would be lowered to $0.9750 and an annual maximum property tax authority would be set for each school district, to help ensure that the additional state aid is used to lower the property tax request.
To fund the property tax relief, LB 497 proposes to repeal the $10,000 personal property exemption, repeal certain sales tax exemptions (for such things as real property and motor vehicle maintenance, dry cleaning, pet services, food, personal care, travel agencies and zoo admissions), increase the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack and increase the excise tax on alcohol. Since the state budget would not be impacted by the additional aid until the 2020/2021 fiscal year, the new revenue would allow for a transfer of $150 million to build up the Cash Reserve Fund.
LB 314 was introduced by Albion Senator Tom Briese and also heard before the Revenue Committee. This legislation recognizes that Nebraska relies too heavily on property taxes to fund K-12 education. LB 314 proposes to increase the Property Tax Credit Program by $468 million. Currently, $224 million is appropriated annually for the tax credit program which is reflected on property tax statements. LB 314 would also increase the reimbursement rate for special education, restore the allocated income tax returned to school districts to 20%, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit from 10% to 15%. Finally, the legislation calls for a school finance study.
To fund the proposals in LB 314, several sales tax exemptions would be eliminated. The exemptions are similar to those in LB 497, except LB 314 would tax candy, soft drinks and water, instead of all groceries. As introduced, it also would raise the sales tax by ½ cent, add a surcharge on high income earners, end the tangible personal property tax exemption, eliminate state income tax itemized deductions (except medical), increase cigarette taxes and increase the excise tax on alcohol.
Senator Briese offered an amendment at the hearing to strike the increase in the excise taxes on alcohol, replacing it with a 3% increase on sales tax on alcohol and expanding the tax increase on cigarettes to all tobacco products. Local craft breweries were concerned that the 345% increase in the excise tax would severely curtail their business and the amendment aims to resolve the cash flow issue.
At this time, it is hard to predict which bill or bills will advance from the Revenue and Education committees and what amendments will be offered. I signed on as a co-sponsor of LB 497 to show that I am supportive of property tax relief. However, I am open to studying any proposal advanced to the floor of the Legislature proposing to reduce property taxes. I am supportive of eliminating certain sales tax exemptions, as they give specific people a break on taxes, but result in a higher rate that everyone must pay. It is bound to be challenging discussion.
I am interested in your thoughts on property tax relief. I can be reached at District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org 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.