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Joan and I wish you and your loved ones a very happy Thanksgiving! We are all so blessed, and should be eternally thankful, to be able to live the Good Life here in the greatest state in the greatest Nation which has ever been. Give thanks.
This Monday was Veterans Day. Whether you are close to a veteran or not, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to reflect on why this holiday exists.
The date of November 11th harkens back to the last day of the First World War, when the guns which had been firing for over four years came to a stop on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. At 11:00 on 11/11/1918, the Armistice between the Entente Powers, also called the Allied Powers, and Germany took effect (earlier armistices had already come into effect with Germany’s allies in the war). Between 15 and 19 million people lay dead, including 110,000 Americans. Tens of millions more had been wounded.
This was called “The War to End All Wars,” and all of the nations whose citizens fought and died in the conflict commemorated the anniversary of that day in 1919. And again in 1920. Over time, almost all of the belligerent nations officially marked the date with solemn tributes to the dead and honor to those who went to war – whether they came home or not. This holiday was called, variously, “Armistice Day,” “Remembrance Day,” and sometimes “Veterans Day.” In the United States, it was marked as “Armistice Day” from 1919 onwards. It was formalized as a federal holiday by act of congress in 1938, “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.” As early as 1945, a World War II veteran named Raymond Weeks began advocating for a day to honor all veterans of all of America’s wars. This celebration began in some places as soon as 1947, but congress officially renamed the day “Veterans Day” in 1954, and designated the day to honor all veterans.
Since 1914, over 30 million American men and women have served our nation during wartime, and millions more served during peacetime (although their service is no less honorable, the public records tracking these veterans are not as complete). During that same period, over 1.1 million Americans were wounded while fighting or supporting our nation’s wars. Just over 7 percent of the US population are veterans (about 22 million people), and here in Nebraska, around 9 percent of our friends and neighbors have served (about 130,000 people, according to the Nebraska Department of Veterans Affairs). That’s a lot of people to be thankful for! And we also have to be thankful that we have such a high percentage of our population who have served. Veterans are resilient and hard-working, more likely to start successful small businesses, and bring home higher median earnings. But it’s not all good news. Veterans are more likely to have been divorced, more likely to be at risk of suicide, and more likely to struggle health concerns. Our veteran neighbors are great men and women, but they must never stop receiving our support. In addition to thanking the veterans you know on Veterans Day, I would encourage you to show your support throughout the rest of the year, by volunteering with or donating to a charity which serves our veteran community in some way. Thanks for taking the time to read this, and may God continue to Bless our veterans and our great Nation.
As recovery efforts continue to pick up after the storms across state, my office has been in close contact with state and local officials to make sure that the people of District 41 are not forgotten about. As of Monday, more counties have been added to the higher level of available federal aid under the Emergency Declaration, and additional counties are still under consideration. As I’ve written before, the most important thing is that all of your damages are documented and reported to your county Emergency Manager. I’m asking every local official I speak with to tell me or my office if they aren’t getting the support they need from the state, and I’m glad to hear that most have positive things to report.
I also want to take time to update you on the property tax relief efforts of the Revenue Committee, of which I am a member. As many of you know, there were multiple bills directed at property tax relief this year, including some of my own. The Revenue committee has been working to put together a tax reform package, reflecting the contents of several of those bills. It is the intent of the committee to have a bill on the floor of the legislature by mid-April. We are currently working out the details of this “package,” which I will describe in more detail below.
The Revenue Committee reflects a cross-section of the body, with perhaps a slightly more conservative bent. We are made up of four urban and four rural senators. Because of the need to overcome an almost certain filibuster effort on the floor, it will be necessary to be able to ultimately secure 33 votes of the 49 members of the whole Legislature. With this in mind, I believe it would be very important to send a package to the floor with an 8-0 vote of the committee. Because of the need to get 33 votes, and to get as close to full support as possible in the committee, I’ve always felt that out of political necessity, the package should include several components. Something for everyone, so to speak. And that is what we most likely will present: a package that contains several components that will help to get buy-in from rural and urban interests, the business community, and the ideological right and left.
With several details still to be ironed out, the tax reform package will be anchored by a mechanism to deliver meaningful and substantial property tax relief for all Nebraskans. To accomplish that relief, the package will include components to generate new revenue, direct that revenue to school funding, and ensure that those dollars yield significant property tax relief. The revenue components will be centered around sales tax revenue, specifically a rate increase and closing some loopholes and exemptions, partly using components of my LB 314 and LB 507. The school funding components will most likely be a hybrid of bills by Senator Friesen and Senator Groene. It is likely that additional revenue components will include a small step up in the cigarette tax, utilization of internet sales tax revenue, removal of some income tax loopholes, and elimination of the personal property tax exemption, among other items.
As I write this, it is possible that the tax reform package will include some measure of income tax relief, a business tax incentive component, and a mechanism to compensate low income folks for their added sales tax outlays. But again, some of these details are still being ironed out, and are subject to change. But whatever emerges from the Revenue Committee, I’m confident it will be a tax reform package that can deliver immediate and substantial property tax relief for hardworking Nebraskans, and grow that relief as we go forward.
Since my last column our state, and the 41st district in particular, has suffered through flooding of historical proportions. Nebraska has more miles of rivers than any other state in the US, and for the first time ever, every single river in the eastern part of the state has crested at a new record high.
There’s been an enormous amount of damage to private business and homes, causing financial strain on our residents. There’s also been a tremendous loss of infrastructure, including damage to highways, roads, bridges, and railroad lines. In addition to the personal loss and hardship, all of the above has a negative impact on economic growth in our state, and rural Nebraska in particular.
Over the weekend, I had a chance to inspect some of the damage in our district, including to one of our local communities, where a majority of businesses and many homes took on serious damage. An event like this can have a devastating impact on any community, but especially our small rural communities.
My fellow state senators and I were briefed on Monday by the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and Major General Bohac, who heads the agency as well as the Nebraska National Guard. At the briefing, we learned that calf losses alone from the flooding and the blizzard were estimated at 1 million heads. At the very conservative estimate of $200/head, that’s $200 million dollars in loss to the state economy – that’s before all the waters recede and we learn how these disasters are going to impact crop producers as well as our small town businesses.
But throughout all the bad news, I’ve been impressed by the sense of community I’ve witnessed as Nebraskans come together to help their neighbors in overcoming events such as this. Rural Nebraskans are resilient and self-sufficient. But there’s only so much they can do. That is why it is imperative that the federal government implement a disaster declaration. That can free up federal resources to help our state, our communities and our residents to overcome this disaster. Thankfully, the Governor and NEMA have requested an expedited Major Disaster Declaration from the President, through FEMA. In doing this, Nebraska may be able to see help much sooner than the six to eight weeks that it often takes to receive federal help after a disaster occurs. I appreciate the efforts of Governor Ricketts and our congressional delegation in their efforts to see that a federal disaster declaration be announced as soon as possible.
For those of you wondering what you can do in times like this, the best places to go will be right in your own community. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army, along with many churches and community groups, have been coordinating shelters and supplies for those who need them, and County Emergency Managers have been working with NEMA. As always, call 911 if you or someone you know is in an emergency situation.
Lastly, on the topic of legislation, there has been some movement on several of the bills I introduced or co-sponsored this year. I will give you more information on those issues in my next column.
Since mid-February, the revenue committee has now held hearings on four more bills I introduced to that committee as part of a comprehensive look at ways we can begin to address the property tax crisis. I’ll briefly cover each proposal, and also give you an overview of what I expect to see coming out of the committee in terms of tax relief.
LB314 probably got the most attention of any of my bills so far this year, and understandably so: if passed as introduced, it would represent a significant change to the reliability of K-12 education funding, a comprehensive alteration to our state tax structure, and would nearly tripled the amount of money every homeowner, farmer, and non-ag business owner receives from the property tax credit fund. The bill had its share of opponents, as any change to tax structure is bound to, but I was also glad to see that representatives of education groups, ag groups, and everyday property taxpayers all came out to support it.
LB507 and LB508 are very similar bills which serve the same purpose: close loopholes in our sales tax law and direct any new money as a result to the Property Tax Credit Fund. Every fiscal policy group I’ve come across, from the OpenSky Policy Institute to the Platte Institute to the Tax Policy Center, agrees that the best sales tax must be applied broadly to almost all consumer purchases. Various groups, of course, take different approaches to whether necessities like medical expenses and food should be included. Most agree that business inputs should be excluded. Both of these bills would close dozens of loopholes in our sales tax code, carved out over decades by special interests and lobbyists. When one purchase is arbitrarily not subject to sales tax while others are, the state collects less money. The more this happens, the less money the state has to spend on things like K-12 education and state services. The best policy is to close all of the loopholes at once, so that no one group or industry is singled out. This, of course, is easier said than done: the common refrain from almost every special interest at these hearings is “good tax policy dictates a broad base, and almost all transactions should be subject to tax. Now, here’s why my carve-out is special….” I appreciate the hard work that many of the lobbyists for these special interests do to protect special treatment for their clients, but at the end of the day, when property taxes are starting to have a crushing impact on our state’s economy, we simply cannot maintain that special treatment.
Lastly, LB506 is a comprehensive tax asking cap on K-12 property tax requests which would ensure that any new money directed to K-12 education would result in a corresponding drop in property taxes for all Nebraska taxpayers.
Now, there are a lot of competing property tax relief proposals out there. I expect to see the aspects of my bills, and the aspects of others’ bills, which are most likely to have traction in the body be put together into a comprehensive package. When everyone has contributed a piece to the whole, and when everyone has several things to like -and maybe a couple of things to dislike- about a proposal, it has a better chance of passage than one single concept from one person.
I’m glad this year to be serving with great colleagues on the revenue committee, and very grateful that the body elected someone like Sen. Linehan to chair the committee. Working together, and keeping the best interests of all Nebraskans at heart, I am confident that this year will be the year that a meaningful step forward for property tax relief has a fighting chance in Lincoln.
Last week, the 106th Legislature convened on Wednesday and elected chairs and made committee assignments. I was fortunate enough to have earned the trust and confidence of my colleagues to serve as the chair of the General Affairs Committee. The General Affairs Committee has a wide mandate which covers a number of topics including the regulation of alcohol and gambling, libraries, music licensing, cemeteries, the Nebraska Electrical Act, and the Nebraska Arts Council.
On Wednesday, the Committee on Committees was selected and, caucusing by congressional district, assigned senators to serve on committees for the next two years. Again I was very fortunate to be placed on the Urban Affairs Committee and on the Revenue Committee. That second one is something I’m particularly excited by. Almost all of the bills I have introduced over the past two years which targeted property tax relief were heard in the Revenue Committee. While I will be only one of eight senators sitting on the committee, I am very hopeful that we will be able to work together to craft legislation which will give Nebraskans the property tax relief they are demanding. I say I am hopeful because Senator Lou Ann Linehan, who was elected chair of the committee, has stated her commitment to property tax relief, as have a majority of our fellow committee members. The tricky part, as always, will be finding a consensus: first among committee members, and then among the Legislature as a whole.
Over a hundred bills were introduced on the first day of session, and bill introduction will continue until Wednesday the 23rd. Only time will tell which bills draw the most attention from the public, and which bills even make it to the floor of the legislature for debate. But I always take the input of my constituents seriously, and my staff maintains a file for each bill we get your feedback on, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch. For feedback on bills, email is the best option as it allows us to organize a folder for all the folks who weighed in on that bill.
On the topic of staff, there are a couple of changes to my office this session. Elizabeth Todsen, who served as my Administrative Assistant since day one, was offered the opportunity to move up in the world and serve as the Legislative Aide to Senator Dave Murman of Glenvil, who represents a rural district in south-central Nebraska. She will do an excellent job, and I congratulate Sen. Murman on a great hire. I have hired Alexander DeGarmo to replace her, who will also serve as the General Affairs Committee Clerk. Additionally, I have hired Loguen Blazek to fill the vacancy as the Legal Counsel to the committee. Edward Boone remains my Legislative Aide.
When you come to Lincoln, feel free to stop by the office and say hi. I always have time for constituents if I am in town – although calling ahead is always appreciated. Our new office is room 1019, on the west side of the Capitol, but our phone number remains (402)471-2631 and my email is still email@example.com.
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