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Last week was the start of the second session of the 105th legislature, and my second session as your State Senator. The first ten working days of session are the only time when bills can be introduced, and last week was almost exclusively the introduction of bills. Between day one, Wednesday, and day three, Friday, nearly two hundred bills were introduced. Several bills have already gotten attention, and no doubt you’ve seen or heard about some of them in this paper, on your local news channel, or on social media. The next step for most of the bills will be referencing to a committee by a group of senators elected from within the body. This group sends bills to the committees tasked with dealing with the areas of law those bills concern: so the roads bills are sent to my colleagues and me on the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, and the tax bills are sent to our colleagues on the Revenue Committee. I am serving again this year on the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, and on the Government, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee, as well as the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, a special committee. In fact, all of the senators are serving on the same committees as last year, with the exception of Senator Theresa Thibodeau, a new appointee by the Governor to replace former Senator Joni Craighead.
I am looking forward to this session, which will be composed of 60 working days lasting from January 3rd to April 18th of this year. The legislative session this year will be dominated at some point by discussion of finances: the state government is staring down the barrel of a $200 million shortfall, and calls for tax relief from citizens are at an all-time high. I will be introducing a major proposal to provide the property tax relief that the people of District 41 (and hundreds of thousands of others across the state) need for our economy to thrive. It will also include a comprehensive look at how we can take the burden of education funding off of property taxes while still giving our children the kind of quality education they will need to make Nebraska a leader for the whole of the 21st century.
I also have a bill which will be a low-cost way for the state to investigate whether our Beginning Farmer Tax Credit needs to be adjusted to encourage young people to come into the business of agriculture. I believe that programs like this are needed now more than ever. The average age of a farmer in America is now close to 60 years old, and it’s been rising every year. Our older farmers deserve to have the freedom to retire when they choose to, not before or after they are ready. But with population shifts to the cities in rural states like Nebraska, and land and equipment prices representing significant barriers to entry, young people just getting started in life are either too far from farms and ranches to consider a move, or don’t have necessary financial capital to start farming.
If you need to get in touch, the best way is to call my office and speak with my staff (or leave a message if you call over the lunch hour) at (402) 471-2631. My legislative website is news.legislature.ne.gov/dist41/ and my facebook page is at facebook.com/SenatorTomBriese
The 2018 legislative session is only a few weeks away. It will begin on January 3rd, and will run until mid-April. I would like to take this time to give you some of my thoughts on the upcoming session, and to give you the opportunity to send me some of your thoughts.
During the 2017 session, much less was done in the legislature than many Nebraskans -myself included- had hoped. Several weeks at the beginning were slowed down by a contentious debate over the rules, and a number of controversial bills held up progress as they were each subjected to a filibuster. A budget shortfall of nearly a billion dollars meant that many state programs saw smaller increases in funding than they had been expecting, and a small number experienced cuts. In 2018, I believe that we will all anticipate some deja vu, as projected revenues have not yet begun to move upward again. This will mean another session of limited funds for new programs, and more time spent revising the budget.
I also know that property taxes will be a major issue once more. I will introduce bills addressing the burden of property taxes that our farmers and ranchers have struggled under for years, and which is now also shared by many of our friends in town. I am certain that other senators will also bring bills to tackle the issues of property taxes. Additionally, those who pressed hard last year for state income tax breaks will certainly keep up their efforts. I am hopeful, however, that a reasonable compromise can be reached, by which Nebraskans of all stripes can see the tax relief which will be the most beneficial to their communities, businesses, and families.
I’d also like to hear about what matters to you. As a favor to me, I ask that you take a short 5-minute survey on what life is like where you live, how you feel about some government services, and what issues matter the most to you. You can find the survey at surveymonkey.com/R/Briese2017 or by visiting my legislative website or facebook page and clicking on the link to the survey. I will take the feedback you give me extremely seriously, and I will use your thoughts to inform how I vote in the Legislature next year. I intend to make this a yearly way by which I can hear from all of you.
Finally, while I will continue to submit columns to this paper every two weeks during the legislative session, I’d like to invite you to sign up for my newsletter mailing list at eepurl.com/c-m87j. The link will also be available on my legislative website and Facebook page. I plan to use this to reach out to you in the future when the most important topics come up. I also encourage you to let your friends and neighbors know about both the survey and the newsletter.
Thank you so much for taking the time to give me your feedback, and for trusting me to represent the very finest people in our state.
I’d like to know how the people of District 41 feel about some local and government services, and ask you send me a comment. I’m conducting a survey before the 2018 session begins. I encourage you to take the survey, and to tell your friends about it! The link is at https://surveymonkey.com/r/Briese2017
Two weeks ago, the legislature passed a budget, and sent it to the governor. At that time, I had several concerns about the budget as passed, and spending in general.
General fund appropriations have increased at an average rate of 5.3% per year during the four fiscal years ending June 2013 to June 2017. During that same time however, our state’s population grew less than 1% per year, and the Consumer Price Index increased at an annual rate of 1.2%. So our state’s spending has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase and inflation combined.
And now, we’ve encountered a revenue shortfall. My concern is that with the state of our agricultural economy, this revenue shortfall may not improve anytime soon.
To pass a balanced budget, while not raising taxes, several steps were taken. The cash reserve, or rainy day fund, which only a few years ago was over $700 million, will be drawn down to roughly $370 million; over $200 million was raised by one time transfers from various cash funds; our general fund reserve, previously at 3%, was lowered to 2 ½%; and various spending reductions were instated. But even with these reductions, state spending will again increase in the upcoming fiscal year and beyond, albeit at a lower rate.
Faced with this, the governor vetoed roughly $56 million from the budget as passed, returning the general fund reserve to 3% and reversing a transfer from the Roads Operations Cash Fund.
Last week, several senators offered motions to override many of the governor’s vetoes. I voted against these override motions. I made my decision out of concern over spending in general, but also after examining the pattern of spending relative to each category vetoed by the governor.
Specifically, I compared the FY ’15-’16 appropriations to the FY ’17-’18 appropriations after the governor’s veto. In other words, I asked “what is the two year spending trajectory of these programs even as reduced by the governor’s veto. In the case of probation general fund appropriations, for instance, even after the veto it would be up 28.23% from where it was two years ago. Child Welfare would be increased by 16.5%, State Court Operations by 13.51%, Medicaid by 4.3%, Behavioral Health by 4.07%, Developmental Disability by 2.52%, and the University by 1.19%.
So over a two year period (and in most cases over a one year period from FY ’16-’17 to FY ’17-’18), the vetoes are not truly cuts to these programs. Instead, they simply reduce the increases and flatten the trajectory of general fund increases to a more sustainable level. As a result, I felt that sustaining the governor’s vetoes was consistent with the obligation of being a good steward of taxpayer’s dollars.
Senator Tom Briese
Nebraska Unicameral Legislature
1445 K Street Room 1120
Lincoln, NE 68508
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Lincoln, NE – Nebraska State Senator Tom Briese today announced his support for a ballot initiative as part of a comprehensive plan to deliver property tax relief to the state. “Nebraskans from one end of the state to the other are demanding property tax relief,” Briese said. “And when we collect $1.2 billion more in property taxes than income taxes, and $1.5 billion more in property taxes than state, local and motor vehicle sales taxes, it’s clear that Nebraskans deserve that relief.”
“There were bills introduced this year that would have yielded substantial and significant property tax relief, but failed to make it to the floor of the legislature. The bills that did make it to floor debate would have yielded only minimal relief.”
“Many of us have the political will to deliver substantial and significant property tax relief. But the will of the legislature, yielding to outside interests, is questionable. That is why we propose taking this issue to the people by placing it on the ballot.”
“But property tax relief requires a multi-faceted approach. So rest assured that we will continue our efforts at property tax relief within the legislature. I anticipate that a package of proposals will be brought forth, including spending restraints, tying property tax relief to triggers, eliminating tax loopholes to replace property taxes, and valuation reform.”
“However, because of the uncertain political will to do what is needed within the legislature, I believe that a ballot proposal will be the cornerstone of any property tax relief package. And because of this uncertainty, I believe it is imperative that we get this issue to the voters.”
A number of large proposals have come before the Legislature in the last two weeks. Certainly the budget has been, and will continue to be, the major defining issue of the session. LB 457, my bill which would have brought voluntary termination agreements with school districts back inside of the levy lid and budget limit was amended into LB 512. That bill passed to final reading with an amendment which, while not bringing voluntary termination agreement spending entirely back inside the lid as we had originally envisioned, still substantially reduces the amount of monies for such agreements which can come from outside the lid, thanks to a compromise. While not ideal, this is a step forward and signals that the legislature is serious about working to reduce local spending as part of the larger effort to bring meaningful tax relief to all Nebraskans.
Another key proposal debated last week was the governor’s LB 461, which was billed as comprehensive tax relief. Because LB 461 prioritized income tax relief over property tax relief, I could not support it in its current form. As I told my colleagues, I believe that LB 461 would add to the imbalance in our tax structure, and would eventually increase our reliance on property taxes in Nebraska. We simply cannot ignore the crisis of property taxes which is happening all across our state. There are farmers who are on the verge of bankruptcy because of high property taxes; there are young people putting off the purchase of their first home because property taxes will push their monthly payment out of their budget; there are older Nebraskans on fixed incomes who can no longer afford to make the property tax payments on the homes they paid off decades ago. It is because of this that I will continue to advocate for tax relief, but only if it includes substantial property tax relief.
This week, we will continue to debate the budget. Currently, our budget increases overall spending by 1% from the current biennium. To do so, we are reducing the rainy day fund below $400 million, and doing a one-time sweep from various cash funds of state agencies and programs. I am concerned about the sustainability of such an approach, and I also am concerned that revenue projections going forward are too optimistic. As a result, I will support additional responsible spending reductions.
The budget has dominated the atmosphere in the Legislature the past two weeks, and as the budget discussions go on, I will continue to keep property tax relief as my number one priority. I maintain that to attain the substantial and significant property tax relief Nebraskans deserve, we must replace some property tax revenue with other sources, and we must also reduce spending. Last week in the Legislature, I had an opportunity to discuss both approaches.
Nebraska law limits the maximum property tax levy a school district can impose, and it limits the growth of school budgets, both with some exceptions. One such exception is for money used in voluntary separation agreements with certificated employees. These agreements are used by school districts to encourage employees to retire by offering them buyouts. My LB 457, merged into LB 512, was an attempt to put the funding of those deals back within the levy and budget growth limits, like almost all other school district spending.
LB 457 would still allow the use of these agreements, but we owe it to the taxpayer to require such agreements to be paid for within the tax levy and budget restrictions. To those schools impacted, I maintain that a district would have to either reprioritize its spending or take that increase in spending to an override vote of the people. The Legislature debated the issue twice in recent weeks, and debate was heated both times. I offered an amendment, which was adopted 33-0, to give districts three years to comply with the bill.
Last Tuesday, as the day turned into evening, Omaha Senator Burke Harr threatened a filibuster of the bill. Several senators were absent at that time, so we didn’t have enough votes (33) to withstand a filibuster, and had to agree to an amendment by Senator Harr which would still allow these agreements to be utilized outside of the tax levy lid and budget limit, but with some restrictions. In criticizing this compromise, I asked if it made sense to require money spent to improve education for our children to be within the levy limit, while allowing funding for retirement agreements to be unlimited.
The same day, we discussed LB 640, a bill to limit school funding derived from property taxes. Property Tax Credit Fund dollars were to fund this. I offered an amendment to expand the sales tax base, and eliminate a couple of income tax exclusions rarely used by a handful of Nebraskans, and use those funds to replenish the Property Tax Credit Fund. We began debate on my amendment, but didn’t get a chance to vote on it or the bill itself, when the time limit of three hours expired. LB 640 may or may not be debated again.
Recently, the Revenue Committee announced its plan for comprehensive tax reform for Nebraskans. While it does provide the income tax relief which some had promised, I believe that it falls short in delivering the property tax relief which Nebraskans desperately need. I have nothing against income tax reform, but it must be delivered hand-in-hand with comprehensive property tax reform. There are no Nebraskans who are facing a choice to close their businesses, sell their belongings, or give up land which has been in their family for generations as a result of the burden of income taxes. But there are farmers, ranchers, and others among our friends and neighbors who are facing those exact choices because they cannot afford to keep paying their property tax bill when it is larger than their income for the year. The sole provision for property tax reform which the Revenue Committee is advancing is LB338, which is a well-intentioned take on the issue. However, my concern is that LB338 won’t provide the degree of relief that is needed. That bill would value land using a capitalization rate – that is, it would assume that the revenue which a piece of land can generate is based on a percentage of the market value of the land. My concern is that, no matter how the capitalization rate is set, this proposal will not give long-term relief.
I will continue to work with many of my fellow senators who were sent here with an explicit mandate to give real property tax relief to all Nebraskans – to those of us in rural areas, and to our friends in the towns and cities. Because if property tax relief lifts off of some, while leaving others struggling, it will only be the beginning of a back-and-forth of each group sending senators to Lincoln to shift the property tax burden back onto someone else. Nebraska needs to be a state where people come when they are young and starting their careers, where they come in middle age to raise a family, and where they come to retire – and to make each of those choices without hesitation that they won’t be able to continue to live in their own home or work their own farm because they are forced to pay substantial rent to the government to keep their own land.
This week featured a big change in tempo at the Nebraska Legislature. Since January, we have had debate on the floor of the body every morning until around noon, and then committees have met in the afternoon (sometimes late into the evening). By the end of last week, every bill introduced this year had received a public hearing, a requirement of our one-house legislature to ensure that the people of the state have had the opportunity to voice their thoughts on every bill. That requirement being satisfied, the body moved into all-day debate, with only a break around noon for lunch. This will be our format until the last day of session, which is June 2nd.
The previous week, a bill by Senator Williams of Gothenburg easily advanced through the first of three rounds of debate. LB 518 would adopt the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Act, and use existing funds from the largely under-utilized Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and create grants to encourage the building of new workforce housing in rural areas. The issue of available housing in Nebraska is well-known to any rural senator. Without homes to move into, new people cannot move into a community; without new people, businesses cannot expand; without expanding businesses, a community cannot grow. It is a cycle which is holding back the massive potential which exists in Nebraska. I believe that this bill will help to break that cycle.
I introduced LB 256 this session as my own proposal to address workforce housing issues in rural areas. However, as that bill was not prioritized, and there are so many bills for the body still to address this session, it is unlikely to be heard in full debate until 2018. Because of this, and because I believe that addressing the workforce housing shortage is one of the most important things we can do to unleash the great potential of the great state of Nebraska, I signed on to Senator Williams’ bill as a co-sponsor. Fixing this issue is something everything can agree on, regardless of their political ideology, and the fact that the bill was advanced on a vote of 41 to 0 on its first vote attests to that.
I would like to invite the high school students of the 41st district to participate in the Nebraska Unicameral Youth Legislature this summer from June 11 through 14 in Lincoln. This is a truly unique experience for students in Nebraska to experience out truly unique legislative body – from the inside!
The Unicameral Youth Legislature gives behind-the-scenes access to students with an interest in public office, government, politics, law, public policy, debate, or public speaking. Students will learn about the inner workings of the Legislature directly from senators and staff. A number of $100 scholarships are available, as well as the Greg Adams Civic Scholarship, which covers the full cost of admission and requires a short essay submission.
There are few things more important to the future success of our nation, our state, and especially our rural communities than young people finding an interest and a passion in policy and civic engagement. If there is a high schooler in your life who might enjoy this program, please pass this information on to him or her.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature is coordinated by the Office of the Clerk of the Legislature. Housing and recreational activities are coordinated by UNL’s Extension 4-H Youth Development Office as part of the Big Red Summer Camps program.
For more information about this incredible program, go to www.Nebraskalegislature.gov/uyl or call (402)471-2788. The deadline for registration is May 15.