Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 42nd legislative district in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature.
You’ll find my contact information on the right side of this page, as well as a list of the bills I’ve introduced this session and the committees on which I serve. Please feel free to contact me and my staff about proposed legislation or any other issues you would like to address.
Sen. Mike Groene
Last night, May 25th, I took part in a “Where’s the Tax Relief” Town Hall forum sponsored by The Platte Institute for Economic Research. It was held here in North Platte. Senators Dan Hughes from District 44 and Senator Matt Williams from District 36 joined me on a discussion panel.
My focal point was, “If we want to create a fair tax system, elected officials have to stop catering to only those with the strongest lobbyist.” Some tax relief was given last year, but only to a few special interest groups.
For example: last year we introduced LB717, legislation that would have given comprehensive property tax relief to all Nebraskans. It gained traction and was considered a viable solution, what derailed it was that urban senators did not want to face the fact that the state is not doing its fair share of supporting K-12 public education. Although Nebraska, according to the last US News and World Report, was 18th in the nation in overall spending on public education, we rate at the bottom, 49th in state support of our schools. The fact is, the state dumps support of our schools on property tax payers.
It was frustrating being a member of the Legislature to see the lack of overall rationale for legislation concerning taxes. During last summer’s joint Revenue/Education committee interim study on the relationship of property taxes to how we fund public education, we were presented by the Chairman of the Revenue Committee with information that Nebraska exempts many more items from sales taxes than most states do, thus forcing more reliance on property and income taxes.
So I was a little amazed that the Revenue Committee presented LB774 and LB884, and more astonished that they passed. LB774 expanded sales tax exemptions to drug treatment centers, and for the fuel cost for commercial grain drying facilities. It also added tax breaks for some low cost housing owners. LB884 extended the area around three sports complexes: Lincoln’s Pinnacle Arena, Omaha’s Century Link Center, and the Ralston Arena. The total cost to the state’s tax base through 2020 was almost $25 million.
We led a filibuster to defeat LB423 in 2015, a $75 million tax credit scheme for special interest in the electricity generating windmill industry. At that time, they told senators they could not be profitable without the addition of state tax credits. Ironically, in 2016 the wind lobby was back with LB824, telling us that they could build windmills profitably without state tax credits, but needed relief from some state regulations.
The point is that any attempt to address a comprehensive tax relief program is hampered when we continue to give tax breaks to those entities that spend the most dollars to lobby elected officials. It becomes even harder when we do not control government spending, which is fodder for another column. Someone has to pay the bills and it is you: the working and retired middle class along with the small businessperson who shoulder the burden.
The good news is, I think after pressure from citizens, this last session and reinforced by recent primary election results, some hard headed politicians are starting to get the message. Next session looks promising for tax reform.
As printed in the North Platte Telegraph:
You decide what truth is. The present North Platte Community Redevelopment Authority (NPCRA) was created in 1999. At that time, present members Jacobson and Stefka were appointed for 5 year terms. That same year, the NPCRA issued their Public Policy Statement, which includes Article 5, the $350,000 excess value barrier. To present date, North Platte has not approved a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) project under that amount. Meanwhile, statewide, of the 736 active projects, 162 projects are under NPCRA’s arbitrary number.
TIF was created in 1978, by Nebraskans, through a constitutional ballot election. Clearly, the debate at that time shows approval was based on the understanding that help was needed to redevelop blighted and substandard areas within older parts of towns. Since NPCRA’s Policy went into effect in 1999, there has not been any new TIFs approved in the oldest areas of North Platte—between Phillips Avenue and Rodeo Road and Newberry to Buffalo Bill Avenue.
Mr. Jacobson is correct, NPCRA’s arbitrary $5,000 application and up to $20,000 attorney fees reaffirm that small developers need not apply. He forgot to mention also, the negative effect that the CRA’s policy of diverting 25% of TIF proceeds into a redevelopment slush fund has on small projects. A local private contractor who builds a single home on West A will not qualify for TIF, but they will have to compete with a multi-unit project funded by undisclosed local investors using an outside corporate builder who with TIF, will have nearly a 30% cost advantage.
Mr. Jacobson stated, show us your plan: The city of Kearney’s redevelopment plan is a good place to start, city management vets the projects and then forwards to their CRA. They charge a $100 application fee. Administrative fees are $250 for projects under $250,000, $1,000 under $500,000, and $2,000 for everything above. They have an attorney on retainer; last year’s total legal fees were $9,565. Small projects are feasible in Kearney because they do not bond indebtedness; the developer is refunded only the excess taxes necessary to pay for approved documented infrastructure expenses. They wisely avoid the interest, legal, and bond issuance cost. Kearney selectively, no matter of size, approves projects that improve the face of the city.
Mr. Jacobson aptly avoids answering my question. Does the public have the right to be assured that elected and appointed public officials, or their close business associates, will not profit from their official actions? I would think the city council, for the sake of good government, will demand disclosure of who the investors are in any Limited Liability Company (LLC) that seeks TIF funding using a corporate builder as the front man. I plan on introducing legislation next year that will make it mandatory that any LLC that seeks local or state government funding must expose their investors.
Menards and other big box home improvement stores have built facilities in every mid-sized city in Nebraska; a John Deere dealer bound by a local franchise under corporate pressure to update facilities and a strip mall developer already in the process of construction before approval of their TIF is all the evidence needed to dismiss the notion that retail projects would not happen without TIF.
Mr. Jacobson falsely claims that I attack TIF; contrarily, my purpose is to protect its proper use. He also falsely claims the legislature has rejected any attempts at addressing problems in TIF law. In 2015, other senators and I introduced legislation that would have created for the first time, state oversight of TIF. A compromise was achieved in LB539 in which CRAs were added to the list of government entities that the state auditor may audit; believe me when I say audits will happen. In 2016, others and I introduced TIF legislation; as a first step, the Urban Affairs Committee asked us to get a legal opinion from the Attorney General’s (AG) office on some questionable TIF usage. We are in the process of seeking that opinion. Most of my colleagues understand that the original concept of TIF is being abused. Over the last 10 years the cost of TIF to local property tax bases has exploded from $26 to $66 million. Major legislation will happen.
Transparency and accountability: they go hand in hand to insure an outcome of good and open government. That fact was well stated in a recent local editorial “Public business requires openness” in relationship to public access to e-mails of government officials.
The need for unfiltered transparency in government was brought home again by a recent report on the Nebraska Tourism Commission issued by State Auditor Charlie Janssen. Irresponsible expenditures, double dipping of travel expenses, purchase of alcohol and cigarettes, poor oversight over an advertising account, and nepotism by the executive director were highlighted by the audit. Our local Lincoln County Visitors Bureau was mentioned twice in the audit, but only as references to State Tourism Commission personnel not reporting expenses correctly while conducting tourism business with our local county bureau. To put a stop to any rumors, correctly filed documents from our local county tourism office enabled the state auditor to reference misdeeds of the commission staff and did not implicate them in any of the wrong doing by the state tourism commission.
The lodging tax that funds the Nebraska Tourism Commission has grown appreciably, due mainly to higher motel rates and the propensity for each new generation of American families and businesses to travel more; over the last ten years, it has increased from $3.2 million to $5.2 million. Locally, the lodging taxes collected by Lincoln County to fund our county tourism bureau have increased over the same period from $287,000 to $961,000. This fast growth of funding reinforces the need for vigilant oversight by taxpayers.
Friday, the Nebraska Tourism Committee placed its Executive Director Kathy McKillip on investigatory suspension, with pay. One would think the “with pay” will be for a very short period of time. Even if there is no proven criminal intent, the evidence is there for shoddy fiscal management practices that wasted tax dollars; grounds enough I would think for dismissal with cause. The Commission also passed a face saving motion to provide for more commission oversight of employee expenditures in the future. I will add that Lisa Burke, our Lincoln County Visitors Bureau Executive Director has only been a member of the commission since July of 2014, and her short time on the commission may have been a factor in the proper changes being made.
Next year there may be interest in the Legislature to take away the independence of the Commission and put control of it under the executive branch by inserting it back into the State Economic Development office. The makeup of the Commission also may be looked at; it presently is heavily weighted towards those who directly profit from tourism tax dollars. I will support both efforts if presented to the legislature.
The truth that needs to be emphasized is that all government entities are the property of the citizens and the taxpayers who fund them. Government officials who develop a mindset of ownership instead of as the public employee they are (one who is accountable to the people—their bosses) need to be confronted and replaced. More importantly, any appearance of crony capitalism where an official uses their appointment to enrich themselves or friends should be exposed, they should be publicly embarrassed and dismissed. So whenever you are lambasted by a present or past disgruntled elected or appointed public official, calling your queries into government toxic, ignore them; do not let corruption hide behind political correctness or a bullied sense of see-no-evil politeness. We owe it to the many good elected or appointed officials and public employees to not let the bad apples sully their reputations and hard work. I believe I was partially elected by you to ask the hard questions. I have found that rumors start with unanswered questions. In fact, I welcome any questions you may have about decisions I have made publicly or privately that are related to public issues. I guarantee, you will get an answer. Some may say: if you cannot take the heat then do not apply for a job in the kitchen.
Please do not hesitate to contact my office email@example.com or 402-471-2729 with any comments, questions, or concerns.
May 25: Platte Institute Hosts North Platte Tax Relief Town Hall
Senators Groene, Hughes & Williams Provide Solutions for Reform
NORTH PLATTE, NE (May 10, 2016) – The Platte Institute for Economic Research will host a panel and town hall program with Nebraska State Senators Mike Groene (District 42-North Platte), Dan Hughes (District 44-Venango) and Matt Williams (District 36-Gothenburg) on the subject of comprehensive tax reform in the 2017 Nebraska legislative session.
The event is the first live town hall program in Western Nebraska as part of the Institute’s Strong Roots Nebraska campaign for tax relief. The town hall will be held on Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at the Quality Inn & Suites Sandhills Convention Center (2102 S. Jeffers St. North Platte, NE 69101) from 5:30–6:30 p.m. CT
Comprehensive tax reform means looking at Nebraska’s whole tax structure to make changes that better promote economic growth by expanding the tax base and reducing tax rates. Free event registration is available online for the public and the media at taxtownhall.eventbrite.com. An event flyer is attached in PDF format.
The Platte Institute’s Strong Roots Nebraska campaign engages Nebraskans about the need for tax relief to address state economic challenges — including job and wage growth, retirement security, and out-migration — and provides workable solutions for creating a more attractive tax climate.
The program entitled, “Where’s the Tax Relief?: What will it take to make meaningful reforms to Nebraska’s tax system?” will include a panel segment hosted by Platte Institute CEO Jim Vokal and a town hall-style segment with open format questions and comments from the audience.
“Voters have been crystal clear that tax relief is a top priority for them. But Nebraskans of all political backgrounds have been underwhelmed by the pace of change in the Legislature, and feel that more needs to be done to address the state’s tax policies,” said Jim Vokal, Chief Executive Officer of the Platte Institute. “The Band-Aid approach to tax relief isn’t working because any gains can easily be undone by changing circumstances at the state and local level. This tax relief town hall will give the senators an opportunity to put forth bigger, bolder options for reform and get immediate feedback from constituents,” said Vokal.
The Tax Foundation ranks Nebraska’s state and local tax policies on the high side for the region and the country. Per person property tax collections rank 13thhighest in the country, while the state’s top personal and corporate income tax rates rank 16th highest. Nebraska also levies other economically inefficient taxes many states are turning away from, including taxes on tangible personal property and inheritance taxes.
Nebraska’s business tax climate is ranked 27th, behind every neighboring state except Iowa and worse than the top five states that have received the most income from Nebraska due to tax migration since 1992 (Texas, Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Missouri).
The 60 day session of the 104th Legislature came to an end last Wednesday. We met to consider overriding the Governor’s vetoes and sit through the farewell speeches of the eleven senators who will not be returning due to term limits.
The Governor vetoed three bills:
LB580 Redistricting Act: It would have changed the method of how we adjust the boundaries of election districts due to population shifts after the 2020 United States census. At present, our state constitution directs the legislature to adjust the boundaries for the 3 federal congressional districts, 49 state legislature seats, public power commission, state school board, and University regents. The bill would have set up a partisan commission to bring a proposed plan directly to the floor of the legislature and effectively take the decision out of the hands of the nonpartisan legislature. It was said that it was a contentious issue last go round, senators got upset, and we all needed to get along. My belief is that politics should have heated debate, the public should be able to witness it and have input into that debate. Politicians are giving more and more authority to un-elected appointed commissions to avoid having to take a stand on issues. You can see that locally with the un-elected Community Redevelopment Authority (CRA) and the rubber stamp some city councilmen give to the CRA’s Tax Increment Financing decisions. The sponsor of the bill pulled the legislation before the override vote occurred.
LB935 State Auditor’s bill: The majority of the language was good, giving the auditor more access to government information. But an amendment was added which changed how the travel expenses of state employees, elected officials, and Governor appointed commission members were to be calculated for reimbursement. At present, if I or any other state employee remits expenses to the accounting office, we must show receipts; the bill would have changed it to a per-diem schedule. The taxpayer should be able to see where I was and how I spent their money. The State Auditor agreed to work with the Governor to change the legislation next year and pulled the bill before the override vote occurred.
LB947 Issue professional or commercial licenses to the children of illegal undocumented aliens. My argument was that most recent immigrants came here legally. That is why when I meet any citizen, no matter what their accent, nationality or race, I assume they are legal citizens. Illegal immigrants cheat the system and jump the line in order to reap the benefits of America’s protected promise of freedom. What knits the fabric of freedom together in America is our firm belief in the “rule of law”. To erode that fabric by granting exceptions to the law, giving the same rights to those who broke the law as are guaranteed to legal immigrants is a path we should not venture down. The Governor’s veto was overridden by two votes. Nebraska now joins California as the only states that have fully put this practice into law.
Overall as a freshman senator, I am satisfied that I was able to influence the final product coming out of Lincoln. My time was not wasted and hopefully neither was your confidence in me. Votes can be changed with reason and legislation tweaked in committee and on the floor; I was able to have an effect in all those areas.
The legislature will look different next year, with a minimum of eleven new senators due to term limits. As I watch how over time political arrogance grows, the disconnect widens between politician and citizen and I see how the influence of lobbyist’s big money grows over incumbent senators, the stronger proponent of term limits I become. Due to some controversial votes taken this past session there also may be a few of the 14 incumbents up for election who may not be returning next year.
I plan to keep writing my column every couple of weeks to let you know what the future may bring.
LB977e Every committee has what is called a cleanup bill that throws a menagerie of small changes to existing law into one bill. The Transportation Committee bill includes provisions to increase weight limits on certain large agriculture equipment. Counties can seasonally change weight limits on equipment to accommodate the fact that agriculture equipment is getting larger and heavier. Another provision allows for a breast cancer awareness license plate. I supported.
LB886 Volunteer firemen can now receive a $250 state income tax credit to help cover their cost of volunteering. I supported.
LB1038 Added $1 million in funding to continue the invasive vegetation spraying program along the states rivers. Non native vegetation is causing loss of precious water and clogs river flow, they need to be controlled. I supported.
LB1022 Changed provisions relating to Legislative Audit Office. Allows for more information to be gathered from the Revenue Department on cost of economic development programs, but shady politics entered in when an unrelated amendment was added in committee to extend the sunset dates of the Advantage Act by two years. I support economic incentives, but I am a bigger proponent of transparency in government. I brought the issue to my colleges on the floor of the Legislature and told them I will introduce legislation next year to change the sunset dates back to next July. The Advantage Act has worked, but taxpayers need to know at what cost and the Legislature should honor the original timeline to adjust the Act in an effort to improve the program. I voted no.
LB959 Eliminate minimum levies for school districts to receive state aid. This helps good school administrators manage the taxpayers’ school budgets. School board members no longer have the excuse that they have no control of school spending. They can no longer tell you “the Legislature won’t let me do it” when you ask them to cut your property tax bill. Some semblance of local control has been returned to local public school funding with the passage of this bill.
LB745 Raised lids on Game and Parks fee and permit provisions. Allows the commission to raise camping, hunting, and fishing permit prices. I supported because I believe in the principle of “if you use it, you should pay for it”. According to the 2015 Nebraska Game and Parks Information Guide, 16% of Game and Parks funding came from the general fund and 84% was generated from user fees during the 2014-2015 fiscal year. A couple of senators mentioned that it would help if Game and Parks do a better job of policing the parks to make sure both native and non-resident freeloaders pay their fees when using park facilities.
LB10 Change provisions relating to presidential electors from splitting between congressional districts to winner take all. 48 states have a winner take all rule. I had mixed feelings on this bill. If political parties really want the people to vote for their candidate, they ought to make sure that they convince the average citizen that their beliefs are best for them. At present though, I believe since Nebraska has differed from all but Maine in its method of choosing Electoral College votes, it weakened our national influence of who becomes president. I voted for LB10, but it did not bother me that it lost.
LB884 Change Convention and Sports Center Facility Financing Assistance Act. Only Omaha’s Century Link, Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank Arena, and the Ralston Arena now qualify for the kickback of sales taxes collected near the facility. This extends the area allowed to recoup sales taxes at an eventual cost of $10 million to state tax collections. That means you, the taxpayer, will have to pay more in taxes to support ever increasing state spending. I opposed the bill.
The Legislature has added another $234 million to future spending and in some cases restricted your freedoms. Mark Twain was correct when he said “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session”. The good news is this legislative session is coming to a close.
LB 1103 Medicaid expansion. Obamacare is financially unsound and the new president and congress we elect this November will have no choice but to address it. Nebraska has taken a watch and see approach to Medicaid expansion and has seen other states make costly mistakes. The proposed plan would have had to be approved by the federal government and would not have taken effect until 2018. The bill did not make participants have a financial stake in their healthcare costs. I voted against it.
LB 586 Prohibit employment discrimination based upon sexual orientation. Present law protects sex, marital status, age, national origin, and physical handicaps from employment discrimination. Historically enacting laws protecting rights for perceived differences has not shown to improve our acceptance of each other. Religious freedom considerations also weighed into my decision. I voted against the failed bill.
LR 378CA Right to farm Constitutional Amendment. We are no longer an agrarian society; many citizens today have lost the connection between the farm and where their prepackaged food originates. The sponsor of the bill had enough votes to pass, but not enough to overcome a filibuster, he pulled the bill. He plans to bring another version next year.
LB 959 Eliminate requirements that school districts maintain minimum tax levies to receive all of their state aid. School administrators and boards are presently penalized for good fiscal management practices. Also, the bill would lower the maximum levy allowable for Environmental Quality projects from 5.2 cents to 3. The Qualified Capital Purposes Undertaking Fund was created back in the 1980’s to address asbestos and other environmental quality issues in older buildings. Recently there has been instances where the fund has been misused for new construction and unassociated remodeling projects. It passed General File. I support the bill.
LB 958 Property tax relief. It would add $30 million to property tax credit fund, directing it to ag-land. It turned into fight over income verses property tax relief; it was adjusted to $20 million. It is a mess, the bill does nothing to control government spending: the real cause of our high taxes.
LB 1067 Eliminate the Common levy mandate to the eleven school districts in the Omaha metro area that attempted to create the one school one community concept. It’s a failed experiment that actually caused a rift between rural, suburban and urban senators. Eliminating it will put all schools back into the State aid formula. There is a catch: the cost, state aid, will increase approximately $7.4 million. I can live with that, but urban senators wish to add another $6 million for their cooperation. It passed General File with a promise that the cost will be adjusted. If the final version exceeds $11 million, I will oppose.
LB 1059 Addressed two sections of municipal economic development law. I liked the first section, it will put more transparency into Tax Increment Financing by requiring applicants to inform the city if they are also applying for incentives from the Nebraska Advantage Act and if the incentive includes a refund of city sales taxes. The second section of the bill, which I opposed, allowed sales tax dollars from the Local Option Economic Development act (LB840) locally known as the Quality Growth Fund, to be used for a Workforce housing development plan. I find it peculiar that North Platte’s DEVCO board had already created an $8,000 per house credit program that was partially funded with Quality Growth fund money, but then again we are known for being creative in our economic development programs. I withheld my approval along with 21 other senators on the General File vote. I believe sales tax dollars used for economic projects should be used only for commercial projects that create long-term employment. The bill passed into law. I would hope that city councils are not misled to believe that the legislation affirmed present questionable use of TIF for housing projects.
So far, this year’s Legislature is on its way to approving bills that will add $248 million in deficit spending to next year’s biennium budget. That budget is already expected to increase 4.1 % annually just to maintain present programs. We are operating more and more like Washington every day.
Twelve days remain in the 104th legislative session.
LB843 Change provisions relating to prostitution; the bill basically legalizes prostitution in Nebraska, it ties prostitution to legislation passed last year on sex trafficking. If a prostitute claims the pimp made them do it, the police officer is instructed to consider the prostitute a victim of sex trafficking and the police officer must grant them immunity from prosecution. The pimp is considered a trafficker in sex. The only person that can be charged with the crime will be independent prostitutes. So guess what? To avoid prosecution, in the future all prostitutes will have no choice but to work with a pimp. This legislation is bad for many reasons but one that stands out is that a police officer should not be granting any verdict of immunity or guilt. We have county attorneys and judges for that job. It passed general file debate. I voted against the bill.
We will have two more shots at correcting the legislation.
LB900 Repeal the mandatory motorcycle helmet law. Again Senator Bloomfield attempted to modify the helmet law. I believed he made his legislation better by outlawing that any child less than 8 years of age from being a passenger on a motorcycle. He also would have created a brain injury trauma fund paid for by motorcycle registration fees. Since states surrounding Nebraska do not have mandatory helmet laws, I argued that the law was hurting our tourism. Bikers heading to the Black Hills avoid Nebraska and local bikers spend their travel dollars in Colorado, Wyoming, and Kansas. It was defeated, three votes short of the 33 needed to move the bill along.
LB894 Change right to attorney for juveniles. It would have forced juvenile court judges to assign every juvenile an attorney, even if the parents and their child preferred not to have one, basically denying them their right to waive that right to that attorney. Most juveniles end up in a diversion program before they go to court and most of the rest that go to court eventually end up in the same programs. Our judges already offer counsel to all juveniles and if they believe they need it, they assign a public defender. After discussing the situation with local court officials, it became clear that our rural court officials handle youth cases with the best interest of the children in mind. LB894 would have added unneeded cost to local county budgets. Rural senators stuck together to fight the bill. We ended up with a compromise where only counties with populations over 150,000 were mandated to do so. After being assured that rural Nebraska was exempted I withdrew my opposition. The amended version advanced.
LB910 Change provisions to the Office of Parole Administration. Politics played a hand, an unrelated and many of us believed not germane bill, LB690 was amended into the bill. It would have eliminated all restrictions on convicted drug offenders receiving food stamps (SNAP). At present, they must prove that they are enrolled in a prevention program or have completed one. It also denies three time drug offenders and all convicted drug dealers from receiving food stamps. This is an example of the political practice of sticking unpopular legislation into needed legislation. We fought the bill and killed it with a filibuster. The original bill LB910 improved oversight over our parole system, which I support, and will be amended into another needed bill. At the end of the day the right thing was done and a message was sent that we all needed to hear: do it right or lose the good with the bad.
Our LB770 To eliminate the Nebraska Exchange Healthcare Commission. The commission is an example of government waste. This commission is in existence to oversee a Nebraska Healthcare Exchange that never was created. Instead Nebraska opted to participate in the Federal Exchange. By eliminating the commission, the good citizens appointed to the Commission will no longer waste time attending unnecessary meetings and the state will save $4,200 this year. A small step to eliminating government waste. The bill has passed through the first two rounds of debate without opposition.
The State budget: We have a biennium (2 year) state budget cycle; this year was the off year, so the Legislature only made changes to the overall budget to adjust to revenue forecast and perceived pressing needs. The Tax Receipts Forecasting Board predicted an expected $100 million plus reduction. The Appropriations Committee addressed most of the shortfall by moving excess spending authority of $87 million from the Health and Human Services Department to other expenditures. Basically using accounting tricks to balance the budget this year, additional spending of $91 million was achieved by using the state’s savings account, the cash reserve, to fund $50 million for a new Transportation Innovation Act to create a cash fund in order to speed up the completion of the 4 lane express high-way system; $27.3 million to fund prison expansion; and $13.7 million to fund the Papio Natural resource District’s project to improve the flood levee system around Offutt Air Force Base in the Omaha metro area.
Originally the Governor wanted $150 million for the roads project; historically, we fund our roads with user fees (gas tax). This was another effort to have your income and sales taxes to be used for roads; I am in principal against that practice, but the appropriations committee along with the sponsor of the LB960 changed the bill to $50 million and the remainder funded in the future by 2 cents of the gas tax hike that was enacted last year. I considered it a good compromise and supported the new version of the bill.
Prison overcrowding is a reality in Nebraska. The ACLU is threatening a lawsuit and tensions due to overcrowding helped cause a riot last year at the facility in Tecumseh. Also in the general fund budget $16.4 million was added to the Corrections Operating budget. Part of that was $5 million for per diem payments to counties for housing state prisoners; Lincoln County will benefit.
The $13.7 million for the Papio NRD levee project was the item that frustrated me the most. When the prospect of losing irrigated farmland acres and the associated loss of economic activity in our local NRDs became an issue, we addressed it locally. Irrigated farmers are paying a $10 per/acre fee to pay for the project. I see a correlation to the Papio project. Metro area local governments including the Papio NRD is paying for about 45% of the project, but you and I are helping to pay for the rest.
I thought a $4.4 billion budget was worthy of debate, so I made sure we spent at least an hour or so on the topic; in comparison, we had just spent 6 hours on mountain lion hunting. I voted for the overall budget but against the practice of directly paying for one time projects out of our state’s saving account. I believe that all spending should show up in the general fund budget. That is the way our personal budgets work; why not the government’s?
The rest of the session we will debate where we will spend $10 million that was granted by the 9 members of the appropriation committee to the other 41 senators for proposed legislation.
LB900: Senator Bloomfield is again trying to grant freedom to Nebraska’s motorcycle operators who wish to decide for themselves when they deem it necessary to wear a helmet. Most of the states around us grant that freedom giving cause for tourists on motorcycles to avoid our state when road tripping across our country, thus harming our local hotel and restaurant businesses. This time around Senator Bloomfield, the sponsor of the bill, has added a prohibition of children under eight years of age from being passengers on motorcycles and he also added a fee to a motorcycle licenses that creates a traumatic brain injury fund. These additions should alleviate some of the concerns of senators who opposed the legislation in the past.
We have 16 days remaining in the session. I will continue to temper the attempts of those who believe that you need a government nanny to look after you.
This past week at the legislature;
LB 344 Provide Natural Resource Districts (NRDs) with the power to issue general obligation bonds. This bill flew in the face of attempts to control property taxes. We do not need another mechanism for a government entity to put the taxpayer in deeper debt. The bill was pulled by the sponsor when he realized the bill did not have the needed support. Of course I helped defeat it.
LB 1009 Prohibit the sale of certain synthetic drugs. In some smoke shops, a presently legal look alike drug “K2” has caused severe reactions to users and over 100 trips to emergency rooms in Lincoln alone. The bill passed general file. I supported it.
LB 817 The Direct Primary Care Agreement Act. It would allow a primary care physician to create an agreement with customers for a monthly fee for services. It saves clerical costs and gives assurance to patients of what their primary health care costs are no matter how many office visits they need. LB 817 passed general file. I support the concept.
LB 1109 Proposed change to open public records laws, exempting the University of Nebraska from disclosing candidate information for chancellor and president positions. Transparency in government actions is a tenant that I will defend to the utmost. Although we have been told that board of regents unanimously support LB1109, this legislation is the focus of one very wealthy and influential individual, Howard Hawks, who is a member of the board. He is a good and admirable individual, but on this issue he is wrong. Presently every public employee in a management position must be ready to be scrutinized by the public: fire and police chiefs, superintendents of schools, county road department heads, etc. The University wishes to place five employees above the law. The defenders of transparency in government led by members of Nebraska’s news media is unanimously opposed to the bill. It passed general file with 36 affirmative votes. There will be further debate on select file.
Budget came out of committee. It transfers from the cash reserves $50 million to create a Transportation Infrastructure Bank and in the future 2 cents of the gas tax increase that passed last year will go directly to the fund to allow quicker completion of major road projects. Originally the sponsor asked for $150 million which I did not support, but with the change to fund in the future with user fees in lieu of general fund money, I will reluctantly support. The budget will transfer $13.7 million to do a local Papio NRD project improving flood levees around Offutt Air Force Base. I am not in favor; there is a reason for local governments including NRDs, one being that local taxpayers should pay for local projects. State prison systems will receive $27 million to build facilities to reduce prison overcrowding in Lincoln. Overall $91 million will be spent out of the $725 cash reserves.
In the General Fund portion of the budget $5 million is added to reimbursed counties for housing state inmates. Lincoln County is at present participating in the program; they should be compensated. Along with other spending increases the biennium annual spending will increase from 3.5% to over 3.7% annually. This is before another $10 million will probably be spent on the floor of the legislature on new legislation. As a fiscal conservative looking at an uncertain economic future, I would prefer to keep cash reserves high. I am uncertain if I will support the budget when it comes to the floor. There will be debate.
Property tax relief is uncertain at this time; there are a vast array of different interests that spend your tax dollars along with rivalries between property tax payers and income tax payers as to who should get tax relief. Until taxpayers can unite on a common front, the lobbyist for government spending will continue to win out. I am still hopeful we can get a bill offering property tax relief to the floor of the legislature.