NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
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Sen. Mike Groene

Sen. Mike Groene

District 42

The 2016 60 day legislative short session will begin in a little over a month. A summary of some of the major issues that will be addressed are:

1) $110 million budget shortfall. Anybody associated with agriculture or the railroad knew this scenario was coming and I happen to believe the deficit will be higher when the forecasting board reports in February. Last session we expressed an opinion as to 3.5 % annual spending increase in the state budget not being sustainable with the economic outlook we now face By law, the legislature is to maintain a minimum 3%, approximately $240 million, in a “General Fund reserve” to cover fluctuations in cash flow, so we will either revisit the budget or cut spending (my preference) or transfer money from our $725 million “rainy day fund” which is created by excess taxes collected from citizens beyond the budget needs. I would prefer government did not overtax its citizens in the first place.

2) Juvenile Probation System. The Legislature’s move of juvenile probation to the Judicial Branch has operated for a mere 15 months. There is now sentiment by some legislators to move it back to the Executive branch’s Health and Human Services Department. The spat is over separation of powers between branches of government. The legislature in 2014 created the “Office of Inspector General of Child Welfare.” The person holding that position asserts that they have not been given all the information they have asked for; the Chief Justice rightly believes that judicial independence is core to the separation of powers between the branches of government. In the short time the new system has been in place it seems to be working well, detention rates of youths have dropped, and with parents now being backed by the strong arm of the judiciary, more troubled teenagers are staying in the family home instead of foster care. This situation is more about strong personalities than about a failed probation system. There is also talk of moving adult probation out of the judicial system. I will not support any changes to probation next year – we need to give it time.

3) Prison reform will be back next year. I believe the new Prison Director is doing a good job identifying what needs to be fixed in the system. I do not believe the money is there for all of his proposed fixes, unless we shift spending priorities. Again we need to give the new prison director time, and quit blaming him for errors in management that preceded him.

4) I have stated that it will take a shift of millions in spending either within school funding or between agencies to lower your property tax bills. Jon Habben of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association has testified before the Education committee stating that since 2007 $287 million in state aid has flowed out of rural Nebraska because of property tax inequities. We just finished a series of meetings held by the joint Revenue and Education committees on the property tax burden in relationship to public education funding. Unrealistic real estate valuation increases, antiquated minimum taxation levy requirements on school districts, lack of a foundation aid base for every student no matter where they attend public school are some of issues we identified. I plan to work with other senators to address these issues with legislation. I will go into greater detail in a future column.

I would like to give a shout-out to the elected officials and employees at the County who actually cut their tax-dollar request by $60,000, the city of North Platte did not increase property taxes and the Twin Platte Natural Resource district cut tax bills by $529,000. Those elected officials deserve a thank you. It seems the government entities in charge of our educational facilities are still unable to control spending; ESU 16 14.2 % increased $166,000, Mid-Plains 10.8% increased $1,470,000 and the six school districts in our county increased their property tax request by a combined $3.53 million. Some of the increases by the public schools can be blamed on state government policies, but not all.
I will be writing columns more frequently as the session nears. I need the input of the citizens and the best way to accomplish that mission is to keep you informed.

The overwhelming concern I hear from constituents is burdensome property taxes, of which the largest portion goes to public education (50 to 70%).

Therefore I sought and was appointed to the education committee. During this last legislative session I supported an effort to have a joint interim study by the Education and Revenue Committees to look at the source of the pool of tax dollars that funds public education. The committees have met five times over the last three months and on November 12th there will be a public hearing held in Lincoln. The discussions so far have been productive and probably will result in proposed legislation.

Back in 1990, the Unicameral looked at this same issue. Their answer was the “Tax Equity and Educational Opportunity Support Act” (TEEOSA), a “three legged stool” plan, that would fund education with equal shares of Income, sales and property taxes.

They attempted to equalize property taxes statewide by limiting local school tax rates to a high of 1.05 with a minimum of .95 or lose state aid. What they did not take into consideration was property valuations skyrocketing out of proportion on agriculture land statewide and housing and business property in certain cities. That miscalculation has led to 159 rural school districts out of 245 receiving no state equalization aid, including Hershey and Wallace.

Of course when there are losers, there are also winners. The state aid lost by rural schools has allowed more dollars to go to urban school districts where valuations have not increased as rapidly. 24 large school districts with 65% of Nebraska’s students receive 85% of all state aid. North Platte is one of those districts, but over time, stagnate enrollment numbers and a rising valuation due to a good housing market has curtailed gains in state-aid for the district.

What I believe should happen:

1) Originally the TEEOSA formula guaranteed 20% of personal income taxes collected in each school district be returned in state aid, but with each budget crisis that came along the legislature diminished it to the point that it is now a non-factor. The basic idea still has merit; even a 10% income tax allotment would make a huge difference in Wallace’s and Hershey’s school property taxes. In order to add funding stability, it should be calculated on statewide collections and allocated on a per-pupil basis.

2) Property tax relief to citizens in equalized districts such as North Platte, Brady, Sutherland and Maxwell could be gained by lowering the max tax rate a full 10 cents to .95, thus shifting a portion of funding back to the state. Also by eliminating the minimum levy requirement we could put local control and taxpayer pressure back into school board fiscal decisions.

Those adjustments would cause a shift of around $160 million from property taxes back to income and sales taxes.
We must address the problem of rapidly rising valuations, double digit increases are expected on farm land the next two years. A freeze on valuations at 2015 levels for at least a couple of years would be a good start. Presently, valuations are based on a three year average for farmland and two years on residential sales history. Long term, one answer to stabilizing valuations could be to use five years of history with a provision to throw out the highest. If we do not address rising valuations the underlying cause of the problem will remain.

There are strong political interests that do not want change. School districts that get the majority of their funding from state aid like the present outcome, high income earners who pay a larger portion of their overall taxes on income would prefer income tax relief, other state funded government entities do not want to compete for tax dollars with increased aid to public education, and some local taxing entities like to hide behind rising valuations without having to face angry taxpayers when they raise tax rates.

The reality is in the long run if we do not slow down overall government spending nothing we do will please taxpayers. In 2005, for example, Nebraska taxpayers supported public education with $1.9 billion; 10 years later the cost has increased to $3.1 billion.
Property taxes are a regressive tax; owning property is not always related to the ability to pay. I believe there is a solution; we will see who agrees in Lincoln.

If you have any comments or issues that you wish to discuss, please contact our office at 402-471-2729.

Thursday and Friday of last week the Education and Revenue Committees met in an executive session on the subject of funding sources for K-12 public education. In 1990, the Legislature created the present Tax Equity and Educational Opportunity Support Act (TEEOSA) in reaction to pressure from overburdened property taxpayers. Twenty-five years later, and after many legislative changes to the TEEOSA formula, we are back to the same problem. But this time, the inequity is concentrated on rural school districts. Citizens in the Wallace and Hershey School districts receive no equalized state aid for their school children. North Platte receives $2,611 per student while the eleven school districts in the Omaha area Learning Community receive $3,806; Lincoln Public Schools receive $3,205, and Grand Island Public Schools receive $5,129. Last year 159 school districts out of 245, including Wallace and Hershey, received no equalized state aid.

This inequity in state funding for education is a major reason why property taxes are high in rural Nebraska.

There are options to correct the inequity in funding. Our state constitution declares that, “The Legislature shall provide for the free instruction in the common schools of this state…” and also says, “The state shall be prohibited from levying a property tax for state purposes”. Presently, 56,835 Nebraska children living in un-equalized school districts do not receive full support from the state to provide them free instruction. Rather, their education opportunity is paid for mostly by local property taxpayers. Creating a guarantee of foundation aid to each student would help fix the inequity and also enable rural school boards to lower the property tax bill to citizens. Secondly, removing the mandate that school boards must maintain a minimum tax rate to receive the full amount of state equalized aid or averaging adjustment aid, would allow local school boards to respond to taxpayers’ demands to lower the property tax burden. Finally, lowering the maximum tax levy 10 cents (i.e. to 95 cents) would give everyone property tax relief: homeowners, businesses, and agriculture. These changes would shift more of the cost to state government, where it belongs, and remove it from the backs of the property taxpayers. But any effort will be for naught, if first we do not slow down the growth of public education spending.

Locally, the school district’s valuation increased by $117 million (5.9%); county wide the increase was $488 million (12.4%). Do not believe the scare tactics used by apologists for increased government spending. Local elected officials are quite capable of lowering your tax burden without hurting your child’s education or harming the public good.

The death penalty petition process has been successful, the citizens have spoken. With over 166,000 signatures gathered and only 114,000 actually needed, the voters will now be able to decide if the death penalty will remain an option for hideous crimes in our civilized society. After taking calls to my office by citizens trying to find where they could sign the petition, I decided to pick up a clipboard and join a contingent of local volunteers. We aided citizens’ access to a petition, thus allowing them to take part in their government. In Lincoln County, over 4201 citizens signed the petition, which was 1877 more than the necessary 10% needed. Other area counties where we presented the petition successfully were Chase, Deuel, Hayes, Thomas, Hooker, Hitchcock, Logan, and Custer. The debate will now begin and will end in the voting booths of the November 2016 election.

If you have any comments or issues that you wish to discuss, please contact our office at 402-471-2729.

Once again, the month of June found taxpayers lining up at the county assessor’s office filing property valuation protests. Property taxes are a regressive tax that does not directly relate to the ability to pay, and are the number one complaint – by far – that I get from my constituents. In truth, it is not valuations that are the cause of high taxes, the culprit for burdensome property taxes is spending by government; always follow the money trail. But how do we gain property tax relief?

The question really is: Can we control government spending? First we need to lower our expectations of what government should do for us, for starter, parents do not expect government to raise our children.

Second, property valuations are only half of the equation, the tax rate levied by the local elected officials of public schools, city, county, NRD’s, and community colleges is the largest factor that can be lowered to give property tax relief. Taxpayers need to contact these elected officials and tell them you do not give them the authority to spend the excess tax dollars that will be generated from the huge valuation increases. The final numbers are not in from the County Assessor’s office, but estimates are that county wide the percent increase of total valuations could be in the double digits.

Watch the spending, there is no excuse for any government budget going up more than inflation, which is presently less than 2%.  Add in a little room for population growth and any taxing entity that raises its budget more than 3% is abusing the good will of the taxpayer.

The main user of property taxes is your public schools, for most taxpayers between 50-70% of their tax dollars go to the schools. The School Board can lower the tax rate from the max of 1.05 to 0.95 without losing state equalization aid. Any excuse that a school district can’t lower its tax rate because, for example, it may lose a perk in state aid, such as the $273,331 System Averaging Adjustment factor the North Platte Public schools received last year, should be dismissed by the taxpayer. If the School Board can raise administrator salaries 3% from $2,500 to $5000 per administrator, it should be able to give the taxpayers a break.

We are working on property tax relief. Since public schools take the largest majority of property tax dollars, any tax relief discussion must include the topic of a shift of funding from property taxes to income and sales taxes. This interim, the Education (I am a member of) and Revenue Committees are studying the makeup of the pool of money that funds education. Hopefully, we can come up with a method to shift some of the funding source from property taxes, without raising any new taxes (absolutely not an option for me). We also need to look at how to slow down the spending increases. Since 1990, when the present state aid formula was created, total combined taxpayer effort of property, income, and sales taxes has risen from $955 million to $3.1 billon, meanwhile student enrollment has gone up only 10.8 %. It is obvious that any lack of success by our public schools can’t be blamed on lack of support from the taxpayers. Just a thought, it may be that our hardworking teachers need a little more parental support, along with public support, in an effort to give them back disciplinary control of their classrooms.

The Natural Resources Committee has scheduled the public hearing to examine issues surrounding the N-CORPE augmentation project. The hearing will be held in North Platte on September 21st. If you have some input that you believe the senators should hear, make sure you put the date on your calendar, show up, and be heard.

A month has passed since the legislative session ended; and after a short respite we now start the process of Legislative Resolutions (LRs). These are requested by senators for interim committee studies and hearings on issues important to their constituents.

We introduced LR323 to examine the issues related to the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement (N-CORPE) (augmentation) project. The Interlocal Cooperation Agreement created by four Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) – the Upper, Middle, and Lower Republican NRDs and the Twin Platte Natural Resources District (TPNRD). Not only do we want the Legislature, led by the Natural Resources Committee to examine the issue, but we also want to give local citizens an opportunity to be heard on the subject, which did not happen when N-CORPE was created.

The TPNRD, which encompasses most of Lincoln County, is involved due to its embroilment in the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program. Citizens living in the TPNRD area owe, producers downriver, water from over-appropriation of the shared river. When looking at the numbers though, it seems the taxpayers in the TPNRD are paying an equal share of the capital cost, but getting a much smaller benefit from the groundwater usage.

The Republican NRDs are involved because they need to comply with the Republican River Compact, an agreement made in 1942 with Kansas and Colorado. The scare tactic used was that unless we created N-CORPE, Kansas’s lawsuit demanding that Nebraska reduce the number of irrigated acres by 327,000 in the Republican River Basin along with millions of dollars in restitution, would be upheld by the courts. There is no evidence that the court would have agreed with Kansas.

What did happen, is that our 42nd Legislative District – Lincoln County – is now taking the brunt of the effects related to the N-CORPE project. Lincoln County lost 19,500 acres of cropland, which included 15,800 acres of irrigated farmland. Not only did local business lose the sales to the farming operations of the land, but local taxing entities have lost $28.5 million in property valuations and $463,000 in tax revenues. There is also the additional loss of thousands of acre feet of our natural resource, groundwater, lying directly under our county.

Furthermore, area farmers have the burden of being charged $10/acre occupation tax on irrigated farmland, on top of high property taxes that include a relatively high NRD tax levy. The occupation tax in the affected NRDs is generating over $14 million in occupation taxes annually. Of that total, $3.17 million comes in from the TPNRD. Since its inception in 2014, N-CORPE has already spent $21,543,856 in tax dollars, an awful lot of money for an irrational concept of pumping groundwater into a now eroded creek bed. In hindsight, one wonders why rational minds did not look at a long range stewardship plan over the past 30 years; we knew this day was coming.

The Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, Senator Schilz of Ogallala, has agreed to hold a hearing in the North Platte area sometime in mid-August.

Some questions concerning government power and transparency need to be answered. How were the preliminary decisions to create N-CORPE and purchase the land made outside of open meetings of the boards? Do open meeting laws need to be addressed on what constitutes an open meeting? When a school or county board decide to build a school or jail, they must seek voter approval. How were the NRDs able to put the taxpayers in debt for an $83 million land purchase, and millions more for a pumping field and pipelines, without the voters consent?

The focus of the resolution is to address the long term consequences of the augmentation pumping and try to answer the following questions: Which entity is responsible for oversight of the project? What are the long term consequences to property tax receipts? Is any harm being done to neighboring landowners, and does this do more harm than good to the long term future of irrigated agriculture in our area?

Our goal for this resolution is threefold: to highlight the burden Lincoln County is carrying for a statewide problem, seek more transparent government through open meeting law revisions, and encourage a search for better answers to the dilemma we face. One idea is to go back to the Federal Government to look at diverting Platte River floodwaters to storage dams in the Republican River Basin, and add new ones in the South Platte Basin. We need to do a better job of stewardship of our groundwater to protect irrigated farming for future generations.

Remember, this is not a debate about us versus them. The Natural Resources Districts and the groundwater they govern, belong to all of the citizens. So show up at the hearing and let the senators on the Natural Resources Committee know where you stand on the future of your groundwater.

The legislative session ended on a good note. We adjourned after the 89th day; less damage will be done to your pocketbook by avoiding the 90th day. Some senators, sensing that events were out of control due to the effects of a major vote trade, along with judgement errors made in the learning process by freshmen senators, believed the best option was to slow the session down and run out the clock on the 90 day session. Due to those efforts, legislation that was unwanted by the majority of Nebraskans was delayed for now. Hopefully a stigma has now been attached to the practice of vote trading and freshmen senators have learned not to cosponsor bills before reading them.

The budget ended up at a 3.5% average increase over the next two years. That increase in spending is larger than necessary considering inflation has been under 2% in recent years. There was an additional $63.5 million of spending that, because of a state budgeting policy, does not show up in the budget. It is considered onetime spending of excess cash reserves. That excess tax dollars was the result of over taxation of hardworking Nebraskans. Included in the $63.5 million are $17.2 million for a federal fine on the misuse of foster care money, $25 million for a virtual reality training center at the UNMC in Omaha, $8 million for Creighton University’s new Dental College, and a $5.5 million payment to Kansas for the Republican River settlement.

Even though it is a two year budget, there will be attempts to add more spending to the second year of the biennium budget. Government does not follow the same budgeting rules that we do in our private lives. I will oppose any new spending next year. With the downward collection of taxes in the latest tax revenue reports, we ought to be cutting the budget.

Last Days

LB268 repealed the death penalty. Currently, there is an attempt to overturn that decision by a petition drive. If you believe in democracy, find a petition and sign it; let’s get this issue on the ballot and let the citizens decide.

LB176 would have allowed the swine packing corporations to own the hogs from cradle to grave. The farmer would act only as a contract feeder for the packer. It was filibustered and defeated for this year. Nebraska has managed to have a thriving livestock industry with farmer or investor owned livestock. I trust the farmers to be good stewards of our food production and our environment. I am not so sure I can trust a Chinese-owned meat packing company.

LB643 was the medical cannabis bill. The sponsor sensed the support needed to advance the bill was not there, so he pulled it in order to work on it over the interim and present it again next year.

Overall, our office had some success. We got our priority bill – LB367, the pay-per-signature for petitioners – passed. If we had known the death penalty petition was coming we would have put an emergency clause on the bill so it could have gone into effect prior to the 90 day waiting period. We got a good start on oversight of Tax Increment Financing, by passing into law the ability of the State Auditor to directly audit Community Redevelopment Authorities. We helped pass a good agricultural zoning bill, LB106. We also helped stop bad legislation: LB423, millions of dollars in tax subsidies for windmill-generated electricity; LB18, an unneeded, forced meningitis vaccination for public school children; LB343, an attempt to spend more of your tax dollars outside of the state-aid formula for extracurricular educational high school programs.

This summer, the Education Committee – of which I am a member – is having an interim study on educational funding sources; out-of-control property taxes will be my main focus. We also sponsored LR323, an interim study that will have a hearing later this summer on the N-CORPE groundwater pumping that directly affects Lincoln County. I will continue to write updates every couple of weeks, and hopefully you will to continue to find them informative.

The passage of LB268, the repeal of the death penalty, on Final Reading has been the center of attention statewide. While polls show that 70% of Nebraskans approve of using the death penalty as a form of punishment for individuals that commit the heinous crime of premeditated murder, 70% of state senators have decided to do what is right in their own eyes and have voted to repeal the death penalty against the will of the majority of the citizens they represent. Personal interpretations of the Bible have been used as justification by some for their positions, and I also have looked for direction from that source. I can find many references in both the Old and New Testaments where the government is empowered to carry out a death sentence as justice for the crime of murder. I cannot find any references where life imprisonment is dictated as a punishment. As for a secular argument, a civil society cannot tolerate evil, and the death penalty affirms that belief. I will vote to uphold the Governor’s veto of LB268.

Last Thursday on Final Reading the Legislature voted to pass 42 bills into law, ready to be signed by the Governor. Ten bills that have passed this year are welfare expansion and they have added $7,172,598 in additional spending of your tax dollars on an already costly welfare system.

LB605 was one of the Thursday bills. It will provide, change and eliminate penalties, punishments, sentencing, restitution, probation, and other aspects of criminal sentencing. This legislation was brought forward to address overcrowding in our prisons. The goal is also to offer more counseling for substance abuse to try to prevent repeat offenders. The price tag is high, $8 million this biennium budget and rising to a total of $67 million over the next 5 years. Sadly, crime and punishment is a growing industry in Nebraska. I voted for LB605; it was either that, or the state builds a $300 million new jail and hires the manpower to run it.

LB173 eliminates certain mandatory minimums for felony offenses. Opposition of that bill has grown because of the fact that many of the rioters at the prison in Tecumseh would have been free instead of behind bars if this bill would have been in effect. We have decreased violent crime in Nebraska because we keep bad criminals behind bars. The sponsor of the legislation was sensing the growing opposition and decided to carry the bill over until next year. I continue to be against LB173.

LB623 is the so called Dreamers bill, which is intended to give driver’s licenses to children of illegal immigrants. I believe the bill is flawed because it does not limit licenses to dreamers only, it gives other illegal aliens with limited status an opportunity to receive a license, too. I offered an amendment that would have clearly stated that the bill only applied to dreamers, but it was rejected, so I subsequently voted against the bill. LB623 passed Final Reading, but will likely be vetoed by the Governor.

There are four days left in this year’s session. A General File bill being heard for the first time is LB176. It allows hog-packer ownership of livestock by contracting with producers to raise the hogs for them. Foreign owned meat packing plants will be able to own hogs from cradle to grave. I am against the bill since Nebraska has done well with private livestock operations; they are called family farmers and ranchers.

LB643, the medical cannabis bill, will be heard on Select File later this week. I have decided against supporting it. Its efficacy is unverified by FDA research, and is only supported by undocumented, anecdotal testimony of those who it has helped with their medical conditions. This is one of those instances where one would wish that the medical industry would come to an agreement as to marijuana’s medical benefits.

It continues to look like an increase of 3.5% to 3.7% in the budget. This number is still too high for this fiscal conservative, but we have set some groundwork to be better prepared to limit increases in the future.

As I continue to focus on property tax relief I received a letter that my valuation will go up 17% on top of the assessed valuation increases. Valuation increases do not need to turn into tax dollar increases. Local school boards, county commissioners, NRD boards, community college boards, and city councils have no excuse not to offset the valuation increases by lowering your tax levies. For example, the school board can lower your tax rate from 105 to 95 without doing harm to their state aid.

Start calling your local elected officials to let them know they cannot assume they have your approval to increase spending because of the valuation windfall. Budgets will be prepared in the next few months and will be ready for approval in September. The city and county will not only benefit from valuation increases, but also from increases in the gas tax which will increase road funding by 145% over the next 4 years. Those gas-tax dollars should enable them to lower your property taxes. Moreover, the usage of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in Lincoln County drives up your property taxes ever further. Call your City Council representative and tell them to make all property owners support their schools and local government entities by paying their taxes; that would be a good start in lowering your property taxes.

Once again, here at the Legislature, other senators have decided a rebate on your property tax statement is the answer. I do not believe in overcharging you for income and sales taxes and rebating it on your property taxes is the long-term answer. The rebate does not keep up with the rapidly rising increases in valuations and the related burden of the tax increases. The real answer is to control spending at the local and state levels.

I am supporting an interim study in the Education Committee that will look at changing the mix of income, sales, and property taxes that fund public education. The goal is to have legislation ready from the Education Committee for the 2016 Legislative Session. If you examine your tax statement you will see that around 60% of your taxes go to public education. The present system does not favor rural taxpayers. 158 rural schools out of 245 total school districts in Nebraska do not receive state equalization aid.

LB259 provides personal property tax relief for businesses, so once again, your income and sales tax dollars will rebate the property taxes that businesses pay on the first $10,000 of property at a cost of $16.4 million. I voted for it, but I would instead like to see an across-the-board property tax reduction.

LB268 repeals the death penalty. It passed second round by a large margin. I am baffled at the mindset of the majority of my fellow senators. Standing on the principles that protecting the innocent and sending the message that we do not tolerate evil in Nebraska have become outmoded. I will not support eliminating the death penalty and will support the Governor’s veto.

LB173 will weaken criminal law dealing with habitual criminals. It passed first round. The recent uprising at the State Prison at Tecumseh is a good example why we must keep career criminals behind bars. I will continue to vote against this attempt to release habitual criminals onto our streets.

LB539 is the State Auditor’s bill. This is the legislation that will add Community Redevelopment authorities to the government entities that the auditor has authority to audit. It will be the first time taxpayers across the state will be able to contact a state government agency and be able to express their concerns about the proper use of Tax Increment Financing. It is not the final answer, but it is a start at putting some accountability into a widely used tax-avoidance program.

We are down to 7 days left in the session. The budget is going to end up at about a 3.7% increase, and we still do not have long term help to alleviate your burdensome property taxes. I am working on it, and hope to be part of the solution next year.

We have 13 working days left in this session and the budget is sailing along without much debate. I have come to understand the power of the Appropriations Committee. A real concern I have is that any senator on the Appropriations Committee can sponsor legislation that is heard by the Appropriations Committee. That procedure leaves out the three rounds of debate on the floor that all other legislation must go through in order to become law. For example, the $25 million for the UNMC’s Global Center for Advanced Interprofessional Learning and its annual $5 million operational funding was tucked into LB657 – the 144 page, $10 billion mainline budget bill to fund state spending. I will look into proposing a rule change.

Another concern is the tradition that all nine members of the Appropriations Committee are sworn to show a united front in support of all aspects of the budget. The other 40 members of the legislature are left out of the debate that was shared in the executive meetings of the committee. I do not believe that to be good government. The only way to change the tradition is to make sure the next chairman of the Appropriations Committee is a proponent of free speech. It looks like, in real numbers, we will end up with over a 4% increase in spending, unless miraculously a majority of senators suddenly decide to become fiscal conservatives, and vote in favor of the taxpayers’ interests. But the interests of the lobbyists will probably win out.

I will not support LB643 – the medical marijuana bill – as it is currently written. I have heard from many parents looking to LB643 for hope that it will abate the severe seizures their children experience from a variety of causes. No one is claiming that marijuana cures any illness, but what is claimed is that it calms the effects or masks the pain caused by illnesses. We have to remember that there is a reason why marijuana is an illegal drug. Many individuals’ lives have been destroyed by addictive drug use; marijuana is one of those drugs. I will vote for LB390 – the bill that authorizes limited research on cannabidiol oil by the UNMC. In a perfect world, the two bills would be combined to create a pilot program that is well documented and studied.

LB605 makes changes to criminal sentencing and probation guidelines. Our prison system is at 159% of capacity. Either we spend millions to build and operate new prisons or we try to keep criminals out of jail. I support the attempt to rehabilitate nonviolent criminals by offering more probation options and related substance abuse programs. LB173 however, changes habitual criminal sentencing guidelines. It would let some habitual criminals out on the streets earlier. The reason the occurrence of violent crime is down is because we keep career criminals in jail. I will vote no on LB173.

Last Week 

LB360 increases state oversight of commercial dog and cat breeding and kenneling businesses. I voted for the bill. The sponsor of the bill also agreed to work with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to put certain proposed daily animal care requirements in the regulations instead of in the statutes.

LB423 would have given $75 million of your tax dollars to renewable energy projects. It left out input from our Nebraska Public Power District, and it ignored the fact that we are already producing 11% of our energy from renewable energy, and that overall we have the capacity to produce over 25% more in electrical output than we use at peak load. I trust our public power system to make the right decisions on management of our electrical power. I helped with the successful filibuster to defeat this waste of tax dollars.

LB329 promotes agritourism by allowing farmers and ranchers to get involved in agritourism without the fear of aggressive lawsuits that could cost them their farm. I argued that it would allow the urban citizen a chance to have access to rural agricultural life if more rural residents were apt to open their land up to tourism.  It passed general file (first round).

Please do not hesitate to contact my office mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

An often quoted saying down here is that “making law is like making sausage, both are messy.” That is true when it comes to working on legislation within a bill, it is called compromise. We make sure the greater good is gained without doing harm to the minority.

What I have found distasteful is the practice of trading votes on unrelated legislation; that to me is closer to making slime rather than sausage. For example, there are several controversial bills: one related to tax credits for renewable energy, one that creates a new funding source for certain curriculums in public schools, one that increases the gas tax by 23.5%, one legalizing cannabis for medicinal purposes, and one that grants rights for sexual preferences. I believe that none of these bills are supported by the majority of Nebraskans. But because senators will trade their votes for support of an issue that they are adamant about, suddenly legislation that is not supported by the majority of Nebraskans becomes law.

This behavior, I believe, is why politicians have the least respected occupation in America. It is also why less than 50% of Americans vote. I am willing to work with my fellow senators to make legislation better, such as I did with Senator Watermeier on LB106 – the zoning matrix bill – but I will not ever trade my vote.

The Budget

Supporters of the budget are touting that the proposed biennium budget’s 3.1% increase is the third lowest in 30 years; that is not exactly true. They are comparing the proposed budget to final, adopted budget numbers. Absent from the 3.1% increase is the proposed $50 million cost of legislation still being considered on the floor to fund new government initiatives, and also the $55.7 million transfer of tax dollars from the Cash Reserve Fund to pay for the following: $25 million for UNL’s Global Center for Advanced Inter Professional Learning, $17.2 million to pay HHS’s Medicaid fine, $5.5 million to pay for the Republican River settlement to Kansas, and $8 million for Creighton University’s Dental School. When you add those expenditures into the mix, the growth is an increase of 4.4%. The other big factor is that since we have had huge increases in property valuations lately, the property taxpayers have contributed more to public education, and thus state aid to education is at a 2.3% increase. Politicians may want to take credit for the low increase, but the credit goes to the overburdened property taxpayers.

With LB525 politics came in to play again. Every standing committee has a cleanup bill which is used to align existing law with federal law or to fix minor errors. We had a senator bring up his previously rejected education-related priority bill as an amendment to the cleanup bill. This is not a normally accepted practice, but all the same, it is acceptable under the rules of the Legislature. That amendment was adopted with 25 aye votes (the bare minimum). The original committee bill had no fiscal note but the amendment added a $2 million cost to it over the objections of the chairman and other members of the committee, including myself.

LB423 is a bill dealing with renewable energy tax credits. Those credits will be very expensive to the taxpayers and I am working hard to defeat this piece of legislation. Nebraska Public Power is a great asset for Nebraska and has served Nebraska well. I believe that we must leave decisions on energy generation sources to them.

Things are moving fast, we have only 15 days left to get a lot a work done. In actuality, it probably would help the taxpayer if some of the work did not get done!

Sen. Mike Groene

District 42
Room #1107
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2729
Email: mgroene@leg.ne.gov
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