NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

The official site of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature

Sen. Mike Groene

Sen. Mike Groene

District 42

The content of these pages is developed and maintained by, and is the sole responsibility of, the individual senator's office and may not reflect the views of the Nebraska Legislature. Questions and comments about the content should be directed to the senator's office at mgroene@leg.ne.gov

LB72 tightens up the law against transferring wealth to heirs so an individual can qualify for Medicaid reimbursements. We have all heard stories where recipients transfer property to their children so they can have their assisted living and medical cost paid for by the taxpayer. This bill makes it harder to do that; I voted for it.

LB423 allows tax credits for renewable energy. Unlike other states, Nebraska has a publicly owned electric power system and it has served us well. I do not agree with injecting expensive non-reliable sources of electricity – that on their own are not economically feasible – into our grid. Many citizens pay more for utility bills than taxes. This governmental effort to encourage conversion to so called “green energy” will drive up electrical rates to those who can least afford it.  Someday, alternative electricity sources may become competitive in the free market. Until then, I see no reason to litter the aesthetic view of our horizons in rural Nebraska with inefficient windmills. The estimated cost to the taxpayer is unpredictable – ranging from $4 million to $26 million annually over the next 4 years. LB423 passed General File. I will continue to attempt to defeat it, or render it less harmful through amendments.

LB330, requested by the Liquor Control Commission, changes liquor laws. Retirement and nursing homes will be able to apply for liquor licenses, and licenses will be allowed within 150 feet of a church, if the church agrees. I supported an adopted amendment that outlawed powdered alcohol in Nebraska. LB330 passed General File.

LB629 sets up regulations allowing Lyft and Uber, which are Transportation Network Companies, to operate legally in Nebraska. The entity responsible for insurance coverage for property damage to private vehicles contracted by the Taxi service was an issue that was being negotiated. I support this new, low-cost competition to existing Taxi companies and public transportation.

LB360 makes changes to the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act. LB360 gives the Department of Agriculture the ability to better police puppy mills and boarding kennels. It passed General File; I voted for it.

LB317 repeals the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact; a compact that, years ago, people thought was a good idea. We have been paying dues greater than $15,000 annually with nothing to show for it, except that a few senators get a free trip to attend a convention every summer. We voted to withdraw from the compact after a compromise was reached to stay in the compact for three more years with those senators who believe you should take a train instead of driving your car.

On the schedule this week for Select File is LB419 (sales tax exemption for zoos), LB414 (Woodmen of the World property tax exemption), and LB599 (minimum wage bill that applies to high school students).

This week’s General File agenda

LB175 adopts the Livestock Growth Act. I am still looking at it.

LB325 changes levy provisions for rural and suburban fire protection districts.  Some counties are levying a fire protection tax without passing it on to volunteer fire districts, and that needs to be corrected.

LB329 adopts the Nebraska Agritourism Promotion Act. The bill reduces some of the liability concerns for tourist-friendly landowners. I support this legislation. The Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys was the only opposition.

LB643 adopts the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act. The Judiciary Committee has improved it with an amendment to replicate Minnesota’s medical cannabis law, which limits the products to cannabis oil and liquid medicinal forms. The amendment also limits clinical sites to eight and allows for only two licensed producers in the entire state of Nebraska. This bill would be a lot easier to support if there was scientific evidence that the treatment was universally effective. The debate will be long, and I will certainly be listening closely; though I am still skeptical.

We start debate on the budget this Thursday. However, for those of us who are not on the Appropriations Committee, we do not get a copy of the budget until Tuesday, which seems like a strange way to decide on our state’s budget, but this is government. I plan on asking more than only a few questions.

LB89 changes payments to the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (welfare). Prior to LB89, payments were limited to $300/month plus $75/month per additional child. This change puts the payments on automatic pilot, starting with 60% of the standard of need index, increasing it to 65%, then to 70% over the next three years. The first year average increase in monthly payments will be $112/month. We are told this will only come out of your pocket which pays federal tax dollars. However, the fiscal note says the federal funds will not be enough by 2018. Any legislation that puts government on automatic pilot, I vote against it.

LB494 changes base pay for tipped employees from $2.13/hr. to $4.50/hr., then amended to $2.64/hr. Employers are already required to compensate any difference between tips and base pay that is short of the $9.00/hr. minimum wage; therefore this bill was not necessary. I voted against it since cafés in small towns struggle to exist now; they do not need added cost.

LB599 lowers the minimum wage for high school students to $8.00/hr. The sponsors of the minimum wage initiative last year made it clear they were seeking to raise the minimum wage for those who were supporting their family or individual living expenses. Our constitution makes it clear that the people acting as the second house can enact law through the initiative process but the Legislature can amend the law with a super majority of 33 votes. This change, which passed General File, does not harm the intention of the new minimum wage law; it helps give high school kids opportunities to get a foothold in the working world. Opponents of the law claimed that my support conflicted with my stance on the constitutional amendment for term limits. However, changing the Constitution is done solely through the vote of the people; that is not the case in changing laws through the petition process. But instead of debating the issue, opponents attempted to distract by playing politics.

LB605 changes classifications of penalties, punishments, probation, and parole provisions within our penal system. This legislation is about overcrowding in our prisons. The argument is we should try to change the behavior of the nonviolent criminals through behavioral drug/alcohol programs and probation, instead of building a $270 million prison. It will add pressure to local county jails and probation offices. Who pays the cost is still in debate. I voted for the bill.

LB173 changes provisions for habitual criminal incarceration. I voted against it. The reason violent crime has decreased is because we keep violent criminals behind bars. These are the criminals that habitually commit violent crimes. They belong in jail.

LB268, which repeals the death penalty, passed General File. I am amazed at how many ways the Bible can be interpreted by politicians. Regardless of the religious argument, many folks “do what is right in their own eyes.”  I argued that a civil society must not tolerate evil, and the death penalty confirms the high value society places on innocent life. There is no evidence that an inmate has been wrongly put to death in Nebraska. The eleven criminals now awaiting their fate were put there without any public doubt as to their guilt. The high cost of appeals is also a false argument. Despite what sentence is given, inmates in the penitentiary appeal and the taxpayers pay to defend the state via salaried attorneys in the Attorney General’s office. Appeals against life imprisonment will also be numerous. Opponents of LB268 will try to stop it in Select File, but if their effort fails the Governor will veto the bill. I will support the Governor.

Monday

LB85 related to cattlemen. It allowed the Nebraska Brand Committee to increase brand inspection fees from 75 cents to $1.25 per head. I supported an amendment that limited the increase to $1.10. The bill passed General File.

LB343 would have funded school programs relating to advanced placement, dual credit, and career academy courses through the general fund. Those programs are already funded out of a school district’s existing budget. I voted against it; the bill did not advance. Please contact our office at 402-471-2729 or mgroene@leg.ne.gov with your input.

I have observed the evolution of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) in Nebraska which originated as a constitutional amendment in 1978. It was created as an urban renewal tool for cities to redevelop their blighted and substandard cores. Municipalities’ use of TIF to confiscate property taxes worked well during its first 20 years as it helped revitalize their old downtowns. Omaha used TIF for the ConAgra Riverfront, and Lincoln used TIF for the Haymarket.

In enacting TIF, the Legislature made a vital mistake not putting state oversight into the process. Over the last fifteen years politicians and real estate speculators hijacked TIF, morphing it into an unauthorized use for self-serving development projects. Municipalities are now unilaterally confiscating the property tax dollars of our public schools, counties, NRD’s, and community colleges in order to increase developer’s profits and avoid the political pain of raising city property tax rates.

In 2014, statewide property valued at $2.9 billion was confiscated by TIF, and cities diverted$61 million in tax revenue. TIF projects in Douglas and Lancaster County accounted for over $35 million and over $6 million, respectively, of lost property tax revenue to local government entities.

I was quoted by the Journal Star that Lincoln did a “very good job” concerning TIF funds. That quote dealt with the way the funds were used for city infrastructure. Citizens of Lincoln have since informed me, rightfully so, of instances where the approval process of TIF projects has been abused.

A Journal Star article dated March 4, 2015 concerning the proposed Trinitas Ventures 172-unit living complex, states that the “developer is not asking the city for tax incentives to build the complex, but it has agreed to partner with the city to use [TIF]…to pay for parking improvements”. Neb. Rev. Stat. 18-2116 is clear that projects cannot be approved unless it is demonstrated that theywill not occur or be economically feasible in the blighted and substandard redevelopment area without TIF financing.

A story on August 10, 2014 in the Journal Star details another instance where the developer Ploughshare Brewing Company did not ask for TIF; the story states “an unusual situation because the financing wasn’t requested by a private developer. Instead, the city pitched the deal to Ploughshare…over the spring, after work had already begun on its new brewery”. [Emphasis added]. Clearly these projects do not pass the litmus test of the above statute.

In 1997, then Senator Paul Harnett reformed TIF through the passage of LB875. Changes were made to section 18-2147 that made it clear that the diverted tax dollars “be used solely to pay the principal of, and the interest on…financing”. It also struck the word “a”and replaced it with “the” project. I do not know how he could have made it any clearer. A corresponding example of outrageous abuse, found in a Journal Star article on March 29, 2011, is the claim by Lincoln that “leftover [TIF] funds” exist from ongoing TIF projects.

The law is clear – those increment property taxes from “the” project must “be used solely to pay” the bonded indebtedness of the project and “[w]hen such…indebtedness, including interest…ha[s] been paid,” such property thereafter shall be taxed as is other property in the respective taxing districts. There is no justification for “leftover [TIF] funds” in TIF related law. Once the projects mentioned in the article (Centennial Mall, Gold’s Building, etc.) generate enough funds to pay off the bond debt, the $5.6 million of property taxes should be returned to the public schools, county, and other taxing entities.

Politicians in Lincoln are not alone in abusing the TIF process. North Platte, in my district, has its stories too. Omaha, though, is the most egregious abuser of TIF. For example, 8% of the valuation of Omaha Public Schools is off the tax rolls. It affects all of us; income and sales taxpayers of Nebraska make up that loss with additional state aid to schools.

City governments’ ability to seize property taxes through TIF is an unchecked power that has gotten out of hand. An amendment proposed by the Urban Affairs Committee to LB539 that allows the State Auditor to audit TIF programs is a small, but necessary, step toward accountability. Meanwhile, citizens – via the election process – have the capacity to show their dissatisfaction with politicians who continue to allow TIF to be abused.

Last Week:

LB419 is a sales tax exemption bill for zoos and LB414 gave a property tax exemption to Woodmen of the World Insurance Company (a fraternal benefit society); both passed general file. Tourists and fraternal benefit societies will get tax breaks of $2.7 million and $800,000, respectively; but nothing so far for the individual taxpayer.

LB472, The Medicaid Redesign Act (expansion), was defeated for this year, but it will be back next year. It’s mislabeled as the affordable care act, but it is not affordable for the taxpayer.

LB519 relates to how the 50% of constitutionally mandated lottery funds – set aside for education – will be spent. As a member of the Education Committee I was able to play a part in the outcome. Of the nearly $17 million annually, 62% will be given out to college students as tuition aid. Mid-Plains students will be helped, along with students at public and private colleges who qualify. 20% will go to a new innovation grant program rewarded by The Department of Education to worthy programs submitted by individual K-12 schools. 9% will go to a new GAP program, which helps recruit students and aid them in tuition for certificate programs such as welding. I pushed for this addition, high-paying vocational tech jobs are available and GAP will encourage more high school and second chance students to gain the training necessary to qualify for these high-paying jobs. 1% will go to early childhood grants, and the remaining funds will go to an existing program to pay for teacher education; I did not see the necessity for this last program but compromise is necessary sometimes.

LB367 was my priority bill which deals with petition rights. It passed all three rounds without a single no vote, and was signed by the Governor.

LB498 dealt with ATV sales tax and registration. I voted for it, as it was presented by the bill’s author as a fix for where sales taxes were collected, dealer vs. courthouse. Thanks to citizen vigilance, a major flaw in the bill was pointed out. The bill mandated that, on top of titling your ATV, owners now had to register it since the grandfather clause for previous owners was mistakenly omitted. Rural senators, including myself urged the Governor to veto the bill. The bill’s author asked the Governor to veto and he did on Monday.

LR7CA was a proposed constitutional amendment to increase state senators’ term limits from two, four year terms to two, six year terms. It was defeated Monday on select file. The people have voted to support term limits; most recently in 2012 when they voted overwhelmingly to say eight consecutive years is enough.

With regard to Tax Increment Financing, there is a reason that we pay property taxes: to support our school districts, counties, community colleges, and local government entities. When a business seeks not to support local communities with their property taxes, it should be scrutinized by the citizens. Recently, you have been told that the constitutional amendment passed in 1978 by Nebraskans – dealing with TIF’s use to redevelop substandard and blighted property within a city – is somehow  related to a 1951 redevelopment law, specifically, Neb. Rev. Stat. 18-2123 concerning undeveloped, vacant land. Also, diverting 25% of TIF proceeds away from a project through a loan program is problematic when looking at Neb. Rev. Stat. 18-2147, “… solely to pay the principle of, and the interest on…the project”. Who’s correct? We will start to answer this question with the passage of the Auditor’s bill LB539 and Senator Crawford’s AM653. The amendment adds, “any community redevelopment authority or limited community redevelopment authority established under the Community Development Law” to the long list of local government entities that the State Auditor’s office can audit.  This legislation will not add any more state employees, it just fixes an oversight on what entities the auditor can audit. By the way during the same time span that Menards used TIF in North Platte, seven other like-sized communities added stores to their business community; all are paying their property taxes, including Kearney’s. As the saying goes, “There is no need to fear the policeman if you are obeying the law”.

Thirty-two days remain in this legislative session. Last week began with us voting to have owners of all-terrain vehicles (ATV) pay sales taxes at dealerships instead of at courthouses; I voted for the bill. We ended the week discussing LB240, which would continue a taxpayer funded University of Nebraska Medical School outreach program that encourages mental health screenings for children. I am against continuing the program. This week will start by continuing debate on LB240.

LB106 deals with livestock expansion and local control. A good bill got through the first round. The Department of Agriculture, collaborating with experts from the University of Nebraska, county zoning officials, and livestock producers, will create a model zoning plan for large livestock operations. Counties and individual producers will have a central location to gain ideas on best practices when considering large livestock operations without a mandate. LB106 is more pertinent to urban counties as they seek cooperation between agriculture and individual housing.

LB610 is a six cent gas-tax increase. I am against the bill as is. I used the bill to make a point on high property taxes. Our state roads are rated in the top 10 nationally, but we have a serious deficiency in funding bridge repairs at the local level. State law requires that counties and cities match state funding received from gas taxes by a minimum of 25% in property tax revenue. Currently, Lincoln County’s match is 47%, which is not uncommon statewide. I told the sponsors of the tax hike, I will vote for the bill on the first round if they consider an amendment that omits the state portion of the increase, and provides a small increase (2 to 3 cents) directly to counties and maybe cities specifically for bridge repairs. If we give counties more road funding, they ought to be able to lower their property taxes. However, I do not believe the lobby pushing LB610 will agree. In that case, I will vote against the bill that, with an unacceptable six cent increase, will leave Nebraska with the highest gas taxes among our neighbors.

LB128, Senator Chambers’s prairie dog repeal legislation, found major opposition on final reading. We spent Thursday debating it and closed the limited two-hour final reading debate by taking no action. Senator Chambers showed his displeasure by proceeding to shut down all votes on final reading which included my priority bill LB367.

This week:

LB419 is a bill that exempts zoos from collecting sales taxes on admissions and membership fees. I oppose LB419 because I promised the voters I will seek tax relief for all citizens. These attempts by special interests to seek special favors only increases the tax burden for the rest of us. My stance is: either everybody gets a tax break or nobody gets one. That philosophy helps explain my stance on Tax Increment Financing.

LB414 is another special interest tax exemption attempt. The Woodmen of the World is a fraternal benefit society and a nonprofit insurance company threatening to move to Iowa if portions of their office building are not exempt from property taxes. This is why I take no donations from lobbyists and special interests; they do not care about the greater good.

LB649 requires all votes cast by public officials to be public record. This goes back to the secret votes in the Unicameral for committee chairmen and speaker. It will be debated and probably lose, but a public vote will be taken on it, and voters will know which senators do and do not believe in a transparent government.

Sides are being taken on Medicaid expansion. Obamacare has been a disaster; it has done a lot of harm to working folks’ ability to afford healthcare and has left many without the ability to buy health insurance that, in the past, they could afford with their current incomes. Expanding Medicaid to irresponsible single individuals without children would be an injustice to those who sacrifice to pay for their family’s healthcare. We need to address affordable health insurance for those who wish to buy insurance but, because of Obamacare, are unable. Medicaid expansion is not affordable to the taxpayers.

Please don’t hesitate to contact your senator’s office as we appreciate your input.

We have 36 legislative days remaining to approve a budget, provide property tax relief, and do the general work of the citizens. Debate last week started with whether motorcyclists should be able to ride without a helmet, and finished with a bill to repeal the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Management Act.

LB641 provides pedestrian rights and duties to manual or motorized wheelchairs and bicyclists in crosswalks. A court had ruled that a person on a motorized wheelchair was not considered a pedestrian, so the law needed to be made clear. I asked the question, when is a bicyclist a pedestrian and under what circumstance are they considered an operator of a vehicle sharing the road with automobiles?  Currently, bicyclists traveling along a sidewalk are expected to dismount and walk their bike through a crosswalk, and when traveling on a street they are expected to follow the vehicular laws of the road. In the end, bicycles were left out and LB641 moved to the next round.

LB538 requires legislative performance audits of business related, tax incentive programs. The Legislature passed it to the second round (called select file) of debate. It is a small start, but we ought to be able to gauge whether tax breaks for job creation is actually accomplishing its intended goal.

LB320 –Adopt the Aging and Disability Resource Center Act. This bill creates another level of bureaucracy intended to aid aging baby boomers. It adds $2.4 million to our children’s tax bill, yet it passed to select file. I will try to point out it duplicates existing programs.

LB56 allows Northeast Community College in Norfolk the opportunity to buy, at an appraised cost, the unneeded portion of state property that was formally the Norfolk Regional Center. The college is landlocked and has no place to expand. It moved to select file after clarifying that appraised value would be used instead of fair-market value.

LR7CA attempts to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to change legislative term limits from two, four year terms to two, six year terms.  In 2012, the voters overwhelmingly rejected an attempted expansion to three, four year terms. The state government has worked just fine with term limits. With the latest blowup over Senator Chambers, I believe Nebraskans stand firm on term limits. After some initial debate it is back on the docket for Monday, but I will work to stop it from receiving the requisite 30 votes to get on the ballot.

LB47 would require a yes or no response to the organ donation question in order to receive a driver’s license. At present, you can choose not to answer. Freedom of speech concerns, coupled with whether the government has the authority to deny a driver’s license to a citizen that chooses not to answer an unrelated question, caused the sponsor to pull the bill for this session; that was probably a wise move.

LB128 repeals the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Management Act. We ended the week in the middle of this debate. The original law was passed two years ago, and so far, only Sheridan County has adopted the program. This is Senator Chambers’s bill; he seeks to protect more than mountain lions. The varmints spread quickly, destroy grasslands, and their holes are dangerous to livestock.

As to Senators Chambers’s outbursts in the Judiciary Committee, I, like other senators, publicly expressed displeasure at his comments. My concern is for the safety of law enforcement officers. In comments on the floor, I told the Senator he should clarify to the young men in his district that he did not want them to act on the words he blurted out in a moment of anger. We, as a Legislature, have very little power to discipline a fellow senator. Only the voters in their district have the power to remove senators from office. The Legislature could censure him, but that is just a slap on the hand. Senator Chambers has always been a lone wolf; criticism only angers and encourages him, so I assume he will do as he has always done. The rules allow any senator to shut down the Legislature by dominating the discussion.

LB10 Winner take all of the five Electoral College votes: Earlier the bill survived a filibuster and advanced to Select File after the first round of debate. This time some senators changed their vote and the bill fell two votes short of the 33 needed to advance to final reading. I believe we are still a federation of states and that individual states should decide as a whole state on whom is hired as our chief executive officer (president).  There are those who believe that we have become a complete democracy in lieu of the Founding Fathers’ opinion that the United States (apparently an outdated term) is a mixture of a republic and a democracy. I disagree, local states’ rights are critical in protecting our freedoms.

LB367 Eliminate the pay-per-signature restriction on petitioners: This was my priority bill this session. Why, you ask? Because Nebraska is a unicameral legislature and through the petition process the citizens are the second house. Our state constitution unequivocally states, “The first power reserved by the people is the initiative whereby laws may be enacted and constitutional amendments adopted by the people independently of the Legislature.”

I have observed that depending on which way the political winds are blowing at the time affects where the political left or political right stands on limiting your petition rights, making it all the more critical that your right to take part in your government through the initiative process is protected. My colleagues agreed and passed LB367 to Select File 38 to 0.

LB31 Eliminate motorcycle and moped helmet requirements: Senator Bloomfield has been a firm advocate for those who seek to have their right of personal responsibility returned to them on their decision to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle. After the required eight hours of debate, it was stopped by a filibuster by those who seem to believe they know what is best for others. An ironic sidebar discovered in the debate was that a few of the opponents of LB31 are avid open road bicyclists. There is no state law requiring them to wear a helmet when using our public highways.

LB106 Livestock Siting and Expansion Act: Its focus is to create common statewide parameters to govern zoning laws related to large agricultural livestock operations. This bill came through the government affairs committee of which I am apart. My vote to pass it through committee was based on the fact that the sponsor of the bill agreed to work with me to amend the bill on the floor. We believe that agriculture should be able to grow in Nebraska but we also share our supporters’ belief of local control. The original language of LB106 gives authority to the state to override local county zoning boards. Our amendments remove the state’s authority and replaces it with a mediation option between the farmer and the county to work out agreeable exceptions to the zoning matrix.

This week the Unicameral went to full days on the floor for bill debate. Committees are still cleaning up late legislation as senators implore and coerce the best they can to get their bills out of committee and onto the floor. Because of full day floor debate, the committees must meet over the noon hour or before the session begins in the morning.

Several bills being heard deal with the expansion of Medicaid. Proponents of Medicaid expansion are using a cunning tactic of splitting it up piecemeal, and claiming that if each is enacted and funded we will save tax dollars. I am yet to be convinced that spending tax dollars saves tax dollars. The catch is that for every dollar they spend of your federal tax dollars they plan to save ten cents of your state tax dollars; meanwhile the federal debt continues to rapidly escalate. That may work for them but it does not work for me, nor for future generations of Americans.

My staff and I appreciate all the phone calls and emails we have been receiving informing us of where you stand; it helps me decide how I should vote. So please do not hesitate to contact us.

News Column 3-16-2015
March 17th, 2015

When I went to Lincoln I assumed I took a $12,000 a year job as a government employee, but after the first couple of weeks I felt more like a low paid bank loan officer at the biggest bank in Nebraska; every lobbyist in town was looking for money and they are not interested in paying it back. Now I am wondering if I am a Deacon in the Church of Secular Humanism where quite a few of my fellow senators seem to want to do their good works with your tax dollars or try to make everyone feel good about their sexual preferences or their recreational drug use.

Marijuana: I will vote against and help defeat LB189 which would basically decriminalize the drug by making possession a misdemeanor. I do support LB326, which is the opposite of LB189, it strengthens present drug laws and makes possession of the synthetic form of marijuana a Class IV felony. I have heard from law enforcement in Lincoln County who see firsthand the lives devastated from prolonged use of marijuana. Their advice is the council I will follow.

 Medical Marijuana (LB643 Cannabis Compassion and Care Act): We will not support the attempt to make present forms of recreational marijuana legal for medical purposes. We understand there is mounting evidence for legitimate medical uses for the cannabidiol oils derived from the cannabis plant.  Any attempt to make it available as a medical product must be done through the usual medicinal forms of a pill or a liquid administered in the form of inhaled vapor. It must be prescribed by a doctor and dispensed by a pharmacist. LB643 is nowhere close to where it needs to be.

We do support LB390, which sets up the Medical Cannabidiol Pilot Study within the University Of Nebraska Medical Center. Its measured approach is the right way to advance medical uses of marijuana by-products. A young man from North Platte did a well-received  job of representing advocacy for medical marijuana, but in contrast, most of the individuals roaming the halls of the State Capitol advocating for the drug were actually good examples of why marijuana is a dangerous and harmful drug to society.

Property taxes: It is not a good omen that we have yet to get a property tax reduction bill out of any of the related committees. We are still trying to come up with an answer in the Education Committee on a version of property tax relief. One big obstacle is that Omaha and Lincoln area public schools receive a majority of the state aid to education and they are reluctant to share their windfall with rural Nebraska. There may be a way to compromise.

 Other happenings: The Bridge Repair Act – LB609 – has not come out of the Transportation Committee and its accompanying LB610, which funds the bill, has passed the Revenue Committee. The bills create a 6 cent tax increase on motor fuels. It makes 4 cents of the increase available to counties and cities to repair bridges, and gives 2 cents to the Department of Roads. We need to repair our bridges, but LB609 takes away local control of bidding and funding of bridge projects and LB610 has no sunset clause. Both bills need work before I will support them.

 We supported LB366. LB366 increases the personal needs allowance for Medicaid recipients who reside in alternative living arrangements from $50 to $60. What I did not agree with is the resulting price tag to taxpayers of a million dollars. I attempted an amendment to adjust the Medicaid increase in the budget to assisted living facilities from the projected 2% to approximately 1.75%, which would have made LB366 revenue neutral. Considering that inflation is expected to be around 0.5% in 2015, it seemed like a fair trade-off. We got the attention of the tax and spenders in the Legislature; the protest was audible. At the end of the day a message was sent, and some senators now believe we ought to make sure we have a way to pay for additional benefits before we give the taxpayers’ money away. It is an indication that the budget fight is heating up.

News Column 3-9-2015
March 11th, 2015

So far we have advanced two of our bills out of committee to general file, meaning they can be enacted into law on the floor of the legislature. Those bills are LB367 – an initiative petition rights bill – and LB378, which in our office we call the Iron Eagle bill. Even though our bills made the first cut from around 650 introduced, to about 150 that get through committee, there is still no guarantee that individual bills will be debated on the floor of the legislature.  The Legislature, by constitutional restrictions, meets 90 days during odd numbered years and 60 days during even numbered years (thank God) over the two year biennium session.  Therefore each senator is allowed to prioritize one of their bills, which guarantees it will be heard this year. Each committee can prioritize two bills and Speaker Hadley can prioritize up to twenty-five bills.

I decided to prioritize LB367 – the petition bill – because it deals directly with your constitutional right to petition your government. A message needs to be sent to government entities, such as The League of Municipalities who have consistently tried to restrict your petition rights, that they are our public servants, not our masters. Since it is a two year session, all bills not heard this year carry over until next year. We can decide to prioritize the Iron Eagle bill for next year.

Due to our TIF bill legislation, we have raised enough alarm that the Urban Affairs Committee has introduced an amendment to a bill that pertains to the State Auditor. The amendment will clarify that the Auditor’s office has the authority to audit TIF programs across the state. So in the future a citizen finally will have somewhere to call at the state government level to ask for help if they suspect wrong doing. It is a good start and we will continue to push for TIF reform in the future.

There is a disturbing trend in legislation that I’ve seen. Where bills addressing fees or government power are introduced, they contain a clause included where future fees or expenditures can be automatically increased by unelected bureaucrats or appointed commissions. If you have been watching the Unicameral recently, you may have wondered why so much time is being spent on LB242 – the edible bean bill. In that bill changes are made that takes away an individual bean grower’s right to opt-out of the promotional fee charged on their product. It also allows an appointed commission to raise the fee from 15 cents per hundredweight to as high as 24 cents at their discretion. Some might say it only affects 500 bean growers in western Nebraska, and that’s true, but if legislators can do it to them they can just as easily do it to you on other matters. Senator Larson of O’Neill Nebraska is fighting it with a filibuster; he is standing on principle.

Another example, LB431, will raise the upper dollar limit from $40,000 to $100,000 of what a school board will be authorized to spend without following a prolonged bidding process. That number has not been changed since 1979. I agree that it needs to be raised, and while bids will still be taken, it allows for a quicker response time to maintenance emergencies. But tucked into the bill is a clause that allows the State Board of Education to automatically raise the limit by inflationary factors every 5 years.  To me, that is lazy government. In the future another elected legislature should make that decision.

Our federal government is broken because of automatic formulas that increase Medicaid, Medicare, federal retirement benefits, Social Security, etc.  Our state government should take heed from those mistakes. The problem is that many politicians like the opportunity to hide behind automatic formulas. I plan to offer an amendment to remove the inflationary clause from LB431.

News Column 3-2-2015
March 11th, 2015

Issues in the Education Committee are coming to a head.

Learning Community: The experimental funding of Ten Omaha area school’s which has them sharing the proceeds from a common property tax levy and also participating in a unique learning community will be addressed. An honest assessment of the experiment would call it a failure. I can’t predict what will happen, but many senators would like to eliminate the learning community concept. I agree; if the state’s TEEOSA funding formula is good enough for Lincoln County’s schools, it should work for Omaha.

Lottery funds: How to spend 44.5% of the lottery funds that are dedicated to education by our state constitution, are up for grabs because the sun-set clause governing the present spending is up this year.  Half of the funds have been going to tuition grants for low income college students; the program has helped many local students at Mid-Plains Community College. I plan to support continuing the present funding practice. The other half of the $16 million available have been split between programs, covering early childhood education, teacher retention, technology, etc. There might be better uses for some of these funds.

Property taxes: I and other senators are still trying to adjust the state aid to education formula to give rural schools credit for their income tax allotment, and also allow them to set their own tax levy without penalty. It will be an uphill fight.

On the Floor: LB10 allows presidential candidates that win the majority of the popular vote in Nebraska to take all five of our electoral votes passed to second round by the narrowest of margins. It needed 33 votes to beat back a filibuster and that’s exactly what it got. It appears that it’s on its way to becoming law.

In other matters we got our first look at the appropriations preliminary budget numbers. It doesn’t look like it’s off to a good start; will go into where the spending is out of control another day.

Sen. Mike Groene

District 42
Room #1306
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2729
Email: mgroene@leg.ne.gov
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