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We are at the 16th day (Thursday) of the 90-day session of the 106th Legislature. The pace has been hectic. There have been 744 bills introduced. I introduced 17. Four of those are standard legislation that the committee chairman traditionally introduces to cover annual Department of Education and committee cleanup work. The Education Committee was assigned 56 bills to address during the 16 afternoons on which the committee holds hearings. The Judiciary Committee received the most (142 bills) and one resolution to be heard on 26 afternoons of hearings. As you can probably guess, many afternoons will turn into evenings. Nebraska has a unique system that allows all citizens, as the second house of the Legislature, to testify on bills at committee hearings. I remember from my past as a concerned citizen too often testifying in front of school boards and city councils where the members sat silently and asked no questions. Hence as Chairman of the Education Committee, out of respect for the testifiers, I try to engage with them; many of which have taken a day off of work, or driven long distances to testify for 5 minutes. They appreciate the respect questions from the committee offers them, and quite frankly, many times amendments are made to legislation as a result of testimony.
Each year as the session begins, the Legislature debates the rules that govern our legislative process, either accepting the present ones or including changes. I picked up the mantle from past senators who introduced changing the present rule that allows a secret vote on the speaker and the committee chairs to a public vote. Our argument was the Legislature should honor the citizens’ expectation of transparency in government which was clearly exemplified in Senator George Norris’ original 1934 constitutional amendment. We all associate his successful effort with the creation of the unicameral form of a legislature that Nebraska has had since 1937, but there were actually 10 constitutional requirements in his amendment that governed the operation of the Legislature, including non-partisan elections, senator numbers limited to no less than 30 members and no more than 50, length of senator’s terms, salary limitations, and that “the request from any one member to be sufficient to secure a roll call on any question”. That last requirement in our State Constitution, simply put: it is clear that any question (vote) taken by the legislative body must be public. Claiming a vote is not a question does not change the constitutional mandate. The rule change failed by a 25 to 22 public vote. Next year, you will be assured a senator will request a roll-call vote on a chairman vote and when denied, the Nebraska Supreme Court may need to decide the issue.
Our bill, LB63, addressing property tax levies for fire districts in counties with Mutual Fund Organizations (MFO) has had its Revenue Committee hearing and has been advanced to the floor for debate. When a county creates an MFO, it allows for some of the taxes you pay on your insurance policies to flow back into our fire district’s budgets. Fire districts in Lincoln County received $300,000 last year. LB63 will allow individual fire districts to have tax levies below an agreed upon common levy (in Lincoln County it is 3 cents) for 2 out of 3 years of the agreement. It’s basically a local control measure that will allow lower property taxes for fire district residents that have well-managed volunteer fire departments. Also, our LB65, changing electrical codes to allow horizontal boring machine operators to be non-electricians as long as their work is supervised by a licensed electrician, was heard by the General Affairs Committee on Monday. It’s a common-sense elimination of overregulation that will lessen the cost of electrical work for the consumer while allowing electrical and horizontal boring contractors to work together.
So far in the Education Committee, we have heard a couple of controversial bills: Senator Erdman’s LB73, requiring the national motto “In God We Trust” to be displayed in all public schools, and Senator Slama’s LB399, updating Nebraska’s Americanism statutes. I will expand in future columns on those bills’ outcomes.
Contact Sen. Mike Groene: firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-471-2729.
Last Wednesday, the first day of the session, I was honored to be re-elected as the Education Committee Chairman by my colleagues. Below is the main body of the nomination speech I gave before the vote.
“Over the last two years, the Education Committee successfully worked with the Appropriations Committee and the Governor to fit the needed changes to school funding into our budget. We worked to assure that our schools were treated equally and fairly: from Loup County, with 60 students; to our largest Omaha Public Schools, with 51,000 students. We plan on repeating that effort as we address the budget cycle that lies before us.
We worked with the Department of Education to assure their annual priority cleanup legislation was passed into law. We have established a good relationship, built on trust, with the Department and Commissioner Blomstedt.
We enacted into law the hard work of Senator Linehan, with the help of Senator Pansing Brooks, defining by statute the importance Nebraska citizens put in our children’s ability to read and read well. We hold the expectation that literacy must be the top priority of public education. For if one can read well and have the vocabulary to understand the written word, all knowledge is available to them.
We passed into law legislation that defined the necessity of early detection of students showing signs of dyslexia, a learning impairment which can be one of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of a student’s ability to reach their full potential, and we eliminated a growing abuse of early retirement payments by a few school boards.
Much more remains to be done. It is time for this body to fix the state school aid formula ‘Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act’ (TEEOSA). It is time for this body to fulfill the promise of our state constitution that, ‘The Legislature shall provide for the free instruction in the common schools of this state.’ We can no longer pass the majority of that duty off to the property taxpayers of Nebraska. Yes, local effort should be part of the funding, but local taxpayers should not be required to shoulder an undue burdensome share in any of our common schools.
To mend the urban-rural divide on this issue, we must make state funding truly equitable to all. As Chairman of the Education Committee, I will bring legislation that reflects the efforts during this past interim of an informal TEEOSA study group made up of 11 senators who had in the past showed a legislative interest in fixing TEEOSA. We can, and we must, work together to fix TEEOSA.
This year we need to update our American civics and social studies statutes to aid and guide the Department of Education as they update the social studies standards. We must emphasize to our schools that our children understand that freedom is not free; to maintain it, they must understand the sacrifices of the Americans who came before them. They must be informed of their civic duties.
I will continue to pursue legislation to empower our teachers with the ability to protect themselves and our children from violence in the classroom and to enable our teachers to be in charge of the learning atmosphere in their classrooms. We expect much from our teachers, some may say too much, but they are on the frontlines of the cultural changes in our society. We must reemphasize to teachers they have the support of the citizens of Nebraska and give them the tools to help instill within our children behavioral boundaries.
The citizens of Nebraska expect this body to be successful as we address these issues. I am willing to help lead the efforts as your Chairman of the Education Committee. Your vote of support will be humbly appreciated.”
I was re-elected on a 26 to 20 vote. Now the work begins.
Contact Sen. Mike Groene: email@example.com or 402-471-2729
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
Since the election, I have purposely avoided writing columns. I feel we all needed a little time away from the political stench of the elections and there was no need to write, just to be writing. My hope is that most of us have more important things to consider besides the grind of politics during the holiday season. This Christmas season, Barb and I watched the new Christopher Robin movie with our granddaughter. In it the fictional children’s philosopher Winnie the Pooh made profound statements that struck true to me. The words of the writer were to the effect that, sometimes doing something is doing nothing and sometimes doing nothing is doing something. I chose to do nothing in the line of redundant writing until something of import happened that needed to be discussed.
We’re now just a few days short of commencing the 106th Legislature, First Session on January 9th with the swearing in of 26 recently elected senators of which 13 are incumbent, 11 are newly elected and 2 are Governor Appointees. During the first days of the session we will also elect the Speaker of the Legislature and Committee Chairs; I again am running for Education. I have had no complaints from colleagues as to the way we managed the committee last year or about the accomplishments that came from committee actions. I am proceeding under the belief that I will be elected again to the position, but with term limits and the resulting 13 new senators plus the political reality that personal feelings, pressure from the lobby and partisanship play a part in the outcomes of democratic government, we understand there is no guarantee that the person with the necessary ability and experience always wins.
That said: On the Education front, we are moving forward with legislation to fix our over-reliance on property taxes to fund our schools. The bill’s content is based on what we learned through our TEEOSA study group. We are also introducing a revised version of last session’s Classroom Discipline bill, to empower teachers to legally protect themselves and students from violence and to enable them to create a better classroom climate. We are also bringing a revised version of last session’s American civics bill. An update of the present 1940’s Americanism statutes is needed more now than ever as we continue to watch the deterioration of America’s civility. We owe it to our children to inform them that freedom and rights have a cost, to teach them of the sacrifices of those who came before them and that they have a civic duty to be informed and involved in government.
My office is continuing to pursue clearly defining in statute that NCORPE can sell the land and continue to operate the augmentation project. It’s hard for me to convince my urban colleagues that we need property tax relief in rural Nebraska when they see the total waste and disrespect of tax dollars being expended on unnecessary land purchases where $50 million or more could be saved if only all parties involved would work together to make the land sale happen.
Other areas of legislation we are pursuing:
— Legislation to increase transparency in our open meetings statutes.
— Legislation to eliminate a burdensome and costly electrician code on underground boring.
— Easing rural fire department tax levy requirements when involved in mutual funding agreements.
— Legislation brought to us by Sheriff Kramer to alleviate burdensome occupational regulations on operating lie-detector devices that add unnecessary cost to police departments.
One of the truths I have learned at the Capitol is that the folks who pay their taxes and act as good public servants are often too busy with their work and family to be in Lincoln to present their views, but those who spend or profit from your tax-dollars are in full force, lobbying to keep your taxes flowing to them and, of course, wanting more. As we go into the New Year and the new legislative session, you can expect me to be vigilant for the threats that could grossly expand the State government or abuse your dollars in the system, but that’s not a new resolution for me.
Contact Sen. Mike Groene: firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-471-2729.
I have recently been contacted by constituents concerning the Nebraska Advantage Act (NAA). It seems its value to Lincoln County is being misrepresented to them. It is a complicated issue that when explained, is easily understood.
The Act was created in 2005 to replace Nebraska’s first major economic development effort, LB775, which was passed in 1987 primarily to keep ConAgra from moving its headquarters out of Nebraska; it did keep them in Omaha another 30 years before finally moving to Chicago. I am not a fan of the present Advantage Act. It is not rural friendly, it involves prohibitive paperwork that discourages smaller rural companies from applying and it has not done what it was supposed to do: create high-paying jobs.
Some facts from its first 11 years in operation: 408 projects were in effect at the end of 2017 with a handful more having been completed. All projects combined have received $905.4 million in tax-credits; of those, businesses have so far claimed $415.1 million against their tax-liability ($52.5 million in 2017). It has created only 16,337 jobs, amounting to a taxpayer cost of $25,413 per job. No one in the economic development arena believes the Advantage Act has delivered a good return on taxpayer investment. In Lincoln County over the same 11 years, only two projects that could claim to have created jobs have used the economic incentive: Greenbrier in Hershey and the ethanol plant in Sutherland. The reality is that the NAA is a badly written, rigid economic development tool that favors large corporations who have the legal and accounting staff to wade through the requirements. The idea of the NAA was to attract good-paying factory and technology jobs to Nebraska. Instead, a large percentage of applicants are retail in nature and the largest users of the investment credit portion of the Act have not been manufacturers, but companies that are heavy in infrastructure with limited job creation, for example: windmill farms and data centers (Facebook).
The NAA was set to sunset last year. My second year in Lincoln, 2016, a bill was introduced to extend the sunset to 2020; at that time, rural senators were in the midst of a floor campaign to draw attention to the fact that excessive property taxes were harming rural Nebraska’s economy so we used the NAA extension as a bargaining tool. That strategy worked and there is now a clear (sunny) understanding in the Legislature that property tax reform and the development of a new statewide economic development plan must go hand in hand.
I am an appointed member of the Legislature’s Economic Development Task Force. Everyone involved from the State Chamber of Commerce, Nebraska Economic Development Department and members of the Legislature agree that the present Advantage Act should be allowed to sunset in 2020 and most agree we need to create a new, simpler economic development plan. The biggest complaint from businesses interested in locating in Nebraska is the over-complicated NAA application process followed by the burdensome reporting requirements. As a member of the Task Force, I plan to concentrate on making sure any new plan includes opportunities for small rural Nebraska businesses and gives added benefits to large companies that locate in rural areas. It must concentrate on new job creation in business areas that attract peripheral economic growth in retail and service businesses. It must also include provisions that are free-flowing, which allow the Governor and his Department of Economic Development room to react to large projects that may require inputs that cannot be foreseen in legislation. Finally, workforce development is another aspect of any economic development effort; as you all know, I am a huge proponent of encouraging our youth to pursue an education in the hands-on trades of electrician, plumber, welding, transportation (CDL drivers), etc. That means more rural blue-collar workers and more students in our community colleges.
It is easy to be trapped into believing that the status quo is good enough and attack those who seek a better answer. I believe the future of Lincoln County is bright; my job is to get the government out of your way and deliver the right economic tools for you to get the job done.
Contact Sen. Mike Groene: email@example.com or 402-471-2729.
|LR452||Vargas||Interim study to examine alternative teacher certification programs|
If you are not testifying in person on a bill and would like to submit a written position letter to be included in the official hearing record as an exhibit, the letter must be delivered to the office of the committee chair (or emailed to the committee chair) of the committee conducting the hearing on the bill by 5:00 p.m. on the last work day prior to the public hearing.
Additionally, the letter must include your name and address, state a position of for, against, or neutral on the bill in question and include a request for the letter to be included as part of the public hearing record.
I continue to be a critic of cities misusing Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for solely economic purposes because I understand that high property taxes are the “cause” and TIF abuse is the “effect”. This past year, special interest groups won as I unsuccessfully fought the passage of LB496 which added private housing construction costs to expenses that developers could recover by the diversion of TIF tax dollars. We need to pause and be concerned when builders are telling us that avoidance of high property taxes are the deciding factor if building homes is profitable or not.
Our freedom is protected by the rule of law. Without it, a society fails. When does “the end justify the means”? Is it ok to speed because you’re late for work? Is it ok to steal because your family is hungry? Is it ok to bend the use of TIF for purposes unrelated to urban renewal? Where do we stop and how minor a cause is defensible? I prefer not to start.
I drove by the proposed Philips and Dixie area being considered for designation as blighted and substandard. I fail to see how it fits into the constitutional or statutory language defining such an area. The area has been developed over the last 20 years, infrastructure is in place and the only reason it is not fully developed is that the present owner originally had plans other than residential use.
Building new homes is a desirable economic activity, what means are used to encourage it is the debatable question. The final answer rests with an elected city council and mayor; the appointed members of the Planning Commission and Community Development Authority can only recommend what they deem to be allowable under state statute and city ordinance. Without clear guidance from elected officials, they cannot be blamed for the conclusions they come to. The buck stops with the elected officials.
I am a firm believer in defining the problem and fixing the cause. Here are some facts I hope the city council will consider:
1) Since the 2010 Census, North Platte’s population has declined by an estimated 845 to 23,888. The county has declined 1,008 to 35,280. With simple math and using a family of four, over the last seven years there should be well over 200 additional housing units available.
2) Recent news stories have noted that between three large local employers there are over 300 good paying jobs going unfilled. Based on what I have heard from other employers, the total countywide is closer to 500.
3) Of the top 25 cities by population, North Platte has the 6th highest property tax rate in the state. When I talk to citizens who leave the area, property taxes is the second major reason for doing so behind following extended family members to where they have relocated. It must be remembered that the family who buys a TIF’d house will receive none of the benefits, they will pay market price and they will pay high property taxes on their home.
4) Hard working North Platte area citizens rely on the value of their homes being part of their retirement equity. When government injects a stimulant into a market, it drives down the price of existing homes and hampers those contractors who choose to build on free market principles. Is one of the city council’s goals to improve the housing market by lowering home prices at the expense of existing homeowners?
TIF is meant for urban renewal. A recent housing study pointed out what is already known: poor housing quality exists in our oldest urban areas, yet there has never been a TIF project north of B Street. Could a better approach be to give contractors of all sizes an opportunity to use TIF in an older neighborhood to replace, one at a time, homes or small business properties in poor condition?
There are many reasons why people live where they do: job, taxes, lifestyle, family, climate, shopping and educational opportunities, but I have yet to meet someone who moved to a city for the perfect home in which they can watch TV and sleep.
Over the last year I have watched the debate unfold between Senator Steve Erdman, University of Nebraska (NU) President Hank Bounds and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Chancellor Ronnie Green. It all started with a public, verbal and obscene gesture attack by UNL English Department Graduate Student-Lecturer Courtney Lawton on sophomore student Kaitlyn Mullen while she was recruiting students for the student organization “Turning Point USA”.
Green suspended the grad student from lecturing and, eventually, didn’t renew her non-tenured position. I agreed wholeheartedly with his decision; a position of a grad student-lecturer is an audition for someday being hired as a tenured professor. Character and behavior inside and outside the classroom should be considered in any future hiring decision. Lawton failed the test.
The hiring decision landed the University on a list of 56 universities that are censured by the “American Association of University Professors” (AAUP) a national organization of college faculty with 42,000 members. The National Center for Education Statistics shows there are 4,627 American institutions of higher education employing 1,551,000 faculty members. When contacted, AAUP’s Nebraska Conference refused to divulge how many of UNL’s 1,349 faculty members belonged to the UNL Chapter; using the national average of 2.7%, an estimate would be 36. Why is the NU Administration so worried about pleasing a small special interest group? Wouldn’t seeking the advice of Nebraska’s citizens and faculty that are not AAUP members be a better course of action?
Senator Erdman’s frustration is legitimate. We’ve all heard President Bounds’ demands for more and more tax dollars to maintain the University, but see him turn around and create a six-figure position for a Diversity Vice Chancellor and bachelor’s degree programs in women’s, gender and ethnic studies on the Kearney campus. While at the same time, he proposed cuts in a basic “Land Grant College” program by eliminating the Haskell Agricultural Laboratory in Concord or cut the Geography graduate program at UNL.
Senator Erdman’s indictment of the UNL English Department’s bias against those who hold conservative viewpoints reflects the sentiment of many Nebraskans who are frustrated with the perception that some University staff do attempt to indoctrinate students (social engineer) with their worldview. But first, we must put the issue in perspective. The University system is made up of 32 colleges and 754 departments and programs. Overall, the majority of the University’s faculty just does their job to prepare students for their future occupations.
The epicenter of Nebraskans’ mistrust does not lie within the Colleges of Agriculture & Natural Resources, Business or Medicine, etc. It lies within the English Department in UNL‘s College of Arts & Sciences where Lawton was employed.
As a non-scientific gauge of political bias, of the Department’s 45 professors, state voter registrations show no clear evidence of any registered Republicans. Therefore, we ask: Does this indicate the Department lacks diversity of ideas and purposely has a hiring prejudice against those who hold conservative-leaning thoughts?
Since Medieval Times, the idea of a Liberal Arts education was defined by a pursuit of diverse thought to expand the understanding of universal principles that guide the human condition. It was ironic that President Bounds professed his common-sense belief “that we are stronger when we serve alongside people who don’t look and think like us” but then followed up with a foolish contrary comment attacking Erdman for not thinking like he does. If the University wishes to pursue diversity, it needs to focus on the original Latin meaning of a Liberal Arts education, liberalis–“free” and ars–”art or principled practice” concepts of reasoned thinking, instead of trying to create the false perception that we are somehow diverse in thought by pursuing only a failed policy of diversity of one’s outer appearance. Wasting tax dollars on a new administrative position won’t fix the problem. Bounds and Green should examine the hiring and grad-school application process of each department and reform those whose outcomes have shown to have an obvious political bias.
The vast majority of Nebraskans care not the chemical makeup of one’s flesh or their ethnic heritage, nor do we care the form your flesh takes. What we care about is the makeup of your character, including personal responsibility, work ethic and respect for others.
Contact Sen. Mike Groene: firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-471-2729.
Senator Groene’s office has moved to Room 1306 which is located on the east side of the Capitol Building.
Our phone number has not changed.
Senator Mike Groene
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2729
The adage “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” could easily be adapted to the folly of government spending gone astray; perhaps the adapted phrase should say “the road to high taxation is paved with the good intentions of elected officials”.
What brought this to mind is the recent announcement by the county and city to seek a 33% increase in the city’s sales tax rate along with a local paper’s recent story on property taxes pinning most of the blame for their rapid rise on sky-rocketing property valuations. That is partly true, but spending on issues outside of government services and abuse of interlocal agreements by local boards to avoid lid-limits have also played a large part in your excessive tax bill.
The truth of the matter is we do not pay our taxes in valuations or levies, we pay in dollars and every dollar is doled out by those local governments.
The problem is statewide. Some local examples of squandered tax-dollars:
The Iron Eagle Golf Course: it was to be a tourist attraction, bringing golfers to a new destination golf course and their fees would pay off the municipal revenue bonds at no cost to the taxpayers. We all know the history, a broken promise; within three years the taxpayers were put on the hook by the conversion of the revenue bonds to general obligation bonds, 25 years and $11.5 million tax-dollars for bond payments later the taxpayers now own a golf course, but not the land under it. To make sure this scenario never happens again to taxpayers in Nebraska, our LB378 passed in 2015. In the future, any attempt to change the funding source of a voter-approved project must also be placed on the ballot.
The Golden Spike: a well-intended celebration of our heritage. A normally general fund enhancing 2 cent occupation tax on hotel rooms was enacted to pay for the construction of a private organization’s tourism project. Somehow late in the process, operation costs were added as a use for the new tax revenues. A well-documented million dollars was squandered by mismanagement and $86 thousand disappeared from an account managed by the Lincoln County Community Development Corporation (LCCDC) all before a shovel of dirt was turned. From 1999-2017, $6.9 million of taxes have gone to the privately owned Spike – approximately $2.7 million has gone to pay the USDA loan payments and the remaining $4.2 million has disappeared into the bowels of the Spike. That $4.2 million could have repaired a lot of streets!
The N-CORPE project: a frustrating but necessary tax-dollar-funded NRD groundwater to surface water augmentation project. But $50 million of the $142.5 million bond cost could be eliminated if the ill-informed policy to continue to own, manage and fund the 19,500 acres of ag-land tied to the project was instead sold with deed restrictions and put back on the tax-rolls.
Mid-Plains Community College budget growth: the pride of our local higher education and the path I urge our local youth to take to a rewarding career. According to the State Auditor’s website, since FY2004-05, the mid-point of the recent property valuation run-up, MPCC’s property tax asking has gone from $6.1 to $16 million and state-aid has increased from $5.5 to $9 million. Meanwhile, over the same period, full-time equivalent student enrollment has dropped from 1,642 to 1,441. Apparently, expanded campuses and new buildings do not attract new students.
Elected officials can say NO. Leading by example, during the 2015 session we led a filibuster to kill LB423—a $95 million wind-energy tax credit for windmills. The Legislature was told if we did not give those credits, windmills would not be built in Nebraska. We killed the bill, yet since then Nebraska has become the home to hundreds of new windmills.
The truth is, Nebraska’s third highest national ranking for local and state tax-burden is not caused by property valuations or lack of taxpayers, but instead by government spending on things far from its mission to provide good public infrastructure, educational opportunities and public safety. Some good advice – if you want respect, don’t create dirty laundry!
Contact Sen. Mike Groene: email@example.com or 402-471-2729.