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I visited the Omaha Community Correctional Center and the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility (NCYF) in Omaha this week. I see the same issues everywhere we go in the Department of Corrections. I am anxious to see legislation introduced in the next session so we can start addressing these problems. Because of LB 605, a law passed in 2015, all of these problems have to be corrected by 2020 or the law requires the release of inmates to correct the overcrowding problems.
I spent Wednesday morning with the Aging Partners Program. They work with Senior Citizens and provide a range of services for older adults and their care-givers across the State. As our population ages and people live longer, access to these services becomes ever more important. This is particularly important in the 43rd District where services are not as available as they are in the more densely populated part of our State.
My staff attended a meeting of the local FairTax group at the Lincoln Independent Business Association which promotes the elimination of all forms of income tax (including the elimination of the IRS) and replaces it with a national consumption (sales) tax. Many of these same people are active in and help us with efforts to reform State and local tax issues.
The idea for reducing property taxes is being reviewed by a number of prominent Nebraska attorneys to ensure it will comply with constitutional requirements. The committee to launch the ballot petition initiative is being formed. I am hopeful the first signatures will be collected early next month. They will need to collect about 150,000 signatures state-wide. A certain percentage of signatures must come from a certain percentage of counties. The idea will reduce the property taxes paid in Nebraska by about $1.2B. Nebraskans should see about a 30% reduction in the property taxes they pay. I am very excited about this idea. If you would like to help, please contact my office. This effort will need all the help it can get.
I met with executives from NPPD concerning the R Line this week. The chairman of the Natural Resources Committee (Sen. Dan Hughes) and the State Ombudsman’s Officer also attended. I consider this meeting a “beginning” to the dialog I need to have with NPPD on this very divisive subject. I’ve received a number of documents from concerned citizens that clearly indicate the R Line is to be built, in whole or in part, to service future wind energy development in the Sandhills, which I strongly oppose. On the other hand, NPPD officials insisted in our meeting that providing connection to wind power in the Sandhills IS NOT the reason the R Line is urgently needed. The current routing of the line appears to be designed to service future wind energy projects, and takes it through the most environmentally fragile area of our State. This has the potential to cause harm to the land that may take generations to heal, not to mention the impact on property values and on tourism.
At this late stage of the project, changing the route will be very difficult. It’s my hope this option is not off the table, but I am not optimistic it is very likely. NPPD is a unique sub-division of State government with a popularly-elected board of directors serving as the only oversight that governs NPPD operations. Since the NPPD board has already approved the R Line project, there is little citizen recourse to the board’s decision. There is no other agency of State government that someone could appeal the decisions made by the NPPD board of directors that I am aware of.
I’m not against infrastructure projects. They are important to the future growth and prosperity of our State and provide much needed benefits to our citizens. That said, such a project and the interests of a public utility must be balanced with that of the citizens affected by the project.
Right now, I don’t see this balance. Other routes for the power line are available. I realize a number of public meetings and comment periods have been held. Nonetheless, considering the significant public opposition to this project, I believe all parties concerned would welcome additional public hearings to answer questions and clear the air. Both the US Fish and Wildlife Service and NPPD have agree to extend the public comment period for this project and are waiting for this extension to be made official. I’m still waiting to receive word on any scheduled hearings. I’ll continue my dialog with the committee chairman, citizens and NPPD to try and find a solution that better balances the interests of everyone concerned.
Please contact my office with any comments, questions or concerns. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (402) 471-2628.
I continue to tour the different correctional facilities across the State. Our committee visited the Work Ethic Camp in McCook and the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, NE. These tours are very informative and I am learning more and more about the many different aspects and challenges everyone is facing either as an inmate or as a staff member. The Legislature will be better prepared to discuss and address these concerns and challenges after we wrap up the work of this committee this summer, but wrap it up we must. I’m a new Senator but Nebraska’s problems with corrections is an old issue. I think this is the third legislative committee to study this. It’s something the Legislature has to address in the next session.
I’m happy to report that an idea for reducing property taxes has finally emerged. Since January, the staff and I have had weekly discussions between groups of concerned citizens and many Senators all working toward a solution. This idea will reduce property taxes by about 30%, and will not impact the revenue currently collected by any local unit of government, namely schools. The details of the language of the proposal are being worked out right now, but I am confident citizen groups will begin circulating a ballot petition that amends the Nebraska Constitution in the next month or so. As soon as it is available, I will share all the specifics of the plan. I am very excited about this.
While the many groups of citizens will be presenting this ballot initiative to the people of Nebraska, Sen. Erdman who is the State Senator for District 47 (just to the West of us) has stated he will introduce the idea as a Legislative Resolution. Hopefully, one way or another, either through the people on a ballot initiative, or Sen. Erdman’s resolution, we will have real property relief for the first time in generations.
I am pessimistic about this idea ever passing in the Legislature, so it is very important to have the people (the 2nd House of Government in Nebraska) propel this forward as a ballot initiative. I have heard many painful stories from you in the district and also from all across Nebraska. We get calls every day with heartbreaking stories of how property taxes are breaking the backs of our citizens. In the Army we had a thing we called “the decisive operation.” In plain English, that means the number one priority. This is it! That’s why I support this duel effort thru a ballot initiative and a Legislative Resolution. When this ballot initiative petition hits the streets, these groups of citizens will need all the help they can get in order to obtain the required number of signatures before the deadline to place it on the ballot in November 2018. Sen Erdman will also need all the help he can get supporting his Legislative Resolution in January when the session starts. I will co-sponsor it, as will many others, but we need concerned citizens to fill the Capitol the day of this resolution’s committee hearing. Please email or call me if you are interested in helping with this project, and my office will connect you with the right people.
As you know from my last weekly update, I have asked the Chairmen of both Natural Resources Committee and the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee (Senators Hughes and Murante) to hold Public Hearings concerning NPPD’s proposed “R Line” project. I have many concerns about this. A number of things have eroded public trust in this project, so I would hope all parties concerned would welcome a public hearing to clear the air and answer questions. As of this writing, I have yet to receive word any hearings have been scheduled. Citizens who would be interested in participating in these should contact Senator’s Hughes and Murante and encourage them to schedule them.
Sen. John Murante may be reached at; email@example.com or call 402-471-2725
Sen. Dan Hughes may be reached at; firstname.lastname@example.org, 402-471-2805
Please contact my office with any comments, questions or concerns. Email me at email@example.com or call us at (402) 471-2628.
The Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs (NCIA) along with the Mid-America Transportation Center (MATC) hosted the Sovereign Native Youth STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Leadership Academy in Lincoln this week. I was part of a tour with these Middle and High School students of the Capitol and later a tour of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) Museum near Ashland. I really enjoyed working with these exceptional young people, who came from all over Nebraska. I was honored to escort this group.
This week also included a radio interview with the Chadron radio. So I could be in two places at once, my Legislative Aide did a radio interview with KRVN in Lexington where the Right to Repair legislation was discussed. I co-sponsored this bill (LB 67) that would restore ownership, or what I consider to be just basic property rights, to owners of Agriculture equipment. Information technology has advanced to the point everything has an on-board computer which owners of ag equipment cannot repair themselves because they cannot access software operating systems. Ag equipment owners should have the same rights of ownership an automobile owner has. If you have a car with a problem, you can plug in a little hand-held diagnostic computer and read a fault code and find out what part is bad and replace it yourself. If you own a shiny new half-a-million dollar piece of ag equipment with a problem, you can’t even start the engine without paying a technician to come out and access the operating software. I hope folks contact the members of the Judiciary Committee and urge them to support this bill and vote it out to General File so we can debate it and pass this legislation.
My staff also attended a hearing about the 911 emergency system this week. There are a lot of challenges making sure everyone in the state has access to basic cell phone/wireless coverage so no matter where you are, you can dial 911 and call for help. That’s the goal in the law and getting there, especially in places like the Sandhills, is a considerable challenge. This infrastructure is taken for granted in the urban areas of our state, so not everyone realizes the urgent need we face in the Western Nebraska. I am a strong supporter of efforts to expand wireless coverage and we have to do everything we can in the Legislature to promote this. Unless they’ve been out-West recently, “No Service” is not something a lot of people in Nebraska have seen on their phone in a long time. Like everything else, this capability costs money so funding is also a serious concern.
The staff and I continue to discuss the property tax issue with many citizen groups and a number of Senators. I think a ballot initiative is going to happen this summer, along with a legislative resolution a number of senators support early next session. I am excited and very hopeful we will see something soon, and I will be supporting it.
The Nebraska constitution says “…the legislature shall provide for the free instruction in the common schools.” What has happened instead is the legislature “provided” laws that ended up forcing 70% of the State’s school districts (175 of 249) to operate without financial support from the State. In those school districts, 100% of the costs are being paid for entirely by local property tax payers. This is a very divisive situation where most urban schools end up with State dollars supporting them, and most rural schools do not.
The bottom line is the Legislature has to find a way for the State of Nebraska to pay a lot more for K-12 education than it does right now. Too much of that bill is on the backs of property tax payers. “….the legislature shall provide” needs to really mean “provide.”
I’ll be at the Middle Niobrara Natural Resource Districts Conservation Field Day in Ainsworth 26th of the July. Later that day I’ll be at the ribbon cutting for the new Mid-Plains Community College in Valentine. I’ll also be at the Sheridan County Parade in Gordon next Saturday for the on the the 29th of July as well as the County Fair and Rodeo. I look forward to seeing everyone and talking with you. Please join me.
Please contact my office with any comments, questions or concerns. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (402) 471-2628.
Property Taxes remain the front and center issue this week. We had another in a continuing series of discussions on reducing Property Taxes with a growing number of Senators, as well as many citizen-lead groups that were all represented. I’m confident a ballot initiative will come out of this group and give the citizens of Nebraska a chance to make their voices heard in the next election. Property Taxes are out of control, citizens are hurting and the legislature has failed for generations to fix this problem. I am excited to see what comes of this, and I will actively promote the idea.
I attended the Midwestern Legislative Conference held by The Council of State Governments in Des Moines, IA. I was part of the panels that discussed Agriculture, Natural Resources, Criminal Justice and Public Safety. Senators came from the Midwest, and even law makers from three provinces in Canada attended. I really liked the opportunity to compare how bi-cameral legislatures worked as opposed to our unicameral. Legislators from other states are confused by our Unicameral system. They cannot conceive of a legislative body that isn’t organized around partisan political parties. They face the same problems however. Property taxes and rural/agricultural issues we face in Nebraska are shared by many other states.
Apparently commercial wind energy projects are planned for Lincoln County and citizens there are just as divided about the issue as they are in the Sandhills. Sen. Groene from North Platte is now grappling with this same issue in his district. Many of you remain very active in promoting LB 504, my bill to put a two year moratorium on the development of commercial wind energy in Nebraska. It takes five Senators on the Natural Resources Committee to vote the bill out of the committee to General File so it can be debated on the floor of the legislature. I urge everyone to contact the members of this Committee and urge them to vote “YES” on LB 504.
The 1st Infantry Division Main Command-Post Operational Detachment is a military unit who deployed to Iraq for a year. This organization was made up of ninety soldiers from the Nebraska Army National Guard. They redeployed home last week and I attended their welcome home ceremony. My nephew, 1SG Steve Brewer from Gordon, was the Senior Non-Commissioned Officer of this unit group. I was very happy to greet him and the other troops, and so glad to see them all home safe and sound.
I attended the Governor’s Economic Development Summit this week, and was very interested to see what is being done to promote the huge export market Nebraska depends on for our Agricultural products. Japan is one of the leading consumers of Nebraska exports. The Japanese Trade Representative from their Embassy in Washington, D.C. spoke at this conference, and I was glad I got a chance to hear his remarks and speak with him afterwards. Japan is the number one importer of Nebraska Corn and Beef. We have a great relationship with Japan and there is room to grow and improve it, opening new markets for our State.
Fair season is fast approaching. There are thirteen counties in the 43rd district, more than any other, so there a lot of County Fairs to visit. This is a great American (and Nebraska) tradition that really brings people and communities together. Citizen volunteers who make up the local Fair Board and Agricultural Society, as well as many other civic organizations work all year behind the scenes to prepare for this special week. I hope folks get a chance to take a quick break from the farm or ranch, and spend an evening at their County Fair.
We worked on the “Bee Bill” this week. LB 499 was a bill I introduced last session that is now the subject of an “Interim Study” by the Agriculture Committee. Typically, those bills a committee selects to do an Interim Study on tend to easily pass out of that committee in the next session. If all the committee members vote for it (no dissenting votes) then there is a very good chance it can be one of the bills that are put on what’s known as the “Speakers Consent Calendar.” These are bills that are voted out of committee unanimously with no opposition testimony during the hearing. Normally these bills pass quickly without debate on the floor. Obviously, a package of different bills that everyone in the Legislature agrees on is a rare thing around here.
Over a third of the world’s food supply depends on a honey bee to pollinate the crops we eat. Suffice to say these tiny creatures are very important. In the past several years a number of different things have begun to threaten the honey bee and make things ever more difficult for the people who raise and keep them. LB 499 tries to make life a little easier on our Nebraska Bee Keepers. I am cautiously optimistic we can get a minor amendment to the bill done over the summer and get this bill passed early next session.
LB 121 is a bill I introduced last session that would make $50,000 in military retired pay exempt from Nebraska Income Tax. Like hundreds of other bills introduced last session it is “held in committee” because there aren’t enough senators (five) to vote it out of the Revenue Committee. Every single State we share a border with does a better job of this than Nebraska does. Wyoming and South Dakota don’t have an income tax at all, and the rest of the States attract retiring veterans by not taxing military retirement (KS and IA), or giving special reduced income tax treatment to military retirement. (CO and MO).
I’ve slowly been changing the minds of Senators on this committee. Hundreds of military retirees leave Offutt AFB in Nebraska each year (for example) and move to Iowa, only to return to work at Offutt as a contractor or Federal Government employee. The income tax from their post-retirement job is lost, as is the property and sales taxes they would pay. We have a dollar chasing a dime going on here. The meager loss of income tax from the military retired pay is more than off-set by all of the other taxation and economic activity Nebraska is losing by not attracting retiring vets to Nebraska.
Full disclosure – my Legislative Aide and I both are retired Army Colonels and we would personally benefit from this, but so would tens of thousands of Nebraskan’s living here now and the many we would attract to our State. We want military retirees in our communities. They are incredibly well qualified, highly educated and experienced professionals who are exactly the kind of people we want joining the Nebraska workforce. I have a hunch I can get this one voted out of committee early next session. It’s worth noting Nebraska is also one of only six States that tax Social Security benefits, which is another travesty for many of the same short-sighted reasons.
For all of you who are big 2nd Amendment Supporters, it’s worth mentioning that I introduced three different bills that dealt with gun rights last session. They all went before the Judiciary Committee. For those of you so inclined, you’ll see the membership of this committee is made up of Senators who just aren’t very anxious to take up any kind of gun legislation. All of these bills are “held in committee” and I would wager that is exactly where they will stay. January of 2019 the 106th legislature will be sworn in, and the composition of this committee will change, hopefully including Senators with a different view of the 2nd Amendment.
Speaking of things that go “bang” I hope everyone enjoyed the 4th of July. Next to Memorial Day, it’s my favorite holiday. I was asked to dedicate the new Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward and would strongly encourage everyone to visit this outstanding facility. The heart-felt patriotism of my fellow Nebraskans never ceases to humble and amaze me. Few observances remind me so much of what a great place Nebraska is to live, and how fortunate and honored I am to represent some of you in the 43rd District.
As a member of the Nebraska Justice System Oversight Committee, I toured the Tecumseh Correctional Center and the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln this week. What an eye-opener that was. I’ll talk more about this in the near future as the committee completes its reports, but suffice to say Nebraska’s Correctional System faces some significant challenges. Our fellow Nebraskans working in this system are doing incredibly difficult work and I have the upmost admiration and respect for them.
I think we should seriously consider measures that structure the pay system for prison employees that reflects and rewards them for the very special circumstances they work in. They are not your ordinary State of Nebraska employee. State personnel bureaucracy or union formalities shouldn’t force a one-size-fits-all solution on employees who need to recognized for their uniqueness. Vocational opportunities for the inmates need to be explored. Many were lost years ago to budget cuts and now we have populations of inmates stuck in their cell most of the day because there is nothing for them to do. Idle time is a tool of the devil, and that is plainly evident in this situation. Caged men grow into dangerous men that pose a threat to staff and other inmates if they are locked up day and night for no other reason than there isn’t anything for them to do.
I toured a “Veteran’s Wing” of the prison and was absolutely amazed to see part of a prison ran by veteran inmates with military pride in organization and neatness. I sure hope we can come together in the Legislature in the next session and help provide the Department of Corrections with the resources and support they need.
On another note, we continue to work with a growing group of Senators and other Nebraskan’s determined to see property tax reform put on the ballot in November 2018. To know how we got where we are today, it helps to review where we came from.
In 1966, the only tax in Nebraska was a State Property Tax. The citizens put a ballot initiative together and made that unconstitutional.
In 1967, facing a crisis of no tax revenue to run the State, laws creating the sales and income tax in Nebraska were passed. The hearings for these bills were so large they had to be held in the Warner Chamber (the old House of Representatives in the Capitol building). These new tax laws were so unpopular they cost many Senators who supported them their seat in the legislature and after only one term in office, Governor Tiemann was defeated for re-election in 1970 by Democratic nominee Jim Exon after he encountered stiff opposition from within his own party.
Thus began the era of The State of Nebraska spending dollars collected in income and property taxes, and the legislature creating over 650 different Local Units of Government (LUGs) who have the authority to raise and collect and spend property tax dollars.
There are about 125 LUGs in the 43rd Legislative District. Most familiar to folks are our School Districts who spend about 60 cents of every dollar collected in Property Taxes. County Government, Educational Service Units, Natural Resource Districts, Cities, Towns, Villages, Rural Water Districts, Rural Fire Districts, Airport Districts, Cemetery Districts, Noxious Weed Districts, I even found a Bookmobile. Every one of these government entities has a Mil Levy and the authority to lay and collect property taxes within their jurisdiction.
Some of my colleagues like to say Property Taxes are a “local issue.” I don’t accept that. The legislature created the LUGs and defined their authority to lay and collect property taxes. I heard a man say, “Frankenstein needs to be made to dine with his monster.” The legislature created the LUGs, the legislature needs to work with them and help find ways to reduce their demand for property tax revenue.
Don’t get me wrong, many good and decent Nebraskans work very hard every day in our many local units of government, and I’ve heard from them too. I read an article about Colorado Springs, CO. Strapped for cash, the city shut off every other streetlight, among other things. This was followed by copper thieves stripping the wiring from street lights they knew wouldn’t electrocute them and it ended up costing more than just leaving the light on would have. It turns out some ideas to cut spending actually cost money. Nebraska spends too much and we need to cut the size and scope of government, but we cannot be hasty or shortsighted in our solutions.
I hear things like “whatever you do, the idea has to be revenue neutral.” I don’t know where this mindset comes from. For some reason if government spends $100 this year, somehow it is now chiseled in sacred stone tablets that say government must spend $100 next year, regardless of which revenue source is used to appropriate the money. Of course spending the same amount next year would actually be called a “cut” in spending because the amount didn’t increase enough to account for inflation. Government is the only place I know of where spending the same money one year to the next is actually called a cut in spending.
Many fear ANY reform that shifts funding from local property taxes to the legislature because they are afraid the legislature won’t pay 100% of what used to be funded. That is a reasonable fear to have because the only way property taxes will come down is if the legislature starts paying for things property tax currently pays for. The legislature doesn’t have any spare cash laying around so any new outlay means something else isn’t funded, or howls for tax increases will ensue. After all, the legislature didn’t create the LUGs and give them the authority to lay and collect property taxes only to end up paying the bill itself. There is built in resistance in the Legislature not to pay for things the LUGs have traditionally funded with property taxes. This culture needs to change.
Studying this problem I’ve come to the conclusion that all the easy problems must have been solved long before I got elected, because all that’s left are the hard ones. That said, selling the ranch because you can’t raise enough of a calf crop to pay the property taxes and have enough left over to feed your family is one heck of a lot tougher problem than a bunch of State Senators having an argument about tax policy. I won’t rest until property taxes are brought under control. People are really hurting. I welcome the argument. We need to have it.
As you know from last week’s column, I had a chance to attend my High School reunion in Gordon. I was also able to attend the “Ride the Ridge” event in Crawford and I was also honored to walk with other Senators in the Nebraskaland Days Parade in North Platte.
Being on the Nebraska Justice System Oversight Committee, I’ll be touring the Tecumseh Correctional Center next week, followed by the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
I was on the Chris Baker Radio program on KFAB this week. I suggested we pass a law that would allow Senators and Staff to be armed. This has generated some interest. This idea was prompted by the shooting at the Congressional baseball practice last week in Washington, D.C.
I asked a question in last week’s column; why is the 2nd amendment the only constitutional amendment people need to get permission from the government to exercise? Think about that a minute.
Did the newspaper you are reading right now need to get permission from the government to publish this edition, or did the 1st amendment protect their right to do so?
Did my daughter need to get permission from the government to vote in the last election, or did the 19th amendment protect her right to do so?
Do I need permission from the government to be represented by an attorney in court, or does the 6th amendment guarantee that I have that right?
Our constitutional rights are so important, every elected official in the country, from State Senators to the President, all swear an oath to “support and defend” the constitution, so when various people and groups and the government itself do things that interfere with the full and free exercise of those rights, I get very, very concerned. The 2nd amendment is every bit as important as any one of the others. It doesn’t have a * next to it indicating this right can only be exercised in certain, limited circumstances prescribed by the government.
There are a number of people that are absolutely convinced that the presence of a law-abiding citizen with a gun somehow magically increases the likelihood of someone suddenly turning into a bloodthirsty criminal. This fear is irrational and is not supported by the facts. The opposite condition is actually true. A law-abiding citizen with a gun is no more of a threat to the public than a law-abiding citizen without a gun. Tens of thousands of Nebraskans carry a concealed carry gun with them out in public every day. Where’s the evidence that the mere presence of a gun is inherently threating to public safety?
Last year there were about 14,000 murders with guns in the US. At the same time, there were over two million “defensive gun uses” where a gun owner stopped or prevented potentially violent crime, many without firing a shot. That amounts to at least hundreds of thousands (if not over a million) incidents where harm to good people was averted. There are people that simply refuse to accept the fact that the private ownership of guns by law abiding citizens save more lives each year than the criminal use of guns cost.
People who do not like guns are not required to own or carry one. Those who wish to depend on the many laws we already have, the police, and prominent signage announcing gun prohibitions in certain places are certainly free to do so, but their personal beliefs and philosophy should not be forced on someone else, and most certainly should not deprive another law-abiding citizen of their constitutional rights and inherent, inalienable right of self-protection. That condition is as un-American as it is immoral. My rights end where yours begin and vice versa.
In this day and age, where the political discourse has become so toxic that silencing the voice of the opposition now includes shooting people, I think prudence demands I take steps to protect myself and my staff. A trained, law-abiding citizen having a gun and not needing it is far better proposition than needing a gun and not having it.
I’ve been traveling the State a lot. I went to The Cattleman’s Association mid-year meeting and the 100th Anniversary of the Farm Bureau, which gave me a chance to meet a lot of folks from the district and discuss many issues effecting Western Nebraska like brand inspection and property taxes. I was interviewed by the Scottsbluff, Chadron and Ainsworth radio stations. I will attend my 40th High School reunion in Gordon this weekend. I had a great time with a number of players from the Husker football team teaching them teamwork, communications and long-range rifle shooting. I was so honored to have the chance to mentor this great group of young men.
This week the shooting in Washington, D.C. prompted an interview with the Lincoln paper where I said I thought security in our Capitol building was fine, but it would be a good idea for Senators and Staff to receive special training approved by the State Patrol – over and above a conceal carry class – so we could be armed at events we attend. All of this would be voluntary and done at personal expense. I’d hope no one would ever have to use this training and capability I suggested, but “hope” is a poor course of action in the world we live in today.
Had that baseball game in DC been just a bunch of ordinary members of congress without security details, there would have been a historic massacre take place. The many strict gun laws of Washington, D.C. obviously have no effect on criminals, nor will they ever. Gun Free Zones, like this baseball field, are just tragedies waiting to happen. Only a good person with a gun can stop a bad person with a gun. Think about all of your constitutional rights for a moment and then ask yourself why the 2nd amendment is the only constitutional amendment people need to get permission from the government to exercise.
Quite a few folks have talked to me about their desire to do a ballot initiative to try and solve our State’s terrible property tax problem, so I’ve been learning about it this week.
In 1912, Nebraskans added language to the State Constitution which created the “initiative petition” and “referendum” process. Twenty-one states have some form of this, but we’re one of only fifteen states that have BOTH initiative and referendum rights for their citizens. In plain English, citizens can create laws, create constitutional amendments (called initiatives) and also “veto” laws (called referendums) like what recently happened with the Death Penalty.
Going all the way back to 1912, I found where the citizens of Nebraska have done this forty-nine times.
Signatures from ten percent of the registered voters in the last election (about 121,000 today) have to be collected to amend the constitution (for example), and five percent of the voters in at least thirty-eight of Nebraska’s ninety-three counties have to be included in that number.
County election officials have to verify all the petition signatures against voter registration records. All the signatures have to be turned in to the Secretary of State four months before the election.
Unfortunately, the legislature did not pass property tax legislation this past session, but our constitution makes the people of Nebraska the “second house” of State government. Citizens have the right to seek solutions to problems the legislature fails to address. I’m excited to see what the many groups working on property tax reform come up with. I am following this very closely. The devil will be in the details, but I would be honored to support a ballot initiative idea that delivers real property tax reform, as would many other senators I know who are also concerned about this.
It’s important to remember that it was a ballot initiative petition from the people in 1934 that gave Nebraska its unique one-house Unicameral State government, so the people of Nebraska are capable of doing some pretty big things when they set their mind to it.
If the calls and letters I’ve been getting about the property tax problem are a fair measure of the mood of the people, then I think Nebraskans are ready to do something big about property taxes in the next election. I hope they do.
I’ll close by touching on a subject I have mentioned many times in this column. The State Department of Revenue released a report last Thursday showing that tax receipts were down $9.3 million from what they forecast for the month of May. As I have said before, the rosy predictions about revenue growth used to build the budget were unrealistic. The Governor’s spending vetoes (which I supported) may not be enough if this downward trend in revenue continues.
The staff and I have been working on a property tax proposal for the next session. As you may remember, I attended a press conference on the last day of the session with Sen. Steve Erdman (LD 47, Bayard). He announced that one way or another he would introduce a legislative resolution next session that would change the Nebraska Constitution and fix the property tax problem. So far nearly a dozen groups are involved helping with this. I think the people are so fed up there will probably be a ballot initiative. Stand by for news as this effort evolves over the summer.
I am behind Sen. Erdman and the people 1000%. Property taxes are crushing Nebraska. We are the 5th highest in the Country and getting worse. People in my district are being forced to sell homes, farms, and ranches because they can’t afford the property taxes. I had a rancher tell me he has to sell 80 steer calves just to pay the property taxes on a 16,000 acre ranch. Failing to address this in the last session really upset me. Far too many senators in our legislature are not taking this problem seriously enough.
I’ve been to several meetings on Veterans and Native American issues this past week. I did an interview on Sirius Satellite Radio. My staff were interviewed by a French reporter for a Paris newspaper on the Fair Repair Bill. We have our interim study going on with LB 499. This bill will update the law and protect Nebraska Bee Keepers. I will go out on a limb and predict it sails through the legislature next session. It has generated a lot of very positive interest on the Agricultural Committee. Once we work out the details with the Department of Agriculture on how the new laws will be implemented, I think we’ll have a very good piece of legislation that is sorely needed by our commercial bee keepers.
We still have eleven bills “held in committee” right now. We’ll be working on those over the interim with amendments to help address the concerns we heard during the hearings. I said during the hearing last session that LB 504 would be my priority bill next session, and I mean that. This bill puts a two-year moratorium on the construction of new commercial wind energy projects in the Sandhills. I’m all for private property rights but there has to be a way we can do this without tearing the community apart. Pausing construction as this business is carefully studied is prudent to say the least.
I sent a lot of letters to graduating high school Seniors this year, which reminded me that I better go to my 40th class reunion in Gordon next weekend. I look forward to seeing my old classmates.
“The Interim” has begun, (that time between when the legislature adjourns and when we’re back in session next January). I’m getting caught up on all kinds of appointments and chores you have to put off while the legislature is in session. While Senators are out for the summer, we are back to being “normal citizens” and run/work our private businesses, but we are still available to assist and serve the people in our districts, and I am happy to do so.
Close to the end of the session we passed a law (LB 127) that created the “Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee.” Along with the Chair of the Judiciary Committee (Sen. Laura Ebke) five other senators and I make up this committee. We will visit Nebraska’s ten different correctional institutions this summer in an on-going effort to study the various problems in Nebraska’s Correctional System. I have a lot of faith in Director Scott Frakes. He has an incredibly tough job to do, but there clearly have been some problems in the recent past that I think the legislature can help with. Maybe we can move past the finger-pointing and actually work on helping fix some things. I look forward to being part of the solution.
My staff are busy digging through thousands of emails and researching all kinds of ideas that came to me over the session from so many people across the district. We’re trying to follow up on so many calls, such as:
“I was pardoned by the Governor. How come my criminal conviction still shows up on my police background check?”
“Why in the **** do fishing licenses cost $43? When you add the $30 park permit, I’m out nearly $100 just to go fishing. What is going on!!”
“I need to sell 80 steer calves just to pay the property tax on my 16,000 acre ranch. Why is it so high?”
“Why does the State have to put in this gigantic traffic circle on the highway when they could just put up a traffic light?”
These issues and many more are important to me and my staff. We are here to help, and we appreciate all your patience while we work through these together.
I finally had a chance to catch my breath and reflect on some things. For example, I wonder how Texas does it. They have 25.5 million more people than Nebraska does, 1,300 miles of international border, nearly 400 miles of seacoast, no income tax and yet their legislature only meets once every two years for about four months. Would the good people of the State of Nebraska be better off if the legislature was only in session every other year?
I wonder how is it that ranchers in my district with land in both South Dakota and Nebraska tell me their property taxes on their SD ground have gone down, while their property taxes on their NE ground have gone up. What is South Dakota doing that we aren’t?
I wonder what is going to happen in 2021 when we re-district the State after the 2020 census. The population in the western end of the State will continue to shrink while it steadily grows in the Lincoln and Omaha area. Right now only six senators represent all the people living west of Kearney. Lincoln has nine senators today, for example. How will our one-house unicameral system serve Western Nebraskans then? Will Western Nebraska have more or less of a voice in the Legislature? The tyranny of simple math tells me Western Nebraska needs to get set for a disappointment.
I think of everything that has happened during this first session in the legislature as a State Senator, and the one thing that stands out the most is how surprised I was about something. I came to the Capitol thinking my State was a “conservative” State. Nebraska may well be a conservative State, but Nebraska’s Legislature most definitely is not. I came here thinking lower taxes, smaller government, and more freedom and liberty for our citizens were the principals almost everyone in Nebraska shared. Those will always be my principals, but I discovered putting together a simple majority of twenty-five like-minded Senators is something that is very hard to do in “conservative” Nebraska. Putting together thirty-three so we can end a filibuster and actually vote on something is even harder.
We all know the old yarn about how important it is to stay abreast of what your elected officials are doing (or not doing) in your name, and how “elections matter” but this last session really put those old lessons in sharp focus for me.