Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 44th 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. Dan Hughes
Last week Senator Groene of North Platte introduced LB 218 and LB 488 in the Natural Resources Committee. LB 218 would change the way N-CORPE, the “Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement”, project operates going forward. It would separate the ground water rights from the surface rights and require those acres to be sold in order to pay down the bond debts. The proceeds from a sale of the land would be applied in the following order: original land purchase debt, water well purchase and installation debt, and then to the public entity or entities in a joint agreement in equal sums. LB 218 would require the rights to use ground water for irrigation to revert back to the owner of the land where the water wells were installed, should the public entity no longer need to pump. Finally, this bill would allow the Department of Natural Resources to adopt the rules and regulations to carry out this act.
What is problematic about LB 218 is, in my opinion, the State of Nebraska owns all water rights and separating them from the surface rights opens a Pandora’s Box. Currently, the N-CORPE acres have been reseeded to native grass and are slowly being reclaimed by those native species. However, this grass is not yet suitable for grazing and therefore should be allowed more time to recover. It may take five to seven years before the grass is established enough to be sustainable. Once the grass is viable as range land again this could be a revenue stream for N-CORPE.
LB 488 would adopt the Water Conservation Grant Act. This bill would create an irrigated land retirement program and would authorize the Department of Natural Resources to accept applications for the water conservation grants. Also, it would authorize the department to award these grants in the amount of $50 per acre of eligible land until the annual limit of $3 million was met and would also exempt those acres from the occupation tax. My concern with this bill is that it diverts the $3 million to pay for LB 488 out of the Water Sustainability Fund.
The following day, the Natural Resources Committee heard LB 657 and LB 660 introduced by Senator Wayne of Omaha. LB 657 would require every retail electric supplier in the state to provide unbundled and transparent billing to all of their customers. Under this bill the Public Service Commission would be charged with enforcing the act.
LB 660 would remove a restriction on the sale or delivery of retail electricity by a private electric supplier. The Public Service Commission would establish criteria for retail electric competition in Nebraska, they would also be charged with adopting and promulgating rules and regulations necessary to carry out the purposes of the Nebraska Retail Electricity Choice Act. At the hearing, there was stiff opposition to both bills from a wide range of individuals representing the Nebraska Public Power industry, Nebraska manufacturing, and several individuals, all of whom did not feel Nebraska needs to change the way we are currently doing business. Each of these bills, according to a Public Service Commission estimate, will cost millions of dollars in additional fees just to implement on an annual basis.
Although, it may appear not much progress has been made during floor debate in the mornings, notable progress is being made during the committee hearings in the afternoons. Some of the important bills that I have heard in my committees are LB 404, LB 368, LB 275, LB 55, LB 584, and LB 566.
LB 404 which would require a crew of at least two people for a train or light engine, was heard on January 31st and the following week was indefinitely postponed by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Although this bill was effectively killed in committee, I was a dissenting vote for killing LB 404 and believe this is a public safety issue.
Senator Lowe introduced LB 368 which would change helmet provisions for motorcycle riders, removing the requirement for riders 21 and older from wearing a helmet. LB 368 was heard in front of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee and was voted out of committee to general file with a 6-2 vote. Because of my belief in personal freedom, I voted in favor of moving this bill to the full legislature.
I introduced LB 275 in front of the Transportation and Telecommunication Committee which allows law enforcement or a private property owner to have an abandoned vehicle towed from private property by a towing company. The towing company then handles the vehicle, in accordance with existing Nebraska law for vehicles abandoned on public property. LB 275 expands this application accorded public property to include private property as well.
Two additional bills that were heard in the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee were LB 55 and LB 584. Both bills seek to change laws related to roadside mowing. LB 55 would require Law Enforcement officials to report dangerous conditions arising from vegetation and weeds along roadsides that are not being mowed frequently enough under the existing law and would increase the number of times landowners are required to mow. LB 584 would not require counties or land owners to mow ditches prior to July 1st thus encouraging habit for wildlife and helping reduce soil erosion. LB 584 would also require mowing roadside vegetation sometime after September 1st for traffic safety interests and possible drifting snow concerns. Some counties require landowners to mow and other counties do not, mowing ditches themselves.
In the Natural Resources Committee, we heard LB 566 which would make Nebraska a part of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. Of the 50 states, 44 have already adopted the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact. The compact is an agreement through which states assist one another by participating in a database of game law violators to prevent them from obtaining hunting and fishing permits in another member’s state.
As you would expect activity is picking up in the Legislature. This past week we passed LB 22 from the first round of debate, which is General File on to the second round which is Select File. Hopefully by the time you are reading this we will have passed it from Select File on to Final Reading. LB 22 is the budget bill that we need to pass in order to close the revenue short fall that must be met between now and June 30th, 2017. Unfortunately, we spent almost 8 hours debating LB22 in the first round and could face another 4 hours on Select File. Currently, we spend our mornings having floor debate and the afternoons in committee hearings listening to the proponents and the opponents of the various bills that have been introduced.
As you have heard from me on several occasions, I am going to talk again about property taxes. I am a co-sponsor of LB 312. This bill would expand the sales tax base and use the additional revenue to reduce the property tax burden for all Nebraska property tax payers. Currently, Nebraska has exempted nearly half of the goods and services that can have a sales tax applied. All of the things in LB 312 that would have sales tax applied to, are currently, or have in the past, been taxed in Nebraska or other states. The past ten years there has been a tremendous shift of the burden for funding education into the pockets of the property tax payer, especially the agricultural property owner. Because there has been little or no equalization aid coming to the majority of the school districts in the 44th District from the state, all of our funding has been local and hardly any state funds have been circulating in our rural economies. The more urban school districts are benefiting from their property tax dollars flowing and rippling through their local economies as well as state aid dollars. Whereas, we in more rural districts only have the option of our own property tax dollars flowing and rippling through our local economies. In 2015, the last year I have figures for, approximately 134 million dollars stayed in the urban school districts and was not distributed across the state to benefit our local economies. If you take that number times ten you can see why the urban economies are booming and most of us in rural Nebraska continue to struggle. And now, especially with commodity and livestock prices at depressed levels, we need to have at least some of those state aid dollars flowing through our rural economies. I hope this better explains why I am in favor of expanding the sales tax base for property tax relief. I have seen some posts and comments that I believe did not fully understand why I co-sponsored LB 312.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion held a morning press conference on January 25th to announce that he has resigned from the Legislature. He specified that he had handed in his letter of resignation to Speaker Jim Scheer stating that his resignation would be effective at 12:01 a.m. on January 30th. This has been a pressing issue on the Legislature this session and I am glad that we are now able to put this issue behind us. I and many others had been encouraging Kintner to resign since this last summer. During floor debate, more than 20 senators rose to encourage the expulsion or resignation of Kintner. Ultimately, his resignation can be attributed to the large amount of criticism he faced from his colleagues to take responsibility for his actions and resign. I have great confidence that Governor Ricketts will make a good choice in filling the vacant seat. Eligible applicants looking to fill the vacant seat for Legislative District 2 have until January 31st at 5pm to submit their application.
The Legislature’s Executive Board has voted to create a special investigative committee to examine the challenge to whether Omaha Senator Chambers lives in his north Omaha district or resides in a different district. The special investigative committee is made up of the following seven members: Chairman Dan Watermeier, Vice Chairman John Kuehn, and members Sue Crawford, John McCollister, Kate Bolz, Speaker Jim Scheer, and myself. The committee is discussing the idea of possibly hiring an attorney/investigator from outside of the Legislature to review this matter. Depending on how the members of the special investigative committee decides to move forward, this could end up being a lengthy process.
This week the following bills: LB 182, LB 317, and LB 318, each had their own public hearing. LB 182 was heard in front of the Natural Resources Committee and has been advanced to general file. LB 317 was immediately advanced to general file following the public hearing in front of the Urban Affairs Committee. I introduced LB 318 to the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and the committee has yet to take any action on the bill.
Up next, LB 275 – would provide duties for law enforcement officers and rights and duties for private property owners regarding abandoned vehicles, will have a public hearing on February 6th in the Transportation and Telecommunication Committee.
Wednesday, January 18th was the last day to introduce legislation. There were 667 bills and eighteen Constitutional Amendment’s introduced this year. I introduced eleven bills on various topics related to District 44. The entire list of introduced bills are on the Legislature’s website (www.nebraskalegislature.gov). The total number of bills introduced is slightly less than we are normally used to but I think this may be attributed to the projected budget shortfall. Several of the bills this year have been introduced before; cigarette tax increase, repealing the death penalty, hunting mountain lions, and Medicaid expansion. One of the proposed rule changes would be to minimize the ability to filibuster. The press has inferred to the public that the legislative body has increased the amount of time spent filibustering lately, but if you look back to recent history you will usually see that it is the same bills being filibustered every time. Although, it may appear that the legislative body is being combative; history will prove that we are debating several of the same issues each year.
Two bills of great interest that I have introduced are LB 537 and LB 593. LB 537 would require drug screening for applicants and recipients of welfare. This bill will be heard in front of the Health and Human Services Committee. I am looking forward to my first time before the HHS Committee. The second bill would create the offense of criminal trespass to vehicles. I worked closely with McCook Police Chief Ike Brown to ensure that this bill was done correctly the first time. I also ran it by multiple law enforcement groups in the area. This bill will be heard in front of the Judiciary Committee.
Of local importance, my next two bills LB 317 and LB 318 are scheduled to be heard in front of the Urban Affairs Committee and the Government, Military, and Veteran Affairs, respectively. LB 317 provides for a levy or reassessment of a special assessment for cities of the second class or villages. The background of this bill stems from a discovery made by the City of Imperial while reviewing statutes, that a city of the second class or village does not have the same authority as a first class city, primary class city, or metropolitan class city to re-levy or reassess a special assessment. LB 317 will give all other class of cities the authority to re-levy or reassess a special assessment. LB 318 will authorize telephone conferencing for meetings of the Nebraska Brand Committee. The state agencies that already allow the telephone conferencing are; the educational service unit, member educational service units, community college board of governors, public power district, public power and irrigation district.
Things are beginning to pick up here in the legislature. There has been a lot of discussion regarding changes to the rules, appointment of senators to special committees, and additional bill introductions. As of last Friday, 430 bills and three legislative resolutions have been introduced by senators. I am anticipating many additional bills will be introduced during the last two days of bill introduction. Committee hearings will begin next week.
In addition to the 14 standing committees that I talked about last week there are 13 special committees. The Executive Board makes the appointments for the special committees. The special committees, commissions and councils are: Building & Maintenance, Committee on Justice Reinvestment Oversight, Education Commission of the States, Homeland Security Policy Group, Interstate Compact for Adult Offender Supervision, Legislative Performance Audit Committee, Legislature’s Planning Committee, Midwestern Higher Education Compact Commission, Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact, Nebraska Information Technology Commission, State Council for Interstate Juvenile Supervision, State-Tribal Relations Committee, and Streamlined Sales and Used Tax System.
Of the bills I have introduced, two have already been scheduled to be heard by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday, January 19th at 1:30 P.M. LB 89 and LB 90 were brought to me by the State Auditor, Charlie Jansen. LB 89 clarifies under the Nebraska Budget Act publishing dates are calendar days and not working days. LB 90 will require when any employee of the Auditor of Public Accounts conducts an audit or examination of any public entity, the public entity shall provide suitable accommodations for such employee of the auditor at the location where the requested information and records are kept or stored.
During last Friday’s floor debate we heard the motion to re-reference LB 68 to the Judiciary Committee. This bill was originally referenced to the Judiciary Committee but was re-referenced to the Government, Military and Veteran Affairs Committee. LB 68 would prohibit certain regulation of firearms, ammunition and firearm accessories by counties, cities and villages as prescribed. Senator Chambers was leading the effort to have LB 68 referred to the Judiciary Committee which is one of the committees he is a member of. After more than two hours of debate, the motion to send LB 68 to Judiciary Committee failed on a 17-24 vote. I did not support Senator Chambers motion.
During the first few days of the Legislatures One Hundred and Fifth Session, committee chairpersons have been elected, committee members have been determined, and the introduction of bills has begun. Senators who intend to introduce new bills have until the tenth day of the legislative session which falls on January 18th. Then committee hearings will begin shortly thereafter.
The new speaker elected for this session is Senator Jim Scheer from Norfolk. The following are the chairpersons for the standing committees: Agriculture: Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, Appropriations: John Stinner of Gering, Banking, Commerce, Insurance: Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, Business and Labor: Joni Albrecht of Thurston, Education: Mike Groene of North Platte, General Affairs: Tyson Larson of O’Neill, Government, Military and Veterans Affairs: John Murante of Gretna, Health and Human Services: Merv Riepe of Ralston, Judiciary: Laura Ebke of Crete, Natural Resources: Dan Hughes of Venango, Nebraska Retirement Systems: Mark Kolterman of Seward, Revenue: Jim Smith of Papillion, Transportation and Telecommunication: Curt Friesen of Henderson, Urban Affairs: Justin Wayne of Omaha, and Rules: Mike Hilgers of Lincoln. These leadership positions are represented by three different political parties and include returning senators, as well as, newly elected state senators. The freshman senators elected to lead committees are Hilgers, Albrecht and Wayne.
As the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, I have moved offices to room 1210 located in the southeast corner of the capitol. The members on the Natural Resources Committee include; Sen. Lynne Walz, Sen. Rick Kolowski, Sen. Joni Albrecht, Sen. Bruce Bostelman, Sen. Dan Quick, Sen. Suzanne Geist, and Sen. John McCollister. I am looking forward to working with these senators and talking about the following subject areas: water, public power, natural resources districts, environmental issues, energy, and recreation. Committee meetings are open to the public and will convene on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays in room 1525 on the 1st floor of the capitol.
I have also been reappointed as a member of the Executive Board. Early in this session the Executive Board will appoint a committee to hear and make a determination regarding the challenge of Senator Ernie Chambers residency. The board hopes to reach a resolution on this matter within the next few weeks.
Since the election, we have been looking at the internal workings of the legislature, and there are important discussions regarding committee chairmanships and committee assignments taking place. The legislature is divided into three caucuses, each consisting of 16 or 17 senators and roughly following the geographic lines of the state’s congressional districts, and it is within the caucus that the makeup of committees are determined. Within the caucus, senators turn in their preference choices for the committees they would like to serve on. The Committee on Committees holds something like a draft process within sports, taking into account seniority and preferences to fill slots. However, at this point, no one knows how the committees will look until the chairmen are elected on the first day of the session in January.
The Election Technology Committee met last week, and heard testimony on the concerns of ageing tallying machines, logistical hurdles for counties with 300,000 voters versus those with only 300, and other challenges. The same equipment is used in all counties, but the logistics of tabulation and ensuring the integrity of elections are all the more urgent in light of recent controversy in the national news. Nebraska wants make sure that the sanctity of the vote is maintained here without a doubt.
Nebraska is one of the top states in terms of the number of different ballots which must be printed because we include elections for so many ESUs, school districts, county commissioners, NRDs, and city councilmen, and many times the lines between those districts don’t always match, so in the presidential primary this year for instance, over 3000 combinations of ballots needed to be printed. That represented a substantial expense to all counties. There is new technology coming to market which could allow a voter to complete his or her vote on a computer, which will then print the voter’s selections, and the voter would then verify that printed ballot before feeding it into a tally machine. This is one way to save on the expense of printing ballots, but the offset with this scenario, of course, is the cost of computers, printers, and other technology.
Going to all mail in ballots may be another alternative. This would save the expense of poll workers but would add the cost of postage. In counties and states which are currently doing this it seems to be working relatively well.
The main concern which kept coming up for the Election Technology Committee is that the tallying machines in Nebraska are nearing the end of their life cycles, and will soon need some sort of upgrade. The question is, who pays for that: one possibility is the state in conjunction with federal money, or placing the burden entirely on the counties and their property taxpayers to pay for it.
Finally, this column should be published just before the Christmas weekend. Josie and I would like to wish you and your loved ones a very Merry Christmas and safe travels wherever this holiday season takes you.
The Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation has put forth a proposal to raise the state’s sales tax by 1% and to broaden the base in order to generate funds for property tax relief for agricultural, residential, and commercial taxpayers. There are some voices outside of the agricultural community with a tendency to push back on paying additional sales tax for agricultural property tax relief, but it is important to remember the broader picture. Over the past 5-6 years, the agricultural property taxpayers have been subsiding the state operating budget, owing in large part to unprecedented increases in agricultural land values which drastically impacted the state TEEOSA aid formula. These changes brought down the burden on the state general fund budget. As a result, there has been a significant tax shift in the past few years from the state’s general fund onto the backs of local agricultural producers, to the tune of $133 million in 2015 alone. Agricultural land does not benefit from the property tax relief provided by a city sales tax that reduces real estate taxes within that city.
As I’ve stated many times before, I think that property taxes on agricultural real estate aren’t equitable. Agricultural land is not only a production input, it serves as the nest egg for the retirement of a great many people, both urban and rural, not any different than the stocks, bonds, 401(K)s, or CDs for others. And yet those other retirement assets are not taxed on an annual basis. As a business input, it is unbalanced in its taxation. Most business inputs which are used in manufacturing a product are not taxed as agricultural acres are. Another way of looking at it is this: Agricultural acres are the same to the business of farming as a client base is to any other business. If you are a lawyer and you have a list of clients, should you be taxed on that list, regardless of whether some or any of those clients used you for any legal services over the past year? That client list is much like a farmer’s acres, which are taxed year after year, regardless of their use or profit to their owner. That lawyer’s client list is also part of the determined value of the business when it is sold, just like those acres.
I would add that property taxes are not a problem only for the farmer. Nebraska has slowly moved into the top ten states with the highest property taxes, and property taxes make up nearly half of all taxes paid at the state level, when considered in comparison to income and sales tax. Our high property tax rates are hurting our ability to attract new businesses into Nebraska. I agree with much of what the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation has had to say on the issue of property tax reform, and I look forward to finding a solution in 2017 which will make taxation in Nebraska equitable, and help to make our state a more attractive place to have a farm, a business, and a family. Please send me your feedback on this. I would like to hear how property taxes have impacted you, your farm, your home in town, your business, or someone close to you.