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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.
Issues relating to Nebraska’s correctional systems are showing up in the news more frequently this year than ever before. Whether it is assaults on guards, riots, assaults on other inmates, or another problem, it can almost all be traced back to overcrowding and understaffing. Nebraska’s prisons are currently at 157% of capacity, and have only dropped by 1.4% in the last 18 months. The solution to this, as with most problems, will not be changing a singular policy. Staffing needs to be addressed. Overcrowding needs to be addressed. Rehabilitation needs to be addressed. We will have to spend more money in different areas in order to rein in this problem. Some of that money may need to go into facilities, and some may need to go into hiring more guards, counselors, and other professionals. We may have to reverse cuts made during the last administration.
Increasing staffing and building more buildings are relatively simple solutions, but the more complex side of the issue is reducing recidivism: we must work to close the “revolving door” in our prison system. If we are going to punish offenders with imprisonment, we must make sure that when they leave, they have the tools to be successful on the outside. If we do not help to make sure that people are gaining and improving marketable skills while they are incarcerated, they will still leave prison with new skills – but these will be only the skills which they learned from other inmates. If someone cannot find employment, and earn an honest living once they have left our correctional system, then it will be much more difficult for them to avoid turning to those “prison skills” in order to make ends meet.
Focusing on keeping people out of prison once they have left should pay dividends to society in the long run: we will have fewer inmates, requiring less money be spent on our correctional system. I am not advocating leniency for violent or heinous offenders, but rather that those convicted of minor offenses ought to be given the opportunity to turn their lives around and therefore not re-enter the criminal justice system. We will have people living lawful lives and participating in society, and we will all benefit from these people paying in their share of taxes rather than taking out, whether that taking out would have been the costs of incarceration or the costs of unemployment and other programs.
Two weeks ago, the Legislative Council met in Omaha. Many people have not heard of this body of the Nebraska Legislature, but it serves an important function. The Legislative Council consists of all members of the Legislature, and serves as an investigative body during the interim. When it meets, it discusses policies, reviews interim studies, and looks into how statutes already put in place are working and considers changes. Although the majority of the Legislature attends this summit, no formal action can be taken on anything.
While there, I found it to be an excellent opportunity to visit with the incoming senators who will be freshmen during the 2017 session. I enjoyed speaking with many of them about what their priorities are for their upcoming years in the Legislature, and getting to know a bit about their backgrounds and the various paths which they took to elected office.
The Tax Rate Review Committee met on November 16th to discuss the state’s current fiscal climate. The members of the committee are the Speaker of the Legislature and the chairs of the Executive Board, Appropriations, and Revenue. The committee adjourned without recommending any action on projected budget deficit. Nebraska Tax Commissioner Tony Fulton stated during the hearing that low commodity prices is the primary reason for revenue shortfall. Also on the 16th, the Appropriations Committee held 4 interim hearings, LR 502-a study to examine the use of revolving funds within the Department of Administrative Services, LR 517-a study to examine the long-term fiscal sustainability of the Nebraska Health Care Cash Fund, LR 580-a study to examine the Department of Health and Human Services’ policies for dealing with disallowances and audit exceptions by the federal government which have resulted in large fines and having to return money to the federal government, and LR 588-a study to determine best practices in drafting tax legislation and determining the fiscal impact of tax policies.
Recent columns in various newspapers have reprimanded the governor for how much he spent on several legislative races. I’m not condoning the governor’s actions, nor am I condemning him for taking an active part as a private citizen in our legislative races, especially since he is using his own money. Individual candidates can spend their own money to get elected, but generally that is not looked upon favorably by the voters. It is much better to fund a campaign with small donations from your constituents. Unfortunately, the amount of money which is needed to run a successful campaign can be larger than what can be raised by those small individual contributions from within a legislative district. I thought it would be interesting to bring to your attention the amount of money that is contributed to candidates for the legislature by political action committees, or PAC’s. These top 10 donors probably exceed 50% of all the contributions made by PAC’s to candidates for Nebraska legislative races. All of this is public information that can be found on the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure web site www.nadc.nebraska.gov.
According to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure web site the top 10 PAC contributors were:
1. Nebraska School Education Association-$322,407.09
2. AGC PAC (Highway Improvement PAC)-$166,361.76
3. Nebraska Realtors-$162,348.77
4. Nebraska State Chamber-$103,685.50
5. Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys-$87,622.50
6. Mutual of Omaha-$84,325
7. Firefighters for Better Government-$73.930.95
8. Nebraska Bankers-$68,054.67
9. Associated Beverage-$62,065.00
10. Citizens for a Better Tomorrow-$57,364.70
These figures are as of the last reporting period, through October 24. I’m sure these numbers will increase even further once the final reporting period of December 31 has passed. Those final figures will be made public on January 17, 2017.
In one particular race during this last election, a candidate spent almost 3 times as much as his opponent and still lost. Clearly, money doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful campaign. Generally the message is the most important thing, and being able to get that message out to the voters is critical. There are only so many doors which can be knocked on, and only so many phone calls which can be make, in the short time leading up to the election. Fliers, phones for volunteers to make calls, radio ads, and billboards all cost money. These are all part of the reason why such large amounts of money are required for campaigns.
The election on the 8th was an upset in more ways than one. You have plenty of places to read about the national election, but there were some surprises for the Nebraska Legislature as well. In addition to the 12 new senators who will be joining us in January due to term limits, five new senators will be replacing ones who were running for re-election. When you consider the fact that there were 17 new senators, including myself, who entered the legislature two years ago, that amounts to 34 out of 49 senators with two years of experience or less. This is possibly one of the unintended consequences of term limits: institutional knowledge is extremely limited in the Legislature as we face down a budget shortfall of over $900 million, something which none of us have experienced anything close to. I have never been a fan of term limits, as I have always believed that Nebraskans have an extremely effective term limit mechanism – elections. We have seen that this year, in five of the thirteen districts which had incumbents running for re-election. Limiting the number of elections in which the people can choose their own representative to continue to serve them is, in my opinion, unnecessary, and it produces some serious consequences.
Nearby District 44, there will be two new senators joining the Legislature in 2017. In District 43, which starts just north of Lincoln County, retired US Army Colonel Tom Brewer of Gordon will be replacing Senator Al Davis. Prior to his election, Colonel Brewer spent 36 years in the military, including six tours in Afghanistan. In District 47, comprising all of the panhandle except for Scotts Bluff County, Steve Erdman of Bayard will be replacing Ken Schilz, who was term limited. Mr. Erdman is a former School Board member and County Commissioner and has been farming for over 40 years.
I am happy to welcome another senator who I believe will be a true advocate for agriculture. Tom Briese of Albion will be replacing Senator Kate Sullivan in District 41. I have sat down with all three of these senators-elect, and have begun building relationships with them which I am eager to see continue into the legislative session. I look forward to adding to the coalition which is the voice of rural concerns in the Nebraska Legislature.
As you read this, the election is over. Hopefully the dust has settled, although I doubt the smoke has cleared. We now have an idea of what the future may hold for our government, be it at the national or state level. Whether your candidate won or lost, it won’t be as good as you hoped nor as bad as you feared. Government will carry on. As for the legislature, I am looking forward to working with all of my new colleagues, and all of my returning colleagues, despite facing a large budget deficit. We are facing a challenge, but the state of Nebraska has been here before, and we will get through it again.
Now that we know who will be coming back to the legislature, some of the picture may become clearer with respect to the chairmanships for all of the committees, but no one will know for sure until the vote is taken on opening day in January. I am running for chair of the Natural Resources Committee. With water issues in the Republican River basin and a majority of Nebraska’s oil production in the 44 th district, I feel that I have a good handle on many of the issues which may come before the Natural Resources Committee. Of course energy is also under the jurisdiction of the Natural Resources Committee, so public power and renewable energy issues will certainly be talked about, as well. Although I don’t know how many bills, nor the content of bills, which will come through the Natural Resources Committee at this time. But I am sure that this will be a busy session. I hope to once again be elected to the Executive Board of the Legislature. Having spent 2 years there, I have a lot of knowledge about the workings of that committee, and I am confident that I can put it to good use.
Friday, November 11 th is Veterans Day. If you are fortunate enough to have time off from work or school, and spend time with loved ones, or if you don’t, please do not forget that our veterans are not only the reason for this holiday, but also the reason that we have any holidays at all. If not for those who volunteered to give all for our country, we would not enjoy any freedoms at all.
Election Day in Nebraska is less than a week away. For those of you who will be voting in person on Tuesday, you will be deciding on Referendum Number 426: whether or not to repeal LB 268, which abolished the death penalty in Nebraska. The wording on the ballot can be confusing, so I would like to clarify that voting to repeal will undo what the Legislature did, and return the death penalty to Nebraska. A vote to retain will keep the actions of the Legislature which eliminated the death penalty in Nebraska. Regardless of the results of this vote, I will abide by the decision of the voters of Nebraska. If you choose to retain the repeal, I will honor that choice. If you choose to bring back the death penalty, I will do what I can to streamline the process, making it effective and timely. In my opinion, the law was not broken, but the process was. I believe that the Legislature has the ability to fix the process.
On October 28th, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board met and announced an anticipated $901 million shortfall. I wish to clarify that this shortfall is their forecast for the 2017-2019 fiscal biennium, and not the current fiscal year, although we do still face a smaller budget shortfall this year. The Legislature will address the budget shortfalls in January, and I see no need for a special session at this time. However, we will be dealing with a much smaller budget next year because of the projected drop in revenue.
I would like to stress that the forecasting board does just what their name implies: forecasting. These numbers can all change if commodity prices come back up, bringing up agricultural revenue and increasing the income taxes paid by farmers. However, if the decline in the agricultural sector spills over into the rest of the economy, a slowdown in the entire state would mean we could be looking at an even larger budget deficit. As with all things, only time will tell.
If you know of a hard-working young person who will be in college in the Lincoln area during the Spring 2017 semester and who has an interest in government, policy, politics, or administration, the legislature is currently selecting for Legislative Page Positions. Pages must be high school graduates currently enrolled in a Nebraska college or trade school with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, and able to work 20 hours a week from January 4, 2017 through May. It is a paid position and many Nebraska colleges offer credit for participating in the program, similar to an internship. The deadline to apply is October 3rd and the Selection Committee will conduct interviews on October 13th. We have had a few students from the 44th District who have done this in the past and I would encourage all college students to consider it. If you or someone you know might have an interest in participating, please contact my office.
I will be holding open Town Hall meetings all across the 44th district over the coming months. I will be listening to to your comments and answering your questions to ensure that I am in touch with the wishes of the people of Southwestern Nebraska. Look for dates and locations in your local paper, and on my Facebook page, located here.
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