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The appropriations committee is wrapping up their preliminary budget for the 2017-2019 fiscal years, they will give the legislature the final budget on Day 69 which is April 21st. They have a very difficult task. Nebraska’s economy is still growing but only at a 1 percent increase. The Appropriations Chair Senator Stinner is looking under couch cushions for any spare change that he can find. Amazon has voluntarily agreed to collect internet sales tax which will help, but the expected revenue from that will not make a significant impact on our economy.
LB 518 creates The Rural Workforce Housing Act by moving $7.3 million in seed money from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund which presently generates its funds from real estate document fees. Competitive grants would be awarded to nonprofit development organizations in areas with demonstrated housing needs, low unemployment, and the ability to complete projects within two years. This program will require a local one to one match of the grant program.
This past week we discussed LB 68 introduced by Senator Hilgers. LB 68 would override individual city and local ordinances, making firearm regulations consistent statewide. Hilgers introduced this bill with hopes to authorize the state to regulate the registration, possession, transportation, transfer and storage of firearms and ammunition. It would also allow cities and villages to retain the authority to enforce prohibitions on firearm discharge. This bill would remove a heavy burden that has been placed on Nebraska citizens and their right to bear arms, as well as, leaving the cities with tremendous abilities to continue to fight and regulate gun violence.
Senator Stinner introduced LB 222 to revamp the Nebraska Tourism Commission. This bill would expand the commission’s membership from nine to 11 governor-appointed members. Of those 11 members, four would be required to have professional, volunteer or public service experience that is related to the governance duties of the commission and the other seven members would be affiliated with the tourism industry. LB 222 would redefine the commission’s strategic plan to include the following: marketing strategies for promoting tourism, methods to expand existing tourism capacity, a review of revenue in the State Visitors Promotion Cash Fund available for tourism development at the state level, an examination of best management practices for the tourism industry, and recommended strategies to provide technical assistance, marketing services and state aid to local governments and tourism industry in Nebraska. LB 222 advanced to final reading by voice vote.
We have started all day debate and even though this session got off to a slow start we’re starting to get a lot of bills moving. This past week my bill LB 182 was debated on the floor of the legislature. This bill would clarify the qualifications for a program that provides financial assistance to cities and rural water districts to build safe drinking water projects. Also this week the legislature heard two more of my bills, LB 535 and LB 317. LB 535 provides an exception for filing a statement with the register of deeds when recording an oil, gas, or mineral lease. LB 317 provides for a re-levy or reassessment of a special assessment for cities of the second class or village. All of these bills were advanced to select file.
This week, the Natural Resources Committee’s two priority bills advanced to the next stage of debate. LB 566, which would enter Nebraska into the Interstate Wildlife Violators Compact and strengthen penalties for Game Law violations, and LB 182, which helps cities and natural resource districts that run public water systems to qualify for funding and loan forgiveness from the state’s drinking water loan fund. The bill did not add new funds, it just clarified that NRDs are eligible for the available federal funding. Both of these laws will help Nebraska by providing additional tools to keep bad actors from hunting here, and by ensuring public water systems, and the NRDs who run them, are able to use federal funds available for their upkeep.
Another bill to help NRDs did not fare as well this week. Sen. Friesen’s LB 98 would extend the sunset date of the law that allows a three cent levy authority for districts that are fully or over appropriated until 2026. The levy can only be used for groundwater management and integrated management activities. The bill was filibustered by senators who do not understand the value of helping NRDs fund the water management tasks that are needed to help them out of their appropriation statuses. This is an important tool to generate matching funds revenue to access the state’s Water Sustainability Fund.
I had the opportunity this week to take some of my staff along with me to Imperial for a portion of the Upper Republican NRD’s water conference. While it was a long time in the car on one day, I was pleased that we were able to travel through the district, so my staff could see the area I proudly represent.
This week begins the first week of full day debates. All committees have completed their hearings with just a few executive sessions left for committees to decide whether any additional bills will be advanced to general file. Of the 667 bills introduced, 33 have been passed by the legislature and 31 have been indefinitely postponed or withdrawn. We currently have 230 bills in various stages of debate, understanding we will not act on all of these bills before the session ends. Of legislation I introduced, this past week LB 566 which adopts the Wildlife Violator Compact was presented to the floor and advanced to select file. I am hopeful the same will happen this week with LB 182 which would change powers and duties of the Department of Environmental Quality under the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund Act. Speaker Scheer has requested all senators show their vote counts to him on their priority bills. This is to ensure that we keep a steady pace and get through the less controversial bills and not get bogged down on the more contentious issues, before the session ends.
Of local importance, LB 518 was advanced this past week. LB 518 adopts the Rural Workforce House Investment Act and transfers funds from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. This bill would create grants to support the development of workforce housing necessary to recruit and retain employees in rural and underserved communities. Competitive grants would be awarded to nonprofit development organizations in areas with demonstrated housing needs, low unemployment, and the ability to complete projects within two years. The grants would require a dollar-for-dollar local match and all unmatched grant funds would be returned to the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Fund on June 30, 2021. The Department of Economic Development would administer the grant program. Finally, LB 518 would transfer unallocated funds from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to the Rural Workforce Hosing Investment Fund.
In order to keep our youth informed about agriculture, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture (NDA) puts on a five-day program called the Nebraska Agricultural Youth Institute (NAYI). It will be held July 10-14 in Lincoln. The program is designed to teach current high school juniors and seniors about the agriculture industry and all the career possibilities available within it. NAYI is the longest running ag youth event of its kind in the county and is free of charge to the participants. NDA is currently accepting applications to NAYI. The application is available online at nda.nebraska.gov/nayi.
High school students are invited to take on the role of state senators at the Unicameral Youth Legislature June 11-14. At the State Capitol, student senators will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and discover the unique process of the nation’s only unicameral.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature gives behind-the-scenes access to students who have an interest in public office, government, politics, law, public policy, debate or public speaking. Students will learn about the inner workings of the Legislature directly from senators and staff.
“I believe the backbone of democracy is voter knowledge of our system and their clear understanding of the role citizens need to play in the continued success of our nation.”
– Senator Dan Hughes
Registrants are encouraged to apply for a Greg Adams Civic Scholarship award, which covers the full cost of admission. Applicants must submit a short essay. Other $100 scholarships are also available.
The Office of the Clerk of the Nebraska Legislature coordinates the Unicameral Youth Legislature. The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Extension 4-H Youth Development Office coordinates housing and recreational activities as part of the Big Red Summer Camps program.
To learn more about the program, go to www.NebraskaLegislature.gov/uyl or call (402) 471-2788. The deadline for registration is May 15.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Unicameral Information Office
At the capitol, this past week we heard a few bills that brought quite a large following. Those were LB 630 introduced by Senator Tyson Larson of O’Neill, LB 450 introduced by Senator Chambers of Omaha and finally, LB 622 introduced by Lincoln Senator Anna Wishart.
LB 630 would allow charter schools in districts that have low-performing schools. This bill would create a new Independent Public School Authorizing and Accountability Commission that would oversee the charter schools. LB 630 was heard in committee and is unlikely to be heard by the full legislative body since it is not a priority bill. However, that did not stop proponents and opponents from coming to the capitol last week and voicing their opinions.
Senator Chambers bill LB 450 allows people who are suffering from incurable medical conditions to acquire and self-administer medication that would end their lives. The proposed legislation would require the patient to express a request for life-ending medication both orally and in writing. Both requests must be made to an attending physician and a consulting physician. They would both need to agree the patient is competent to make medical decisions, as well as, acting voluntarily.
LB 622 was introduced by Senator Anna Wishart from Lincoln and is also her priority bill, would lay out the rules for cultivation, production and use of medical cannabis. This bill brought out many proponents including doctors, veterans with combat injuries, out-of-state experts and many individuals who suffered from diseases and conditions that could be treated with the drug, or have a loved one who would benefit from its use. The opponents to this bill are mostly law enforcement and government officials.
Learn what it’s like to serve as a state senator. The Unicameral Youth Legislature is a four-day legislative simulation in which high school students take on the role of lawmakers. Student senators sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and discover the unique process of the nation’s only unicameral.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature gives behind-the-scenes access to students who have an interest in public office, government, politics, law, public policy, debate or public speaking. Students will learn about the inner workings of the Legislature directly from senators, staff and lobbyists. Bill topics are based on legislation considered during the most recent legislative session. From driving laws to the death penalty, topics selected for the legislature are diverse and engaging. The youth legislature is organized by the Nebraska State 4-H Office and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Office youth development program.
On March 2nd, I will introduce LB 537 in front of the Health and Human Services Committee. LB 537 would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to screen any applicant for and recipient of cash assistance benefits if they have reasonable suspicion that a person is using illegal drugs. If the drug test yields a positive result the recipient will become ineligible to receive cash assistance for up to 12 months or until they have completed a substance abuse treatment program and a job skills program. Upon completion of these programs the recipient will then again be eligible to receive cash assistance benefits. Under LB 537, if an individual has a minor child who is still eligible for benefits they may appoint a protective payee to receive payments for the child’s benefit. I am having ongoing conversations with parties that are interested in this bill to work out some concerns that they have, this bill will have an amendment but at this time I am not sure what the final draft will look like. The reason behind LB 537 is not to punish individuals but to provide treatment for those who have substance abuse problems.
With committee hearings in the Natural Resources Committee winding down, I have noticed that issues pertaining to electricity, power generation and power distribution seem to be hot topics this year. We have heard multiple bills dealing with renewable energy, public power, and net metering. The Natural Resources Committee will be finished with bill hearings on March 2nd.
There are two bills of high interest to the oil and gas industry which is very prevalent in the 44th district. The first is LB 535 that I introduced in the Revenue Committee. This bill would reduce the amount of redundant paperwork that is required to be filed with the register of deeds for oil, gas, and mineral leases. The second bill, LB 533, will be introduced in the Natural Resources Committee by Senator Vargas of Omaha on March 2nd. LB 533 deals with making changes relating to injection wells. It requires proof of liability insurance in an amount of not less than 5 million dollars for injection wells or waste water disposal wells. It would also restrict these wells in an area where the depth of the drinking water aquifer begins less than 50 feet below the surface of the ground or the Nebraska Sandhills.
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.
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