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.
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
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.