NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
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Sen. Dan Hughes

Sen. Dan Hughes

District 44

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The interim months are slowing down and session will soon be upon us. Over the last months, there has been plenty to update on as we accomplished things over the summer break. This week I would like to update everyone on a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the State of Nebraska that will help set Nebraska apart. A Memorandum of Understanding is a nonbinding agreement between two entities that outlines each entity’s responsibilities. This memorandum took many months to work out the details, it took collaboration between the Nebraska Department of Transportation, as well as, the Legislature. Being chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, it took some cooperation between my Committee and Senator Friesen, the chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

On Wednesday, September 5th a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Governor Ricketts stated that this will allow the Nebraska Department of Transportation to assume certain Nebraska Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) responsibilities.

The memorandum authorizes the NDOT to assume FHWA’s environmental review responsibilities for federally-funded transportation projects that are classified as Categorical Exclusions under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. Categorical Exclusions are the most common level of review under NEPA for infrastructure projects in Nebraska. This memorandum will take away the federal involvement up front on a project and give the State of Nebraska those environmental responsibilities. But it still allows for Federal review of the project, once completed, if concerns are raised.

Approximately 95 percent of the state’s transportation projects will now be able to be reviewed directly by the state. This will help cut the time and expenses of a project. With the environmental reviews being considered by the State of Nebraska we will continue to keep our state clean and in compliance, and the federal burden on our state will be greatly reduced.

I know there have been some concerns with the recent escapes from the McCook Work Ethic Camp (WEC). I have been in contact with the Department of Corrections Director, Scott Frakes and WEC Warden, Pam Morello. I would like to clarify that WEC is a minimum security facility and all of the inmates housed there are classified as minimum security risks. In response to the recent escapes, they will be installing razor wire around the entire perimeter, as well as, installing more surveillance cameras to help provide additional coverage to the facility at all times.

I always enjoy hearing from the Nebraskans I represent. Please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns that you might have. My email address is dhughes@leg.ne.gov and my phone number is (402) 471-2805. You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov, and you can click on the Live Video Streaming NET logo to watch sessions, hearings, and other Capitol events.

This week the committee I serve as chair of, Natural Resources, is hosting its first interim hearing of the fall. Committees hold interim hearings as a result of a legislative resolution that was passed during the previous session authorizing the committee to study an issue. I introduced LR 387 after several groups asked for an opportunity to have a broader platform to discuss this growing problem. This week I would like to update you a little on the process of an interim hearing as well as what we are discussing. The hearing on Eastern Red Cedar trees is next Friday, August 31, beginning at 1:00 p.m., in hearing room 1525 of the State Capitol.

For interim study hearings, testifiers speak on a topic in general, giving their perspective on an issue and how he or she believes the Legislature should address policy on the subject. There is no “proponent” and “opponent” testimony. The hearing is an opportunity for the committee to learn about the issues related to a certain topic.

Often when a committee holds interim hearings, it invites testifiers to speak to the committee on certain aspects of an issue on which such testifiers have expertise. Since the primary goal of LR 387 is to educate and update the Natural Resources Committee on Eastern Red Cedars, we have invited some subject matter experts. Invited testifiers will include a UNL professor of ecology, the Game and Parks Commission, the Nebraska Forest Service, and Nebraska Educational Lands and Funds. We will learn more about the benefits and problems associated with the use of Eastern Red Cedar trees, the management challenges, and if there is a role the Legislature should play to help.

If any college-aged students from the 44th district are coming to Lincoln to attend school and would like to be a page, please send a resume to my office before 5:00 pm on Thursday, September 14th so that I can write a letter of recommendation for you. Your application will be due in the clerk’s office by September 28th. This is a wonderful opportunity for young adults to see how the nation’s only unicameral works. It is a great way to get involved and learn more about your state government.

I always enjoy hearing from the Nebraskans I represent. Please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns that you might have. My email address is dhughes@leg.ne.gov and my phone number is (402) 471-2805. You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov, and you can click on the Live Video Streaming NET logo to watch sessions, hearings, and other Capitol events.

I have heard from a few people who were concerned about something I brought up in my previous article. I want to be very clear I am not advocating for the taxation of intangibles. The purpose of my last article was to point out yet one more way there are disparities between the taxation of farmland and intangibles as assets.

An update from this year’s legislative session is that my priority bill to raise speed limits has started to take effect in the district and across Nebraska. As you may have noticed some speed limits have been raised on certain highways and roadways, not all of the speed limits were changed immediately. The Nebraska Department of Transportation will continue to evaluate which roads should have their speed limit increased by 5 mph.

This is the time of year where committees will start having interim hearings. On August 31st the committee that I am chairman of, the Natural Resources Committee, will have their first interim hearing of the year. It will be a study to examine issues relating to the spread of Eastern Red Cedar trees. This is really getting to be a problem in pasture land in some areas of the state. Our study is going to explore this issue and look at what practices are working best for control. I have been out in the district this summer meeting and talking to many residents, as always please feel free to come and say hello if you see me at an event you are attending. I have also been meeting with the elected officials and staff from the ten counties that make up the 44th District. It has been good to learn what is happening locally around the district, as well as, their opinions on the legislature.

Our local budgets are currently being drafted and discussed at public meetings. I encourage all of you to attend these meetings to educate yourselves about the proposed budgets and make suggestions on how to best spend our taxpayer dollars. The budgets of these entities will have an impact on our property taxes since that is where the bulk of the revenue comes from that is used to fund our local government. The only number you really need to focus on is the difference between last year’s total budget and next year’s proposed budget total. If the new budget is higher, ask why, and make sure it is justified. You need to make your voice heard.

I always enjoy hearing from the Nebraskans I represent. Please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns that you might have. My email address is dhughes@leg.ne.gov and my phone number is (402) 471-2805. You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov, and you can click on the Live Video Streaming NET logo to watch sessions, hearings, and other Capitol events.

I have been attending several county fairs and community celebrations throughout the district recently and during those trips, I have had the opportunity to visit with a wide range of individuals. Almost universally, property tax is the topic of discussion. I have spent many hours thinking about this problem and have yet to come up with a viable solution. I have a solution, but it is the viable part that is the challenge. This week I would like to discuss that solution, as well as, touch on a recent supreme court decision.

Many people not within agriculture look at farmers as being rich because they own land. In Nebraska, about half of the land is owned by those working the land and the other half is owned by people not engaged in farming and ranching. To everyone who owns land, it is an asset regardless of whether or not you bought it, or whether it was given to you. It is part of your net worth and part of the nest egg that is your retirement. If you purchased stocks, bonds, or have CD’s in a bank, or if you inherited some stocks, bonds, or CD’s in a bank, they are your assets as well. The real question is why we double tax one set of assets and not the other. Both produce income and we pay income tax on the amount of income earned in that year. Both can increase in value and we pay capital gains tax on that increase when we sell the asset. So why must agricultural real estate owners pay an additional tax every year on that income-producing asset and other income producing assets do not? I am fully aware the argument over taxing intangibles (stocks and bonds), that has been debated before but is it time to take another look at it? I am sure several of my colleagues in the legislature have never heard this argument. I think it is worth having again since the disparity of taxation is so great at this time, and I do not see that changing any time soon.

Lastly, I wish to address the issue of requiring NRDs to sell land it owns but keeping the ability to pump the underlying water for the streamflow augmentation projects. The opinion of the Nebraska Supreme Court is, the matter is settled. The high court has ruled the Rock Creek Project, which was developed and is being operated by the Upper Republican NRD, serves a public purpose. According to the high court, “The right to use the groundwater does not float in a vacuum of abstraction but exists only in reference to and results from ownership of the overlying land”. This statement from the court covers both the Rock Creek and NCORPE Projects. The fact is neither Rock Creek nor NCORPE has pumped any water since May 2017 and it is possible neither will have to operate this coming fall and winter. This shows the NRD’s have had the vision and determination to solve the state of Nebraska’s problem locally while keeping the local economies intact and our communities thriving.

I hope everyone has been having an enjoyable summer. I have been traveling the 44th District to multiple community events and parades. I always enjoy getting out and meeting the people of the district I serve. Please make sure to reach out and say hello to me if I am at an event with you, I always enjoy talking to my constituents. This week I would like to talk about Medicaid expansion since it will most likely be on the ballot this November.

You may have seen people working the crowds at events trying to collect signatures for Medicaid expansion over the past few months. Most of the petition gatherers were paid and most of the money to pay the gatherers came from outside of Nebraska. The Secretary of State’s office requires 85,000 valid signatures in order for the measure to appear on the ballot, the group, Insure the Good Life, collected more than 133,000, well over that limit. There is a good chance that the measure will appear on the ballot come November.

I would like to discuss some of the facts that come along with Medicaid expansion. If passed it would expand coverage to approximately 90,000 individuals that are working, abled adults, not children or elderly. Those who are in need are already covered under the current system. A question commonly asked is where the money will come from to fund this expansion. It may have to come from somewhere else in the budget and is estimated to cost between $80 and $100 million per year. The three largest expenditures within our budget are K-12 education, Health and Human Services, and the University of Nebraska. We have already reduced provider rates for some HHS programs and have made small cuts to the University. If we choose to cut K-12 education it will have to be made up in higher property taxes. There is no way to pay for expanded Medicaid without making additional cuts within our budget.

If any college-aged students from the 44th district are coming to Lincoln to attend school and would like to be a page, please send a resume to my office before 5:00 pm on Thursday, September 14th so that I can write a letter of recommendation for you. Your application will be due in the clerk’s office by September 28th. This is a wonderful opportunity for young adults to see how the nation’s only unicameral works. It is a great way to get involved and learn more about your state government.

I always enjoy hearing from the Nebraskans I represent. Please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns that you might have. My email address is dhughes@leg.ne.gov and my phone number is (402) 471-2805. You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov, and you can click on the Live Video Streaming NET logo to watch sessions, hearings, and other Capitol events.

This week I would like to discuss a couple of things that have been in the news and give you a break from property taxes.  I would like to touch on the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deals with sales taxes on items purchased on the internet, as well as, talk about industrial hemp and medical marijuana.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that states may collect sales tax on purchases made on the internet. I have always supported this and have voted accordingly in the Legislature. I always felt it is a matter of fairness with our local retailers who have always had to collect and remit sales taxes. A 5 percent to 10 percent difference in price may be enough to change consumers buying patterns. As for immediately implementing this, it is not so easy. There are still a few questions left by the Supreme Court ruling that we must answer before we proceed with changing our statutes. We will have an exemption for a small retailer who must meet a minimum number of transactions before being required to collect and remit. That number has not been established in Nebraska yet. As for directing the additional revenue, we really have no way to track this revenue coming in. We are hoping it will be upwards of $30 million for the state but there is no way to know for sure what would have been remitted anyway and how much is “new” revenue. So making statements like it should be directed solely toward property taxes is a bit misleading at best. Not that I disagree with that use of the additional revenue.

Industrial hemp and marijuana are two completely different plants. Industrial hemp would be a good alternative crop for the farmers in Nebraska. It can be used to make many different products and would certainly be a way to diversify a farming operation. Industrial hemp contains very little of the chemical THC that can make you high. Anyone trying to smoke it will soon just have a headache. Marijuana, on the other hand, can be very potent and is a different looking plant being both shorter and bushier.  The proponents of marijuana will say it will be good for farmers in Nebraska. But if you look at other states who have legalized, medical or recreational marijuana, the “farmers” are large companies who grow indoors under strict guard and growing
conditions. Marijuana is not a crop that Nebraska farmers will grow.  You cannot hide marijuana plants in a field of industrial hemp because it will cross-pollinate and make the marijuana plants useless.  I believe there still hasn’t been significant research done on the effectiveness of medical marijuana, I don’t believe it is the miracle plant that some people would try to make you believe. It is possible the federal government will reclassify CBD so drug manufacturers can produce and sell products that have gone through FDA testing. All of us would like to get medications into the hands of those who suffer from seizures but we must make sure that these products are safe.

I always enjoy hearing from the Nebraskans I represent. Please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns that you might have. My email address is dhughes@leg.ne.gov and my phone number is (402) 471-2805. You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov, and you can click on the Live Video Streaming NET logo to watch sessions, hearings, and other Capitol events.

This week I want to explore further the property tax problem we have in Nebraska. One of the main problems is how we value property. Some have been talking about going to an income producing method of valuing real estate for taxation purposes.  Some of our surrounding states are using that method currently and Nebraska has used it in the past. During my visits with county assessors, I usually ask them about making that change. Most of them have asked me “please do not go back to that method”. It is much too cumbersome and there are way too many subjective decisions that can be made on any property.

Sales is not a perfect way to determine value but it is simpler and less subjective. Besides, whatever method you use to determine value, there is still an arbitrary number plugged into the equation to come up with the amount of taxes needed to fund our government. Currently, Nebraska taxes agricultural land around 75%, of recent sales determined values, and residential and commercial properties at not less than 95%, of recent sales determined values. With the income-producing method, there is a capitalization rate which is an arbitrary number plugged into the formula to give the values necessary to raise the amount of taxes needed to fund our government. One of the biggest complaints I receive is when someone’s neighbor sells their property, causing their property value to escalate and causing taxes to go up. On average only two to three percent of agricultural land sells in any given year, and based on a three-year rolling average, we are allowing over 90 percent of our values to be determined by less than 10 percent of sales. The same thing happens with residential and commercial properties but using a different time frame. Why should you have to pay more in taxes just because someone else chose to pay an inflated price for a piece of property in your vicinity? That inflated valuation does you no good unless you are willing to sell. Most of the time that is not an option.

I would like to see our valuations frozen at today’s levels, then if someone wants to pay an inflated price for a piece of property, they can without it causing all of the neighboring properties valuations and ultimately taxes to go up. The price paid for the selling property would be the new value for it, but all surrounding properties values would not change for taxation purposes. We will also need to decrease the percentage that agricultural land is taxed at, to bring balance back to our revenue streams.  If we did freeze valuations we would still need to make some adjustments annually in valuations to keep them uniform and proportional and to ensure our schools and counties could still have a modest increase in revenue if needed. Our property tax issue is very complicated in Nebraska. There are cause and effect issues with everything the Legislature tries to do to solve the problem.

We have been hearing, and having, a lot of discussions about property taxes over the past several years. Nebraska taxes real estate and improvements on those properties at a higher rate than our neighboring states. There are several reasons why that is the case, but I would like to examine why we tax real estate in the first place.

Starting over 150 years ago when Nebraska first became a state we had little commerce for sales tax revenue and no state income tax was in place. The only revenue stream available for the state to raise money for the operation of government was the taxation of real estate. Taxing real estate was and is relatively easy because the legal descriptions of every parcel of real estate are recorded and tracked in our local courthouses. Now, 150 years later, we have billions of dollars of commerce which we pay state and city sales taxes on. Each transaction gets an additional percentage added on and is remitted to the state and cities as a revenue stream. This stream has been steadily drying up over the years because the legislature has granted sales tax exemptions for certain things and with the popularity of internet shopping, the amount of commerce that sales taxes are being collected upon has decreased.

Nebraska has currently exempted about half of the things that are taxed in other states. Now, I do not necessarily disagree with reducing the amount of money the government has to spend. Most everyone will agree, the government is inefficient by its very nature and waste of taxpayer dollars happens regularly. My concern has always been that whenever the state runs short of revenue it cuts state spending and does not reduce mandates on local governing bodies correspondingly. Thus, forcing our local school boards and counties to increase the number of dollars required from local real estate taxes to make ends meet. Eroding our sales tax base and forcing state aid cuts upon school boards and counties is something the Legislature has done for years with little pushback from the citizenry.

Until now, we have had a relatively balanced stream of revenue to fund the government with about one third each coming from income, sales, and real estate taxes. With the recent jump in agricultural land values and the current escalation in home values, the real estate portion is taking on more than income and sales, and thus has thrown the balance off. To be more fair we must find a way to lessen the reliance on real estate taxes. I do not believe we can reduce the spending of our real estate tax revenue to bring our three-legged stool back into balance. I think we must look at reducing spending and expanding our sales tax base in order to bring our government spending back into balance. As I stated at the beginning of this week’s article, we need to examine how and why we tax real estate and I plan to continue that discussion in my subsequent articles. Plus, I want to begin the philosophical debate of, should we even be taxing certain classes of real estate. Stay tuned.

Things in Lincoln have slowed down considerably since the end of session last month. This week I would like to update you on a major renovation to your state capitol. Over the next eight or more years, the capitol will be under construction. We will be updating the old heating and cooling system with a new HVAC unit, as well as, repairing and fixing the windows. The new HVAC system will be geothermal and powered by wells drilled on state property just a few blocks away from the capitol. This new system will eliminate the need of using chilled water and steam delivered by underground pipes from the University of Nebraska city campus, to cool and heat the building.

The remodeling will start in early June and will be completed in four separate phases. One quadrant will be blocked off at a time while workers install the new system. The southwest quadrant will be the first to undergo construction. Senators and staff on both the first and second floors of that quadrant will be relocated into the tower or to other available offices in the building. All committee offices and hearing rooms will be located on either the first or second floors somewhere during the entire time of the renovation. My office is in the southeast quadrant and will not move during the first phase. The southeast quadrant renovation is scheduled to begin in June of 2020. Each phase is expected to take from 18 months to 2 years.

The HVAC system will bring a new and nicer way to heat and cool the building. Every office will have its own thermostat to control the temperature in their room. Even though the building will be receiving a new upgrade it will come with some challenges. With senators’ offices being located temporarily in the tower, it may cause issues during session. The elevators are slow and can only hold a small number of people. Staffers and senators trying to get to the floor for a vote or with information may take some extra time. Some senators’ offices will be located as high as the 13th floor. Even with some inevitable speed bumps, the finished product will be worth it. Currently, it takes a couple of weeks for the entire capitol to be switched from heating to cooling which can cause some cold days in winter and warm days in spring.

I always enjoy hearing from the Nebraskans I represent. As I have done in previous years I will be spending this summer attending community celebrations and county fairs throughout the 44th District as well as meeting with various local officials. If you do not catch me when I am in your community please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns that you might have. My email address is dhughes@leg.ne.gov and my phone number is (402) 471-2805. You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov.

On April 11th my priority bill, LB 1009, was passed by the Legislature. This bill authorizes the Nebraska Department of Transportation to increase highway speed limits. The speed limit can be increased by a maximum of 5 mph on two-lane highways, four-lane divided highways that are not part of the state highway system, expressways and freeways that are a part of the state highway system, and on portions of highways in Douglas, Lancaster and Dakota counties. Originally the bill would have allowed for certain stretches of I-80 to be raised to 80 mph. This was taken out of the bill during debate on the floor of the legislature. There was some pushback from the truckers association during committee hearings on the bill which resulted in this being eliminated. There were some safety concerns about onramp lengths and being able to reach the appropriate speed before merging in with traffic. After July 19th you will see some of the speed limits across the state change. This will not all happen at once, the speed limit posted will remain the legal limit until the signs are changed.

LB 449 was vetoed by the governor on April 23rd.  This bill would have repealed the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Management Act. I along with other senators fought this bill throughout the process. I am glad the governor vetoed the bill.  Prairie dogs are pests to farmers and ranchers and can cause extensive damage to crops and rangeland. Currently, only one county has adopted this act, but it is important to keep this law in place in case more landowners in other counties need help with controlling these rodents.  Allowing the counties to use the law as leverage, if needed, can help solve problems in the future on this issue. Over the interim months, I will be looking at ways to help make this law better. I would like to keep the act on the books, but there needs to be a few things defined more clearly in statue.

The petition drive for 50/50 property tax relief was suddenly abandoned a few weeks ago. We must find some form of property tax relief for our state. With this option being abandoned the issue will most likely not be addressed until session next year. The call for a special session to address property tax relief was also unsuccessful. We needed an additional 20 senators to sign on and that didn’t happen. I am still looking for a path forward for property tax relief and will be asking many of you this summer and fall for your input.

I always enjoy hearing from the Nebraskans I represent. Please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns that you might have. My email address is dhughes@leg.ne.gov and my phone number is (402) 471-2805. You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov, and you can click on the Live Video Streaming NET logo to watch sessions, hearings, and other Capitol events.

Sen. Dan Hughes

District 44
Room #1210
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2805
Email: dhughes@leg.ne.gov
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