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Economic Development Taskforce
This month the Economic Development Taskforce met to discuss the ways in which the arts and humanities contribute to a strong economy and good quality of life in Nebraska. Representatives from Nebraskans for the Arts, the Lincoln Arts Council, Beatrice Community Players, the Northeast Downtown Omaha Arts & Trades District, and the Willa Cather Foundation were able to share unique insights about their organizations’ impacts and their ideas for fostering more creative and historic development. One of the resources provided at the hearing was an overview of policies in place in different states to encourage this kind of development, which you can access here.
Our office is also hosting a lunch in September at the Capitol to learn more about how Creative Districts have worked in our neighboring state of Colorado.
Urban Affairs Committee in North Platte
On August 24th the Urban Affairs Committee traveled to North Platte to hold a public hearing on two interim studies: LR160 and LR60.
The purpose of LR160, introduced by Senator Dan Hughes, was to consider what tools Nebraska municipalities have to offer relocation incentives to prospective new residents. Particularly in more rural areas, skilled workers are in high demand to fill jobs in healthcare, construction, and other fields. For better or worse, our state constitution restricts simple relocation incentives in the form of loan repayment or tax forgiveness that some other states use. On the one hand, this makes it more difficult for our communities to compete with other states; but on the other hand, it also puts up strong protections on use of public money.
LR60, sponsored by the full Urban Affairs Committee, was introduced to give us an opportunity to more thoroughly examine a 2016 report on TIF produced by the State Auditor’s office. In North Platte we heard from some of the municipalities whose TIF projects were cited in the Auditor’s report. In most of these testimonies, municipalities explained how they had changed processes to address the concerns that were raised in the report. Most of these concerns were identified by the auditor as actions allowable under the law, but which raised questions about whether the law should be tightened to restrict these actions in the future. LB95, which I introduced last session, included many provisions to tighten these parts of the TIF statutes.
The Urban Affairs Committee has two more interim hearings scheduled for this fall. The first, in Grand Island on September 29th, will consider my LR138 on municipal condemnation and demolition as well as LR60. The second hearing, to be held in Lincoln on October 6th, will cover LR60 and Senator Justin Wayne’s LR81 on fire codes. To find more details about these or any other interim hearings scheduled by legislative committees, you can access the Legislature’s official calendar here. Hearings will be added throughout the fall as they’re finalized, so check back if you’re interested in specific topics.
Interim Issue Research
The Nebraska Legislature is structured so that senators may only introduce new bills in the first 10 days of each session, but my office often receives bill ideas throughout the year. In addition to the formal interim studies carried out by committees and senators, the fall months are an opportunity to look into those ideas that were brought to my office after bill introduction was over for 2017. In the month of August my office began researching some of those issues and scheduling meetings to learn more about them. Some (but not all!) of the topics we are investigating include protections for student journalists, military retirement taxes, the cost of insulin, staffing ratios in nursing homes, school lunch funding, cottage industry regulations, and many others. Though we will not introduce a bill on all issues, these ideas from constituents are always welcome. Oftentimes our early research suggests non-legislative solutions or improvements in the areas we examine. If you have an idea or concern, feel free to contact the office and share it with us.
Legislative Page Applications Open
Do you know anyone interested in serving as a page for the 2018 legislative session? Pages are college students who assist senators and the Clerk of the Legislature with various tasks, such as running errands for senators during the legislative session, assisting the Presiding Officer, and setting up and staffing committee hearings. The Page Program is open to high school graduates who are currently enrolled in a Nebraska college or trade school, and is an excellent opportunity to learn the basics of state government. It is a paid part-time position, and many students receive college internship credit.
The deadline for applications is Friday September 29th. Those interested in applying should first contact the Clerk of the Legislature’s office at (402) 471-2271 or email Kitty Kearns at firstname.lastname@example.org for an application. All applicants are also asked to provide a letter of recommendation from their state senator. If you live in LD45, I would be happy to hear from you!
Arrows to Aerospace Parade
The Arrows to Aerospace Parade on August 19th was, as always, a great success! This year the parade was designated one of the official events celebrating Nebraska’s 150th anniversary. That meant there was an even wider array of presentations, activities, and attendees than usual. I enjoyed marching in the parade and meeting with Bellevue residents in the park afterwards. I had a table in the park in the afternoon and had several folks stop by to talk.
Many thanks to the Bellevue-Offutt Kiwanis and other volunteers who work so hard to make the parade and community event such a success year after year!
Kiwanis Club of Bellevue
Senator Carol Blood and I spoke to the Kiwanis Club of Bellevue on August 17th. It is always a pleasure to join community-minded groups like Kiwanis. Our August gathering provided an opportunity to discuss previous and upcoming legislative sessions alike, as well as answer questions and talk about the priorities and concerns of those in attendance. As usual, it was an engaging and enjoyable time.
Backpacks for Offutt Students
My friend and colleague Senator Carol Blood organized an event on August 17th to distribute backpacks full of school supplies to military families in Bellevue who needed a little extra help at the start of the school year. It was an absolute honor to support this event, along with the many other donors and volunteers who made it happen.
This kind of support for our military families is a big part of what makes Bellevue such a strong community.
Eclipse Day at the Capitol
I hope you all had an opportunity to enjoy at least part of the eclipse that traveled across Nebraska on August 21st! My staffers Christina and Shayna were able to join other legislative staff right out on the Capitol lawns, along with lots of other Lincoln residents and visitors.
The eclipse was a great showcase of Nebraskans’ hospitality and welcoming attitudes, and a very cool experience.
Upcoming Community Events
Join us on September 11th at 6:00 pm in the American Heroes Park for a moving ceremony to recognize those from Nebraska and Western Iowa who have lost their lives protecting our country since September 11th, 2001. The ceremony includes a moving tribute by the Bellevue West and Bellevue East ROTC students to honor each of these individuals by name. The ceremony also includes the joyful event of swearing in new citizens to our country. In the event of inclement weather, the BPS Lied Activities Center is the alternate location.
The Food Bank for the Heartland and BPS are continuing their partnership to offer mobile food bank access to Bellevue residents. They will visit Mission Middle School on September 20th from 5:00-6:30 pm this month, and will also be there the third Wednesday of subsequent months. 12 to 18 year-olds can also access the mobile clothes closet during food bank distribution times. For more information on the mobile food bank, and to check for any changes to the distribution schedule, you can find their website here.
Offutt and the Human Resource Association of the Midlands are hosting a job fair at the Bellevue Lied Activity Center from 10:00-1:00 on Thursday September 28th. It is open to the public, and especially encourages active duty service members, DoD civilians, veterans, retirees, guard and reserve soldiers, and their family members to attend. For more information, and to see a list of those companies planning to participate, check out their website here.
The Bellevue Farmer’s market will have two more dates this summer – September 9th and 16th from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm. Head to Washington Park for local food and crafts, family activities, and live entertainment. More information about our farmer’s market can be found here.
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All the best,
Second Economic Development Taskforce Meeting
On July 14th the Nebraska Economic Development Taskforce met to discuss education and economic development issues. The Taskforce brings together chairs of several of our standing committees (Appropriations; Revenue; Banking, Commerce & Insurance; Business & Labor and Education) and one senator from each of our three congressional districts across the state to foster proactive discussion of economic development priorities for our state that likely cross our typical committee boundaries. Our first task has been to learn more about what is already happening in our core agencies and our successful Nebraska communities.
At our July meeting, which focused on education, we first heard from the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) and our state’s Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education (CCPE). Rich Katt, the Director of Career Education at NDE, shared some of the ways in which Nebraska’s career education field has transformed in recent years. Many of those changes have happened through partnerships with schools across the state to develop priorities and plans for career education that best fits each school district. Two examples of NDE’s work in this area stood out: career readiness standards for schools and a new career curriculum developed by NDE. To learn more about NDE work on career education, you can visit their website here. While NDE works with K-12 education, CCPE provides state oversight for planning and coordination of higher education programs and facilities across our various types of institutions of higher learning. One of the innovative economic development programs they implement is a “gap” program that provides financial assistance to students who take community college courses that lead to careers, but who do not qualify for Pell Grant assistance because it does not lead to a degree (https://ccpe.nebraska.gov/gap). Dr. Michael Baumgartner, the CCPE’s Executive Director, also reported on innovations in other states that leverage Pell Grants with state incentives so that students have improved access to education and encouragement to stay in the state after graduation.
During the second half of our meeting we heard from leaders in education and innovation from across the state. Dr. Tawana Grover, Superintendent of Grand Island Public Schools, talked about Grand Island’s successful high school career academy that brings machines and computers from area workforces into the classroom and connects students to employment. Steve Elliott, the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Wayne State College, described how Wayne State collaborates with area businesses and works to recruit and retain Nebraska teachers for our career courses. Wayne State has one of the few programs in the region that specifically trains teachers for vocational education. Chuck Schroeder, the Founding Executive Director of the Rural Futures Institute at UNL, talked about their work in communities across the state to connect students to community leaders in order to tackle economic development challenges and build community capacity. Dr. Tom Pensabene, Executive Director of the Workforce Innovation Division at Metropolitan Community College, reported on Metro’s developments to expand information technology career readiness. And Dr. James Linder, UNL’s Chief Strategist former Senior Associate to the University President for Innovation and Economic Competitiveness, discussed ideas from current entrepreneurs in Nebraska on how we could encourage more innovation and entrepreneurship.
We meet next on August 11th. At that meeting we will hear about successful efforts across the state to foster economic development through cultural and arts programs.
This was another busy month for me travel-wise. I had several great opportunities to work with colleagues and experts from around the country to learn about a range of issues.
In the second week of July I headed across the Missouri River to the Council of State Governments (CSG) Midwest meeting in Des Moines, Iowa. I serve as vice-chair of the Health and Human Services policy committee for CSG Midwest. We organized sessions on various topics, including the future of the ACA for our states and ways states might tackle health problems from opioid and lead. The session on opioids provided opportunities to hear from many different states about the work to combat opioid overdoses in their communities. Nebraska’s prescription drug monitoring program compares well to what other states are doing, and our rates of death from opioid overdoses remains lower than in other states around us. The discussion on addressing lead poisoning featured Kara Eastman from Omaha Health Kids Alliance. She discussed the work of Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance (http://omahahealthykids.org/) and the challenges to be addressed in all of our states related to lead in paint and drinking water.
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At the end of July I set out for Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania to participate in the 12th Annual Commandant’s National Security Program (CNSP) at the U.S. Army War College. The CNSP brings civilian leaders to the Army War College for four days of lectures and seminars with the Army War College students who are earning their Master’s in Strategic Studies Degree. The program serves as a capstone experience right before their graduation.
Col. Shane Martin, Construction and Facilities Management Officer at the Nebraska Army National Guard, and now a graduate of this program, nominated me to participate. It was a good opportunity to meet with civilian leaders from all kinds of backgrounds to discuss strategic leadership in the military and beyond. It also provided an opportunity to continue to learn about ways Nebraska can support our active duty military and guard families.
Each of the civilians met with one of the smaller seminar groups for sessions throughout the week. I had a wonderful seminar group with a great Army War College faculty member.
One of the things I like to do during the interim is meet with local groups to discuss how this year’s legislative session went, talk about my priorities for the next session, and answer questions from attendees. The first such meeting of this interim was with the Bellevue-Offutt Kiwanis Club on July 21st. We had a good discussion about what happened in the last session. I took copies of the Nebraska Information Office’s overview of the 2017 session, which reports on key bills passed and not passed for each committee in the Unicameral. You can read those reports here.
Visiting Japanese Delegation
A delegation of visitors from Japan spent time in Omaha on July 17th, and it was my honor to meet with them. The delegation was invited to visit the United States as part of the International Visitor Leadership program. The primary focus of their visit was to discuss the issues that arise in communities that host military bases, particularly the coordination and cooperation that makes those community-base relationships work in Nebraska.
Senator Carol Blood and Mayor David Black were also part of this conversation. It was a pleasure to meet these visitors, and to learn from their perspectives as well.
Cancer Action Network Breakfast
The American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network hosted their annual Nebraska Cancer Research Breakfast on July 20th. My legislative colleague Senator Mark Koltermann received their Legislator of the Year award for his work on a palliative care bill, LB323, last session.
The CAN breakfast focused on research about the link between HPV and neck and throat cancers later in life. Part of our conversation was the added impetus that this connection provides for strong HPV immunization rates for our adolescents. Improving immunization rates effectively requires good medical records, which relates to my interim study on immunization record-keeping – LR147.
Events in the District
On Tuesday August 1st Bellevue will celebrate National Night Out at Everett Park. The event, which runs from 6:00-8:30 pm, is an opportunity for Bellevue residents to gather together and meet some of the law enforcement personnel who keep our community safe. This year’s event at Everett Park will include food and activities for the whole family. If you have any questions about this event, you can contact Roger Cox with the Bellevue Police Department at 402-682-6623.
Representative Jeff Fortenberry will hold a town hall in Bellevue at the BPS Welcome Center at 2600 Arboretum Drive. The town hall will start at 12:00 pm on Monday July 31st. Representative Fortenberry will hold several other town halls in the region during the first week of August; you can find the full list here.
The Sarpy County Fair begins next week, running August 2nd-6th at the County Fair Grounds in Springfield. There will be a wide variety of contests, exhibits, concerts and other fun things to do. For a full schedule of events, visit the County Fair’s website here.
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All the best,
Summer time – Interim time!
The session ended at the end of May, so now we are in the interim between sessions. The interim is an important time for us to regroup, study new or existing issues, and prepare to make the most of our time when we return for session in January. The interim also provides an important time for us to spend more time with our families and to catch up on on our other work.
Legislative oversight plays a critical role in the checks and balances of our state government. Oversight has two main components. First, it involves holding the executive branch (the Governor and agencies) responsible for doing what the legislature authorized or required them to do in the bills we passed. It also means being sure that the money passed in the budget is spent as the legislature directed.
The interim provides an opportunity for increased attention to oversight. Sometimes the legislature will establish a committee specifically to examine or investigate an agency or program. For example, I served on an interim committee to examine ACCESS Nebraska when we were experiencing unacceptable delays and problems with that Department of Health and Human Services program. This year, the legislature passed LR127 to devote special attention to issues in the Department of Corrections. In other instances, committees with jurisdiction over an agency step up to conduct additional hearings or meetings over the interim to bring additional pressure on particular agencies or programs.
This interim the Health and Human Services Committee is holding quarterly briefings and hearings to bring greater attention to the recent transition of Medicaid to Heritage Health, which involves three private companies providing managed care for Medicaid patients. At our first briefing and hearing on June 27th, we heard about some of the improvements that DHHS has put in place to address problems that have been plaguing the system. However, we heard from many providers that they are still experiencing unacceptable delays in payment and burdensome paperwork complications. So our committee needs to continue to ask tough questions to DHHS and the three companies and push for corrections and improvements. If you are experiencing problems with Heritage Health, please be sure to report those problems to DHHS.HeritageHealth@nebraska.gov. This email is designed to be a tracking system for problems as well as a means to get help. If you are not getting responses to your concerns, please let me know.
Economic Development Taskforce
The interim also provides an opportunity for senators to meet and discuss challenges and opportunities for the state outside of our normal committee and bill structures. One example of that is the Economic Development Taskforce. LB641 created this taskforce, which brings together the chairs of the Appropriations, Banking Commerce & Insurance, Business & Labor, Education, Revenue, Planning, and Urban Affairs Committees, plus three other Senators (one from each Congressional District), to discuss economic development. We met for the first time on June 9th. I am honored to have been selected to serve as the chair of this committee. We plan to meet on the second Friday of each month over the interim.
At our first meeting we met with the Commissioner of the Department of Labor and the Director of the Department of Economic Development to learn about key initiatives in each of these departments to foster economic development and to discuss opportunities and challenges more broadly. We learned about several ways in which the Department of Labor and the Department of Economic Development seek to provide information to help businesses and those trying to find jobs in the state. The DoL, for example, has an excellent page dedicated to resources for veterans (which you can find here); and DED has a central location with key information for those looking to start a business (here). I encourage you to explore their web pages to see all the information and resources available there.
Our next meeting on July 14th at 1:30 pm will focus on education. Our discussion will center on three key questions: 1) How do we attract and retain people in the state? 2) How do we strengthen our workforce and strengthen workers earning potential and quality of life? And 3) How do we foster innovation and entrepreneurship? If you are interested in attending, you can join us in room 1113 at the Capitol.
The interim also allows time for travel. This summer happens to be a travel-heavy time for me. In the first week of June I travelled to Lansing Michigan for the Executive Committee meeting for the Midwest Higher Education Commission (MHEC). We met to lay the groundwork for the MHEC meeting of all of the commissioners later in the year. One of the most important ways that MHEC helps our states is by pooling our bargaining power to save states money and to encourage innovation and quality services for purchases. This has been particularly effective for property insurance and technology. Our technology contracts allow other entities, like cities and counties, to also take advantage of the great deals. At the executive committee meeting we authorized research into the possible advantages that we could bring to Higher Education institutions in our states (and our environment) by pooling efforts to contract for sustainability technology and renewable energy sources.
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The very next week, I left for a two week trip to China. I was invited by the Confucius Institute to join two other Senators and several high school and middle school administrators to participate in the trip. Our primary goal was to discuss opportunities to facilitate greater educational exchanges and opportunities for students in Nebraska to learn Chinese. We spent one week in Beijing and one week in Xi’an. As a bonus we had a chance to have a diplomatic meeting with delegates from the Sheenxi Province. Nebraska and Sheenxi have a sister province/state relationship. It was great to have the opportunity to be a part of continuing to build that relationship. Many of our relationships were built around a circular table with dish after dish added to the lazy susan that spun the dishes around for us to share as we ate until we could not eat another bite.
It was a wonderful experience and I look forward to watching the fruits of these relationships develop. I not only had a chance to develop global relationships in China, but also had the chance to get to know some of our excellent administrators in our K-12 system.
We also had quite a bit of time to see wonderful sites in both cities. I was able to climb to one of the higher watchtowers on the Great Wall, see the amazing Terra Cotta Warriors, ride bikes on top of the city wall of Xi’an, and visit the Temple of Heaven (below).
We also had the chance to join in the wonderful public dancing for exercise that happens in parks all across both cities. It was a wonderful experience and I look forward to watching the fruits of these relationships develop. I not only had a chance to develop global relationships in China, but also had the chance to get to know some of our excellent administrators in our K-12 system.
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On a sadder note, I am spending time here at the end of the month through July 4th with my husband’s family due to the death of his mother. I am glad to have the flexibility to spend this important time with family.
I wish you a wonderful 4th of July! As we celebrate the birthday of our nation, let’s all commit to doing our part to continue to form a more perfect union.
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All the best,
Sine Die Adjournment
Last week I wrote about our fun unofficial Sine Die traditional celebration each year (Sine Die: The Fun One). This week it was time for our official Sine Die traditions and adjournment. Since we debated all of the priority bills for the session ahead of schedule, the Speaker ended the session on Tuesday, May 23. On the last day of session, the Executive Committee met to appoint Senators to one more special committee: the Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee (LR127). The full body convened at 1:00 to approve the last two appointments, including Chuck Hutchison from LD 45 as a member of the Power Review Board, and to complete the final motions required to approve the Legislative Journals and to kill the bills that were already adopted as amendments to other bills. The bills that were not passed, adopted as amendments to other bills or killed in committee continue to be in play as we move into the next session. We begin debate next year on those bills that advanced out of committee on to General File this year but did not get to the floor before the priority bill deadline. There will be the usual ten days to introduce new bills at the start of the 2018 session, but all new bills must go through the committee public hearing process before they can advance to the floor. We can debate the holdover bills that advanced in 2017 right away, even during this first 10 day bill introduction window.
The Governor came to speak to the Legislature on the last day of session as usual. In reflection of the importance of the separation of branches in Nebraska government, members of other branches of government can only enter the chamber if they are invited by the Legislature and escorted into the chamber. So, when the Governor or the Supreme Court Justices, or members of the State Board of Education or the University Regents visit the chamber to speak or to be sworn into their offices, the Speaker appoints a committee to escort the guests into the chamber. I was a part of the committee this week that escorted in the Governor for his parting remarks. After the Governor’s remarks, the Speaker gave his parting remarks.
During our last day, reporters from the Lincoln Journal Star asked many of the Senators for a one word description of the session. That became an interesting point of discussion among Senators during the afternoon. I picked the word “polarized.” Senator Chambers said “horrendous.” One of the more interesting choices from an insider perspective was Senator Morfeld’s “33.” We started the session with many weeks of wrangling over whether cloture should stay at 33 (it did) and then a few of the hot bills of the session died when they did not get to this 33 cloture vote mark. You can see the full article here.
Final Status of Crawford Bills
Bills on General File
Four of our bills are in the batch of bills that may hit the floor for debate when we return for session next year. These bills were successfully voted out of committee, but did not get selected as a priority bill or reach the floor before we ran out of time for debate this year. These include:
Bills that Passed
This session I introduced a total of 29 bills. Nine of those bills have been signed into law:
During the State of the County meeting in Sarpy County, we further discussed the passage of LB253 and the impacts that a regional sewer system will have on our community as we continue to grow. The Bellevue Leader article on the State of the County event can be found here.
Bills Still in Committee
After subtracting the 9 bills that passed and the 4 that remain on General File, 16 bills that I introduced last year remain in committee. None of have been killed (Indefinitely Postponed or IPP’d). Over the interim we will revisit these bills to determine which ones we may still be able to get out of committee, which ones need to be reintroduced in a different form, and which ones we are not likely to continue to pursue. Three examples of these bills include:
Other bills still in committee:
Other Key Bills in 2017
Each week we have highlighted some of the other bills being debated and passed. Over the course of the 2017 session, 173 bills out of the 667 bills introduced made it across the finish line either as bills passed directly or bills passed as amendments to other bills. A few notable bills that passed include:
Chandler View Elementary Visit
On Tuesday more than 100 4th graders from Chandler View Elementary visited the Capitol. They arrived just in time to watch the Legislature on the very last day of session. I had the opportunity to join the students during their lunch out on the Capitol lawns to greet them and wish them well on their tour.
As many other schools do, Chandler View participated in the Ag Sack Lunch program. This program provides students with lunch and teaches them about agriculture in the state. It’s a great chance for kids who may not know much about agriculture to learn about one of our state’s major economic drivers.
Meeting on Military & Veteran Mental Health
On Thursday morning I met with Bill Duerr, who works with the federal Veteran’s Administration in the Veterans Experience Office for the Midwest District. We talked about some of the problems facing military members and veterans when it comes to accessing mental health care, and how the VA, the State of Nebraska, and non-profit organizations can work together to support our veterans and their families.
Mr. Duerr stressed how much he hoped that veteran families will turn to Vet Centers for help for their own stresses and for help in their care for their veteran family members. For Bellevue residents, the closest Vet Center is in Omaha. The Omaha Vet Center’s hours and contact information can be found here.
Corrections Employee Recognition Event
On Thursday afternoon the Department of Corrections’ held their annual Employee Recognition Event in Lincoln. This event honors Corrections staff who have showed particular excellence in their work. This year Bellevue resident Phillip McClymont was honored as the 2017 Supervisor/Manager of the Year. Thanks to Phillip for his work, and to all Corrections staff for their hard work in a tough job on our behalf.
Memorial Day Celebrations
Memorial day is Monday May 29th. This event is an opportunity to remember and honor those who gave their lives in service to their country; and to thank those servicemembers and veterans who are still with us. The Bellevue community is particularly attuned to the sacrifices required by military service, as so many of our community members are serving or have served. This year there will be three Memorial Day events in Bellevue.
The first ceremony will take place at Offutt Air Force Base at 9:00. The speaker will be Colonel George M. Reynolds, 55th Wing Commander. As this event takes place at Offutt, arrangements for base access will need to be made if you wish to attend. Contact Vincent Shaw at (402) 294-6244 for more information.
The second event on Monday begins at 11:00 am at Bellevue Cemetery, the ceremony will include a presentation of wreaths to veterans and their family members and a performance by the Sarpy Serenaders.
The third, at the Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home, begins at 2:00 pm and will feature a performance by the USAF Heartland of America Offutt Brass. The ceremony has a special dedication to ENVH residents who have passed away in the last year.
New Update Schedule
Now that we have reached the end of session, we will shift to our interim schedule for future legislative updates. We will send updates once a month until the 2018 Legislative session begins again next January. These updates will focus on interim study and bill research for next session and will continue to feature events in the district and information about town hall events. We will send our next update at the end of June.
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All the best,
Budget Veto Override Efforts
Wednesday May 17th was a tough day for those of us who were seeking to override the Governor’s line item reductions in funding in our budget. Those reductions will affect Medicaid, Behavioral Health services, services for individuals with Developmental Disabilities, parole, and our problem solving courts (Drug Courts and Veteran Courts). The Appropriations Committee usually brings a package of proposals to the floor of Governor reductions they ask the Legislature to override. Often this package gets approved by the body. This year that did not happen. In addition to the override package from the Appropriations Committee, individual senators can move to override specific line item reductions. This year a few senators not on the Appropriations Committee identified other specific items to attempt to restore back to the level of the budget that was passed by the Legislature. We had individual motions to restore cuts in university funding, child welfare funding, juvenile justice services, and problem solving courts. I brought a motion to overturn the $1.2 million dollar cut in Child Welfare Services. During our debate we received a communication from the Division of Family Services that they expected to save $1 million dollars through a new drug testing program that would allow the $1.2 million cut to not reduce other Child Welfare Services. Although we are skeptical of these numbers on their face, we put on the record this expectation and the expectation that members of the Appropriations Committee and Health and Human Services Committee would be watching to make sure that this cut did not impact Group Homes and Family Services. In the end, none of the veto overrides were successful.
One of the most disappointing patterns I have noticed during this difficult session is the refusal of the Governor and many other senators to take a more balanced approach to the state budget during these tough economic times. Instead of considering new sources of revenue, they have continued to rely only on budget cuts. These cuts are targeted at our most vulnerable citizens and the hard-working providers who valiantly serve these families day after day for fees that do not cover their costs. It was heartbreaking that none of the veto overrides, which would have only kept these provider fees flat, succeeded. As I noted on the floor, surely the safety of our children who have been subject to abuse and neglect, those with disabilities, and those who are ill is a core government function.
You can read the World Herald article about our floor debate on these cuts here.
Final Final Reading
On Thursday May 18th we heard the last batch of bills on Final Reading for this session. This included two bills that generated much controversy and rigorous debate over the session. LB415 was a package of bills from the Retirement Committee. This bill came to the floor with draconian restrictions on the activities of retired teachers after retirement. After much discussion on the floor and off the floor about the rights of retired teachers and the substitute teacher needs of schools, the final version of this bill eliminated all changes to policies for the volunteer and paid work activities of teachers after retirement. This bill passed 46-0-2 during final reading.
Another bill that consumed much of my time over the session was LB333. This was originally a bill to eliminate the State Disability Program. I pushed hard against this policy change. The State Disability Program provides a bridge for newly disabled individuals between the first six months of their disability, when they must rely on local and family resources, and their twelfth month when they can qualify for federal assistance. The state program helps provide support during this 6-12 month window. Once individuals qualify for federal assistance, we (the state) get reimbursed for some of our expenses paid out to these individuals during this timeframe. There is a net cost to the state for this program because not all newly disabled individuals qualify for federal support and some newly disabled individuals are only temporarily disabled and so they don’t need the support past the 12th month. The small savings to the state budget for cutting this program, though, would cut a much larger amount of services to families in our communities and put those families and our local safety nets and hospitals under an additional strain. The chair of the Health and Human Services Committee put a committee priority on LB333. Since this bill had a priority, it had a path to the floor. It was then used as a vehicle to get two other bills related to services for individuals with disabilities. However, by final reading, we were successful in getting this part of the bill pulled out of the bill, so our State Disability Program remains in place.
One of the bills included in the LB333 package was LB495. As this bill was originally written it would have eliminated our existing law that ensures that individuals with developmental disabilities who receive services in our high schools continue to receive day services upon graduation. This maintains continuity of services to young adults with developmental disabilities in our state. This policy creating an entitlement for these high school graduates was originally put in law in the 1990s, however, the Division of Developmental Disabilities was recently notified that they needed to make changes to how the program is administered to be in compliance with federal funding rules. In order to maintain our current federal funding that we receive for our programs it is required that those with the most immediate needs (like those experiencing homelessness or hunger) are given first priority status by law. After many hours of hard work and meetings, we were able to pass an amendment that adjusted the language in our statutes that allows the Division to use the required prioritization needed to meet federal funding requirements while retaining our commitment to providing services to these high school graduate. LB333 also included a provision that was originally found in LB417 to eliminate Quality Review Teams. QRTs were developed to allow families and advocates to give input on the quality of services being provided to individuals with developmental disabilities. After being amended on the floor, the final version of this language requires the Division to report their plan for replacing QRTs with a new review and input process by September and then report to the Legislature on their progress in implementing this process in December and again in March. This reporting timeframe gives us a chance to tackle this issue again next year during our session if needed. I am willing to give the Division a chance to develop and present their plan for an updated version of quality control for these important services.
Appointments to Commissions and Boards
The first thing we did on Thursday was address a large number of Confirmation Reports. In Nebraska, the Governor has the power to appoint leaders for many of the state agencies, boards, and commissions. Those organizations may be as large as DHHS and the Department of Education, or as small as the Brand Committee and the Boiler Safety Code Advisory Board. Each time the Governor makes such an appointment or reappointment, the person’s application must be sent to the Legislature to be confirmed. Confirmation hearings are held by the standing committees, and follow the same process as bills: the appointee appears either in person or by phone to answer questions from senators on the committee, after which members of the public are invited to testify in support, opposition, or a neutral position on the appointment. The committee then votes on whether to send the appointment to the full Legislature, which must vote on final confirmation. Most appointments are approved with little fuss, as those appointed are generally well-qualified for their roles. Still, it is an opportunity for the Legislature to vet executive appointees and for the public to weigh in on the people who will lead the state agencies and organizations with whom they interact. This week we had a flurry of last minute confirmation hearings. I had two over lunch on Wednesday and one in the morning before session on Thursday.
Appointing individuals to serve on these boards and commissions is an important way to allow citizens across the state to bring their expertise to bear on policies and decisions made by our state government. I encourage you to consider serving, and to occasionally check the Governor’s webpage to see if there is an opening that is a good fit for you. A list of current vacancies and the application form can be found here.
Interim studies and Special Committees
Though the Legislature will end the 2017 session next week, we will not be idle over the interim. Between now and January, when the 2018 session begins, two types of work will take priority: interim studies and special committees.
As I mentioned last week, interim studies are an opportunity for senators to learn more about specific issues. Formal interim studies have several advantages over a senator simply looking into an issue on their own. For one thing, the list of interim studies is published; that means that people can learn about the study more easily, which can draw in a wider range of expertise. Experts in a subject can reach out to the introducing senator independently, which they would not know to do without the study being shared. That is beneficial because many interim studies will prompt new legislation, and it’s helpful to have potential problems or improvements pointed out before a bill is introduced. My three interim studies this year address training and retention of legislative committee staff (LR199); demolition of condemned properties and the impact on municipalities (LR138); and state immunization rates (LR147). I encourage you to look over the interim studies to see if there are issues on which you would like to be engaged over the interim (you can find the full list here).
Special committees are a related but distinct way to study an issue. The special committee structure is useful for more complex issues that may be too large for a single senator or a single committee to undertake successfully. For example, I was appointed to the Economic Development Task Force earlier this week. That committee will study Nebraska’s economic development challenges and opportunities. The Economic Development Task Force brings together leadership from various committees that all relate to economic development (Revenue, Banking and Commerce, Urban Affairs, Education) as well as three other senators, one from each congressional district. I am pleased to have been appointed to serve on this taskforce as the CD 1 representative. Special committees can last more than one interim, so they can take a more long-term approach to their target issue. One recent example of a multi-year committee that has impacted policy in the state is the Intergenerational Poverty Task Force.
The legislature can also create investigative committees to oversee specific state agencies and projects. Previous investigative committees have looked into ACCESSNebraska, developmental disabilities, and corrections, to name a few. This year Senator Bob Krist has introduced a resolution to reform a Corrections special oversight committee, known as the Nebraska Justice System Special Investigative Committee (LR127). The Executive Board voted to send LR127 to the full legislature, where it needed to receive 25 votes in order to be created. On Thursday morning we voted to amend this to an Oversight Committee as opposed to a Special Investigative Committee. The resolution passed 28-11-9, so this committee will be working on these issues over the interim.
Sine Die – The Fun Part
One of the Sine Die traditions in Nebraska is a fun event near the end of session in which staff and senators poke fun at themselves with skits, video clips, and songs. This year this event was Thursday night. It is a fun tradition and a good way for us to realize that no matter how intense debate gets day to day, we are all in this together–and we all have plenty of quirks and bloopers.
Bellevue Farmer’s Market
I am proud to be a sponsor of our Bellevue Farmer’s Market. This Saturday is the first week of the market, which will run through mid-September. The market takes place in Washington Park. You can learn more about the market’s many products and vendors here.
Photo courtesy of the Bellevue Farmer’s Market Facebook page
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All the best,
Early Sine Die Announced
On Tuesday the Speaker made a surprise announcement that the Legislature will end its work early this year, on May 23rd. Nebraska’s constitution dictates that the Legislature cannot meet for more than 90 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years, but it is the Speaker’s prerogative to set the calendar within those parameters. Thus, he determined that this year we will adjourn Sine Die (Latin for “without day”, meaning we adjourn at the end of the year without a set date to come back) on the 86th day of the 2017 session.
The Speaker’s primary reason for ending the session early is that we will have discussed every priority bill (except those held in committee) by the 23rd, and will have finalized the budget. An additional benefit of adjourning early is that it does save money. Though the Speaker did not address that issue in his public explanation, it is certainly a bonus in this difficult budget year.
On Monday and Tuesday the Legislature voted to advance the budget bills to the Governor’s desk. In Nebraska, the Governor has line item veto power for budget bills. This means that the Governor does not have to decide whether to accept or reject the entire budget, like the President does. Instead, the Governor can pick out specific items to strike or to reduce. So, the Governor really has line item editing power on budget bills. The Governor, however, can only adjust the spending amounts down, and cannot authorize more funds to be appropriated than the Legislature approves. Governor Ricketts will either sign the budget as is or deliver it, with his line-item vetoes, back to the Legislature next week. At that point, if necessary, we will assess what actions he took and determine whether veto override efforts should proceed.
Status of My Bills
This session I introduced a total of 29 bills. Seven of those bills (LB74; LB425, amended into LB88; LB590; LB225; LB97; LB253 and LB255) have been signed into law and two (LB280 and LB371) have been approved by the Legislature and are currently waiting for the Governor’s signature. Considering the rocky start to this session and the limited number of bills that were heard on the floor, I am glad that I was able to get these bills signed into law by Sine Die. As for my remaining bills: four have been advanced to General File by the relevant committee and 16 are still being held in committee. Although we will not be able to debate them this session, these bills will roll over into the 2018 session. After session we analyze which of these carry over bills we should try to push through in current form next year, which are unlikely to succeed any further, and which may need to be changed enough to warrant introducing a new bill to address the issue in the next year.
Military Spouse Luncheon
On Friday I had the honor of joining the spouses of approximately 70 other Offutt leaders for a Military Leadership Spouse Appreciation event. Military spouses shoulder enormous burdens while their loved ones serve, but frequently receive little recognition or thanks for their personal sacrifices. This event was set up so the whole community could come together to show our gratitude.
Angie Bacon, who organized the event, asked the elected officials in attendance to be servers on the buffet line. This was both a service to the spouses and an opportunity to speak to and thank each of them personally. Nebraska’s First Lady Susanne Shore, Senator Carol Blood, Bellevue Mayor Rita Sanders, Angie, and Angie’s husband Representative Don Bacon (L-R above) all joined me on the line. Entertainment was provided by country singer Jimmy Weber.
The Legislature passed a large number of bills to Governor Ricketts this week, and he added his signature to all of them. There will likely be one more wave of signatures (and potentially vetoes) next week.
Among the bills Governor Ricketts approved this week was LB478, which allows felons to own bows and arrows and hunting knives for recreational purposes. That approval comes hot on the heels of his veto of LB75 last week, which would have restored voting rights for felons immediately after the completion of all court ordered probation and parole.
LB20, introduced by Senator Kolterman, will simplify the certification process for veterans with disabilities who receive a homestead exemptions. Currently, veterans who are totally disabled by a non-service accident after separating from the military are required to annually submit certification outlining their total disability to the county assessor in order to qualify for a homestead exemption. LB20 will make it so this classification of veterans do not need a new certification annually so long as no change in medical condition has occurred.
LB645, introduced by Senator Pansing Brooks, adds dyslexia to the list of covered disabilities under Nebraska’s Special Education Act. This ensures that students with dyslexia are being fully recognized and served in schools across our state.
LB223 makes some tweaks to Nebraska’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), which was established last year by Senator Howard’s LB471. PDMP is a statewide tool to help address the opioid addiction crisis in a way that focuses on patient safety. Over the 2016 interim a task force was created to make sure veterinarians prescribers would not be unduly harmed PDMP’s reporting requirements and restrictions. LB223 is the result of those efforts as well as further work by Senator Howard to protect Nebraskans and make the program as effective as possible.
LB323, introduced by Senator Kolterman, creates the Palliative Care Consumer and Professional Information and Education Program. Under this program, the Department of Health and Human Services will provide information on their website about palliative care in order to assist interested health care providers in locating training resources and to connect families with educational resources so that they can learn about palliative care options and how they can secure this type of care for a loved one. Palliative care provides ongoing support to individuals with serious health conditions with the hope of relieving stress and providing comfort in a way that improves their overall quality of life.
LB481 will allow pharmacists to substitute interchangeable biological products for prescribed biological products (you can learn more about the technical aspects of interchangeables here). In practice, this bill allows biological products to be treated and interchanged in the same way as name-brand and prescription drugs are. The bill requires that pharmacists, the patient, and prescribing doctors work together to ensure patient safety and preferences are considered.
Interim Studies Introduced
Wednesday was the deadline for senators to introduce interim study resolutions. Interim studies can be introduced by individual senators or by committees, and like regular bills are referred to one of the 11 standing committees. They are an opportunity to gather information about a particular topic in a more formalized way. Sometimes the studies are completed by the standing committees to which they’re assigned, which means that committee staff are more involved in research and information-gathering wand a public hearing is more likely. Other times, because so many studies are introduced annually (126 this session alone), individual senators and staff conduct the study. The interim study resolutions give citizens an opportunity to see the issues being considered for future legislation early in the process.
This year I introduced three resolutions. LR138 is an interim study to examine the current mechanisms and funding sources available to municipalities to condemn or take down vacant and abandoned buildings. This session I introduced LB371, a bill that clarifies the role of the State Fire Marshal in the municipal condemnation process. During the debate on this issue, Senator Schumacher highlighted some of the obstacles municipalities face when dealing with vacant and dilapidated buildings. During this study, we will further explore challenges of the current process and opportunities to improve resources available to municipalities.
LR147 is a study of the Nebraska State Immunization Information System. During this study, the Health and Human Services committee will explore opportunities to increase the rate of immunizations reported to the system across the state. This system currently helps school nurses and other health care providers to track immunization records.
LR199 will further explore the staff structure here at the Legislature. One of the challenges of term limits has been continuity of committee staff. Committee chairs change frequently, and in our current system, committee chairs select the staff for the committee. While some chairs recognize the importance of retaining experienced staff, other chairs have not followed that model. Committee staff play an important role in ensuring that Senators on committees have sound legal advice and the research necessary for the committee to carry out its critical roles of screening bills and preparing bills for floor debate. LR 199 will explore training processes and possible opportunities for staff restructuring to ensure continuity, expertise and institutional knowledge of legislative committee staff.
Last Ag Breakfast
One of the regular events for senators is a bi-monthly Ag Breakfast. This Thursday was the last Ag Breakfast of the session. Usually only rural senators attend, but I attended two of these breakfast events this year to continue to build relationships across the state and with other senators. At each of these breakfasts those who attend receive a flower; if you watch the legislature regularly, you might have noticed that several of the senators are wearing carnations on their lapels on some days. Senator Howard and I attended this week’s breakfast, so we were among those wearing flowers on Thursday.
Events in the District
The Renaissance Festival of Nebraska, a fun annual event for the whole family, takes place this Saturday and Sunday at the Bellevue Berry Farm (11001 S. 48th St). Activities start at 11 a.m. each day and go until to 6 p.m. You can learn more about the event and order tickets here.
The Sarpy County Chamber’s State of the County event will be held on Tuesday March 16th from 7:30 – 10:30 am at the Beardmore Event Center. Speakers from a variety of disciplines will discuss county transportation, Offutt, county sewer development (including my LB253), economic projects, and other items relevant to Sarpy residents. To learn more and register, visit the Sarpy County Chamber’s website here.
Crisis Response Initiative Launched
Crisis response, previously provided in pockets across the state, is now available statewide through a $12-million, four-year grant awarded to DHHS in 2016 from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The initiative should deliver more coordinated and supportive services. In a recent press release, DHHS Division of Behavioral Health Director Sheri Dawson explained that “Crisis Response brings a much-needed service to Nebraska families. It will allow youth and families immediate access to behavioral health interventions in their most critical time of need. Crisis response provides for early intervention and referral to treatment and supports. We want families to be served in their communities and not in higher levels of care whenever possible.” For the Metro area, which includes Cass, Sarpy, Dodge, Douglas, and Washington Counties, families can reach the crisis hotline at 888-866-8660.
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All the best,
Bills Signed by the Governor
This week two of my bills, LB225 (my personal priority) and LB590, were signed into law by the Governor. The passage of these two bills will continue to help families across the state access critical services. LB 590 eliminates new stricter building code regulations from our most recent state building code update that would jeopardize many of our in-home daycare businesses. LB225 contained a package of bills to improve our child welfare system through enhanced data collection and strengthened programs.
Signatures and Vetoes
Three more of my bills, LB253 (Sarpy Sewers), LB97 (Riverfront Development), and LB255 (Dialysis Patient Care Technician Registration), were advanced in the final round of debate and have been presented to the Governor. Other important bills also found their way the Governor’s desk this week including LB427 which provides accommodations for pregnant and parenting students to help them successfully navigate school and LB 300 which eliminates the civil statute of limitations in cases of sexual assault involving children. Each of these bills will now go to the Governor for his signature. Under Nebraska law, Governor Ricketts will have five days (not including Sundays), to decide what he’d like to do with a bill after it is presented to him. If he signs a bill or chooses not to act on it, the bill becomes state law.
The Governor can also choose to veto a bill; if that happens, the bill is returned to the Legislature with an explanation of why he chose to veto the bill. The Legislature can override any gubernatorial veto with 30 votes. Though looking at the Final Reading vote count from the Legislature can give you a good idea of number of senators who will vote for or against an override, that is not always the case. Sometimes senators who voted for the bill will choose not to support an override because they feel the Governor has made a good argument in his veto letter, or else they are uncomfortable voting openly against the Governor’s decision. Other times, though more rarely, a senator who did not support the bill originally will decide to support a veto override because he or she feels the Legislature has made a decision, and that the Governor should not be overturning that decision. Either way, veto override votes tend to be closely watched.
Next week we will take up the first bill that Governor Ricketts vetoed this year. LB75 removes the existing two year waiting period for felons who have completed their sentence and any probation and parole to restore their voting rights. The bill was introduced and prioritized by Senator Justin Wayne. This week, one of our bills that passed on final reading allows former felons to possess knives and hunting archery equipment. Senator Wayne noted on the floor after that vote that if 44 Senators were willing to give former felons butcher knives and deadly arrows, they should be willing to give former felons the right to vote. I agree.
Teacher Retirement Proposals
The Legislature spent a couple of days this week debating LB415, the Retirement Committee’s priority bill for this session. As an omnibus bill, it contains a large number of proposals and provisions rolled into one bill. Many of those proposals are important policies that will strengthen our public retirement systems. However, some provisions of the bill sparked an outpouring of opposition from teachers, administrators, and school staff. Our office received many emails and calls. Among those controversial proposals were plans to restrict the ability of retired teachers to substitute teach soon after retirement and a three year waiting period for teachers who accept voluntary separation to work or even volunteer in our schools. After many intense meetings over the past two days and a contentious floor debate this morning, I think we have a compromise to protect our retired teachers and our retirement plans. On that understanding, we voted to advance the bill and to work out the details of the compromise before the bill comes back on Select File.
Late nights and Budget Status
We also spent much time this week debating the budget bills. Many of these conversations went into the late night hours While we have had to make tough decisions, we have worked hard to protect key investments in our state’s future. Next Tuesday the budget is up for its final vote. The main budget bill needs 33 votes to pass with an emergency clause, which is important to allow agency spending to continue without any delay. Several senators have been arguing against the budget, but none of the opposing senators have offered specific spending cuts as amendments during our debate on the floor. Senator Erdman came the closest with an amendment to adopt last year’s budget, which would have cut some spending. Senator Stinner, the Chair of the Appropriations Committee, offered an opportunity for the three opposing senators from the Appropriations Committee (Sen. Kuehn, Sen. Clements, and Sen. Watermeier) to offer specific cuts to the last version of the budget before it came to the floor. None of these members proposed additional specific cuts for the committee to consider. Much of our work behind the scenes this past week has been building support so that by next Tuesday there will be 33 greens for this important vote.
On the afternoon of Thursday May 4th the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce hosted Sarpy Sundaes, a beloved event at the Capitol where senators and staff are invited to join Sarpy Chamber staff for ice cream and conversation. This event is always well-attended; it provides a break from the rancor of the legislative session, and of course it’s much easier to be friends when ice cream is involved!
Celebrations in Bellevue
On Sunday April 30th I joined Senator Carol Blood to help hand out Environment Champion Awards at the Sarpy County Earth Day ceremony. The event was founded to honor and recognize individuals and groups that help keep Sarpy County healthy and beautiful, and to provide residents with a fun and informative way to learn about environmental issues. It was a pleasure to participate this year!
On Tuesday May 2nd Bellevue Public Schools held its annual celebration in honor of all the educators and staff who will retire at the end of this school year. Each year my office asks the Governor to appoint BPS retirees as Admirals in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska, a serious recognition of merit with a tongue-in-cheek format (you can learn more about our Admirals and the Nebraska Navy here). This year my Legislative Aide, Shayna, was at the ceremony to present the Admiralty certificates and celebrate with the retirees.
I am so grateful for the long years of service and dedication these retirees have given to BPS, and wish them all the best in their retirement. Their talent and expertise will certainly be missed – but they have earned it!
Mayor’s State of the Town Address
Next week, on Tuesday May 9, the Mayors of Bellevue, LaVista, Papillion, and Plattsmouth will come together for the Mayor’s State of the Town Address at the BPS Lied Activity Center. Running from 11:30 am – 1:00 pm, the event will feature the four mayors discussing both developments over the last year and plans for the future. There will also be a question and answer session. To register for this event, co-hosted by the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, visit their website here.
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All the best,
Happy Arbor Day! This holiday, first celebrated in Nebraska in 1872, was originally promoted by Nebraska resident J Sterling Morton. It is a day to celebrate nature, and the many ecological benefits of trees in particular. If you want to learn more about the history of Arbor Day, you can read about it here.
Late Nights Begin
Wednesday April 26th was our first scheduled late night for this session. As we come closer to the end of the session, the Speaker typically sets out specific days as designated late nights. Assigning those days ahead of time allows senators to clear their evening schedules so that the bills taken up in evening sessions get debated fairly. This year there are 10 late nights scheduled.
If you tune in on NET TV or on the web stream, you may notice that it gets quite dark in the Chamber. While it looks darker on TV than it actually is – especially since we all have personal lamps at our desks – it is true that the original lighting rigs, installed during the Capitol’s construction in the mid-1930s, do not cast particularly strong light. The dim lighting adds to the special atmosphere of those late night sessions.
This week’s late night was devoted to discussion of the 2017-18 biennial budget. Unfortunately, instead of talking about the money being spent and cut in various categories, we ended up spending hours on controversial language that was put into the budget bill concerning how Title X federal money gets distributed to health facilities in the state. This language is similar to language that in previous years was submitted as an actual legislative bill and debated as a policy bill, where it would get full vetting and debate. This year it was put into the budget bill and consequently took time away from important discussions about the tradeoffs and choices in our funding for all agencies in the state. At 9:00 pm the Speaker called for cloture and the main budget bill moved to the next round. There was recognition that we will have some major changes to debate in the next round already because on that same day the new budget forecast came with more bad news. We now have $55 million more shortfall to fill.
On April 27th, I and other members of the Executive Board voted unanimously to give Speaker Scheer “Speaker Major Proposal” authority on our four major budget bills. This authority allows the speaker to order the amendments and motions on the bill. So, someone cannot prevent an amendment from being heard by filing motions nor prevent amendments that the body wants to consider by having a host of previously filed amendments. The rules allow a speaker to designate 5 such bills each year. This is the first time I have seen the rule used, but it is an appropriate use of the rule given the challenging budget situation and the tough politics of this session.
Bill Signing Ceremonies
On Tuesday April 25th I joined a number of senators, stakeholders, and veterans for a bill signing ceremony with Governor Ricketts. Most bills are signed privately by the Governor in his office, and do not receive a particular ceremony. Occasionally, however, the Governor will choose to give special attention to bills that he wants to highlight. In those cases, the Governor invites sponsoring senators and their staff, state agency leaders, interested members of the public, and the media to his office for a signing ceremony. On Tuesday he signed three bills – LB88, LB340e, and LB639 – that will benefit veterans and their families.
LB88 is Senator Carol Blood’s bill to tackle occupational licensing issues, particularly as they relate to spouses of servicemembers; LB639 extends veteran preference hiring rules to include military spouses as well. Finally, LB340e is the bill to transfer administration of the state’s veterans homes from the Department of Health & Human Services to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. DVA Director John Hilgert, National Guard Adjutant General Daryl Bohac, and a number of veteran organization representatives were present for the ceremony. I want to thank all of them for their service to our state and our nation.
Bellevue Art Show Judging
On April 23rd I had the honor of helping to judge entries at the 15th annual AC Lofton Bellevue High School Art Show. The event, which was open to students from any of Bellevue’s four high schools, was co-sponsored by the Bellevue Artist Association. It was a pleasure to see so many talented artists displaying their hard work – the hardest part of judging was not being able to award every single one of them! You can learn more about this annual event at this excellent Bellevue Leader profile here.
Events This Week
This week I was able to attend several excellent events. On Wednesday April 26th I joined University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds and Lunch with Hank Bounds and the University Advisory Council (UAC) for lunch at Innovation Campus. The UAC is a group of community representatives from across Nebraska who come together on a biannual basis to discuss the University’s activities and initiative. Particularly in this budget climate, it was extremely helpful to talk with the UAC and discuss some of the priorities, challenges, and opportunities faced by the University and all of its staff and students.
Friday April 28th was a busy day. At 7:30 am I attended the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Legislative Coffee. Together with several of my fellow Sarpy County senators, we took questions from the attendees and discussed the budget, pending tax proposals, and many of the other important issues facing the state.
In the afternoon I joined Creighton students and alumni for a Java for Jays meeting. The informal event is based around a public service theme, and was an opportunity to discuss potential career paths, trends and research in the field, and any other questions the students may have. It’s a great chance to talk with students who are interested in public service and give them an inside look into what a public service career entails.
Finally, in the evening I attended the USSTRATCOM Annual Awards. This event is a chance to honor both military members and civilians for outstanding support to the command’s global strategic missions. This gala event showcases some of the outstanding men and women who support USSTRATCOM’s work at home and abroad.
Happening in the District
There are a number of events taking place in Bellevue on Sunday April 30th. First is the Sarpy County Earth Day Celebration & Expo, an annual event to raise awareness of environmental principles and honor Earth-friendly efforts in the community. This year the Expo will be held at the BPS Lied Activity Center at 2700 Arboretum Drive. The event runs 12:00-4:00 pm; full details of the day’s activities can be found here.
Second is the Sarpy County Museum’s Famous Nebraskans and the Great War event. Running 2:00-3:30 pm with free admission, the event will feature Peru State College professor and historian Spencer Davis. He will discuss the ways William Jennings Bryan, George Norris, and Willa Cather reacted to the outbreak of World War I. You can find full details of this event here.
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All the best,
Taxes, Guns & Drugs
Over the past two weeks we have debated several of the controversial bills that have been prioritized for debate this year including taxes [LB461], funding for rural schools [LB640], guns [LB68], medical marijuana [LB622]. Each of these bills has passionate defenders and passionate opponents. I have been impressed with the depth of our debate on these important issues. In past years, each of these bills with a sizable opposition, but shy of a majority opposition that can kill a bill outright, would run for 8 or 6 hours to a cloture vote that would kill the bill. This year the Speaker has instituted a different system for these bills. The bills run for 3 hours of debate so that each side has a chance to lay out their argument and to persuade other senators. If the bill is still alive after 3 hours and the 3 hours of debate indicate that the senators are still very divided on the issue, then the Speaker asks the proponents of the bill to determine if they have 33 senators who will vote for cloture. The Speaker, then, only schedules the bill for the remaining 3-5 hours of debate if he is confident that there is a good chance that a cloture motion at the end of that debate would be successful. Sometimes the break after the first three hours provides an opportunity for Senators on the two sides to come up with a compromise before the bill hits the floor again. This approach allows more of these controversial bills to be heard in the limited time we have to debate. It does not provide closure or a vote on those issues that do not meet the 33-vote threshold. We have yet to see how this process unfolds as we move through the end of the session and into the following year, as those bills will all still be alive in the next year. If the Speaker follows past practices, these bills that do not get sufficient votes for cloture would need a new priority designation next year to come back to the floor.
We ended the week with an extensive debate on LB461, which is a package of income and property tax changes advocated by Governor Ricketts. I appreciate those of you who contacted me with your views on the bill. The calls and emails to my office on the bill were overwhelmingly against the bill. Below is a copy of my floor statement on the tax bill.
“LB461 brings some interesting property and income tax reform ideas to the floor for debate and I commend all of those who have been involved in these discussions and who brought other Revenue reform bills this year. Most of us in this room understand the need to make our income tax more competitive and fair and the need to consider what the state’s role can be in helping to pull down property tax burdens in the state that are out of line with other states. I understand the frustration with past inaction and the impatience to just pass something to “at least get started.” However, while LB461 includes some components that are good starting points for income and property tax reform, as it stands now, it also includes fiscally irresponsible and unfair measures and it fails to address our current need to restore our cash fund and address funding shortfalls in our current tough economic situation.
I grew up on a farm during the 1980’s farm crisis so I appreciate the disconnect between farm land prices and family income to pay property taxes. I understand that farm land is purchased for ag production and so its value is more fairly assessed by considering its production value instead of its resale value. So, I appreciate the work of Senator Brasch and Senator Erdman to push for a change in our ag property valuation to make it more dependent on the income production potential of the land and less reliant on the sale prices. This seems to be a fair and an appropriate component of ag land tax reform. However, LB461 also includes an arbitrary cap on valuation growth and a provision to pull ag land valuation down to 55-65% of value, which does not seem fair to other landowners who pay property taxes or fair to our other Nebraskans who earn income in other ways. As we discussed extensively last year when we debated a bill to pull valuation down to 65%, this shift simply shifts the property tax burden in counties where it can be shifted and raises levies in counties where it cannot be shifted.
I appreciate the efforts of Sen. Smith and the State Chamber and the Greater Omaha Chambers’ to push us to pull down our top income tax rate and corporate tax rate to make our state more competitive. Although our effective top income rate is really around 4%, if someone looks up our actually top income rate it does not look good in comparison to other states and it is made worse by the fact that our top rate kicks in for our middle income taxpayers. I appreciate that LB461 includes components to begin to restructure the brackets and that it includes provisions to shield lower income taxpayers from being harmed from those provisions and that it includes a freezing of two exemptions to pay for a corporate income tax cut. However, the bill uses fiscally irresponsible triggers to cut income tax rates in the future rather than taking the responsibility to pay for those tax cuts right now – and it also ignores the responsibility that we have to use some revenue policy changes to help with our fiscal shortfall. Those same Nebraskans who get very little from the existing provisions in LB461 are the same families that will suffer the most from our appropriations cuts that lead to higher tuition rates, higher child care rates, and higher fees for school activities. Triggers in general pass the buck to future lawmakers, but the triggers in LB461 are particularly troublesome because they are based on revenue projections, not actual revenue and only have a 1 year lookback instead of a more stable baseline. There are millions of dollars of tax exemptions and exceptions that are on the table from various bills before the Revenue committee from several senators in this room that could be used to pull down top tax rates and reduce the cuts in our budget to our investments in our children and the future of our state.
We cannot accept the risks in LB461 out of frustration to do something. If we want to do something this year we need to pull out the unfair and fiscally irresponsible components of the bill – or use this debate this year as the launch for an effort next year to pull together a fiscally responsible and fair package that works for all of our Nebraska families and doesn’t threaten the future of our state.”
On Thursday the Legislature took up the Consent Calendar, which is a unique feature of the Unicameral that allows the body to move quickly on non controversial bills. There is a strict 15-minute limit on debate for each Consent Calendar bill, after which point a vote is automatically taken. Three of my bills got Consent Calendar designation and advanced from General File on Thursday.
This year the Speaker Jim Scheer put 43 bills on the Consent Calendar. In order for a bill to be considered for the Consent Calendar, senators must send a letter to the Speaker making the case for inclusion. It is up to the Speaker to decide which bills get this special designation and how many bills get this designation. Any three senators who disagree with a bill’s inclusion can submit a letter to the Speaker to remove the bill from the Consent Calendar. One of the bills did get removed from the Consent agenda this year.
Although the Speaker decides which bills fit on the Consent Calendar, there are some rules for the kinds of bills that can be considered. Bills must be non-controversial (which means either no opponent testifiers spoke at the public hearing, or else any opposition has been addressed by a committee amendment); the general topic must also be non-controversial (so for example a bill that makes a non-controversial change to a gun law would not be eligible for inclusion); the bill cannot make a lot of changes; it must have no general fund impact, but can have a cash fund appropriation; and it must have been voted out of committee, almost always unanimously. In other words, Consent Calendar is reserved for bills that are simple, unlikely to raise objections from anyone, and do not expend the state’s tax funds. This is one of the few ways for a bill to receive consideration without a formal priority designation, and is designed in part to allow seemingly minor issues, which may not rise to the level of priority compared to other bills but are still important to the state, to be dealt with.
Three of this year’s 43 Consent Calendar bills were mine. First was LB255, which creates the Dialysis Patient Care Technician Registration Act. The bill establishes a registry for Dialysis Patient Care Technicians (PCTs). PCTs work under the direct supervision of a registered nurse who is required to be at the dialysis facility. The registered nurse is responsible for making decisions and providing guidance any time the treatment varies from normal parameters or the patient’s condition becomes unstable. Conversations about how to ensure safe and cost-effective utilization of dialysis patient care technicians in the administration of hemodialysis led to the decision to maintain an updated record of registered Dialysis PTC’s in the state. LB255 ensures that PCTs can enter the workforce and advance their training and certification safely on the job, that practicing PCTs maintain their certification, and that PCTs can continue to serve Nebraskans receiving dialysis in a safe and effective way.
The second, LB371, was introduced on behalf of the State Fire Marshal. This bill repeals statutory sections that lay out the requirements and procedures for the State Fire Marshal Agency to condemn properties. The State Fire Marshal has not utilized these statutes for many years.
LB280, which makes a change to the Secretary of State’s Address Confidentiality Act was my final bill on the consent agenda. The purpose of the program is to provide victims of abuse, stalking, and sexual assault with a substitute address that they can use when interacting with state and local agencies. The program also provides them with a new mailing address to ensure that their actual mailing address remains confidential. This program is critical in ensuring the safety of many victims. When victims and survivors move to a new address that is unknown to their abuser, the address confidentiality program ensures that they can fill out any necessary applications with government departments, register to vote, and receive mail without fear that their address will become searchable to the public. Although some victims of human trafficking also experience sexual assault or abuse and may therefore qualify for the program already, LB280 explicitly states that all victims of human trafficking, including those who are victims of debt bondage and labor trafficking, can utilize the address confidentiality program.
One of the other bills on the consent agenda, that I was pleased to see pass, was LB20. This bill streamlines the homestead exemption process for disabled veterans by eliminating the current requirement that disabled veterans prove their disability each year, even when the disability is a permanent one. I look forward to this bill passing on final reading and simplifying the homestead exemption process in our counties.
Former Senators’ Day
On Wednesday a number of former senators returned to the Legislature at the invitation of Speaker Scheer. Former senators come to the Capitol as guests of the Legislature, watch debate, and are brought to the front of the Chamber and recognized for their years of work. We had some senators attending who were in office as recently as last year, and some who finished their legislative service decades ago.
As a fairly informal event, the day is a wonderful opportunity to speak with those who have experienced the Legislature in different eras, and who understand some of the unique quirks that come with the territory of being a state senator. Many thanks to the senators who attended this year!
Budget Debate Begins Next Week
Next week we turn to our budget debate. You can find a full copy of the Appropriations Committee’s biennial budget recommendation here. Feel free to send me your comments and concerns about the budget. It is a tough budget year, and so there are tough decisions ahead. I would appreciate your comments. Recall from our earlier newsletter that there is broad support across the state (over 70% support) for a tobacco tax increase in the state to to reduce the need for some of these cuts. I am disappointed that we have not had a chance to discuss revenue as well as spending solutions to our budget shortfall. The Governor has threatened to veto any bill that will increase revenue to address our budget shortfall (or to reform our tax structure). This has kept important discussions of meaningful tax reform and appropriate balanced discussions of spending and revenue to address our budget shortfall off of the table in this critical year.
This was a busy week for visiting Bellevue students. Four different schools toured the Capitol this week, and happily I was able to meet with all of them. On Tuesday I met with 4th graders from Bellaire Elementary. They asked great questions about how senators get elected and whether it’s difficult to get to know all of my colleagues. We also talked about how important it is to communicate and have good relationships with the people around you – whether they’re senators, classmates, friends, or neighbors.
Birchcrest Elementary visited on Wednesday. This group was excited and engaged. We talked about some of the things that are unique about Nebraska’s Unicameral, and how we make the laws that impact all Nebraskans.
Central and Bertha Barber Elementaries visited on Thursday. We talked about some of the skills needed to be a good leader, then sent them on their way to tour their marvelous Capitol building.
Events this week
There were a number of organizations visiting the Capitol this week for their annual legislative advocacy days. On Tuesday the Lincoln and Metro-area Homebuilders held a joint lunch to allow their members to meet with senators and staff about their work.
On Wednesday I attended three events. First was an informal event with Senator Deb Fischer, who was in Nebraska during the Senate’s Easter recess. Senator Fischer was at the Capitol Wednesday to share coffee and talk with us, and also to meet some of the senators who were newly elected in January. Over lunch I had two events: the Greater Nebraska Schools Association, which I attended with Bellevue Superintendent Dr. Jeff Rippe, and the Nebraska Occupational Therapy Association.
On Thursday a number of students from ASUN, UNL’s student government, hosted a breakfast at the Capitol. It was an opportunity for these emerging young leaders to discuss their experiences.
On Friday, I joined other Senators and the Governor for lunch. Governor Ricketts has continued a long-standing tradition of inviting Senators to come over to the Governor’s residence for lunch about once a month, with the explicit rule that we do not talk politics while we’re there. This lunch provides a chance for us to get to know one another and build the strong personal relationships that help us to do our work together better.
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All the best,
Sarpy County Sewer Bill Advances
On Thursday April 13th we debated LB253 during the first round of consideration. LB253 is a bill I introduced to give Sarpy County and the cities within it the legal authority to work cooperatively to develop and fund a regional wastewater system. This regional sewer system will provide the infrastructure necessary to support economic development in the county as it continues to grow. One great example of the challenges our lack of existing infrastructure poses to that growth is the the newly announced Facebook project. Although we were able to bring them to Sarpy County, the development requires an expensive pumping station to pump sewage over the ridgeline and an acre for acre commitment to defer land from development because the existing sewer system north of the ridgeline is nearing capacity. A regional sewer system will ensure that more businesses and residents will be able to locate in Sarpy County and utilize land with more cost-efficient and sustainable sewage services. The county and cities have worked with HDR to develop a careful, staged plan so that the sewer system can be built in phases as development expands to maximize the ability of the sewer and development fees to cover the costs. LB253 was advanced successfully to Select File for the next round of debate. An Omaha World Herald article on LB253 can be found here.
Local Firearm Ordinance Bill
On Wednesday, LB68 was advanced to Select File. LB68 is a bill that would preempt local ordinances by eliminating the authority of political subdivisions to regulate firearms. When LB68 was introduced, it was portrayed as a bill that would eliminate confusion about the patchwork of regulations for those carrying concealed weapons by creating uniform regulations across the state. However, LB68 as amended, allows different rules for cities of the metropolitan class. The only metropolitan class city in the state is Omaha. As a result of these changes, residents in Bellevue will continue to face the same issues LB68 was supposed to solve whenever we drive into Omaha. The bill as it is now drafted also does not allow cities to restrict open carry guns in public places like parks and public buildings and it has a liability provision that opens cities up to expensive legal suits. Although I am opposed to LB68, especially as it now stands, I understand the concerns expressed to me about conveyance issues and I am willing to work on those issues. There is an amendment to LB68 that solves this issue that is important to gun owners across the state much more effectively. Should that amendment get adopted, I would be in support of the bill.
Senator Chambers Residency Challenge
For several months I have served on a special committee assigned to consider a formal challenge to Senator Chamber’s residency status. The rules of the legislature allow an unsuccessful candidate in a legislative race to file a challenge if they have evidence that the newly elected senator is not a legal resident of their district. According to the Nebraska Constitution, candidates for a legislative seat must meet three requirements: be at least 21 years old, be registered to vote, and be a resident of the district they’re running to represent for at least one year prior to the election date. In this case, the challenger alleged that Senator Chambers, who represents District 11 in north Omaha, was not a resident of that district.
On Friday April 7th the special committee held a public meeting to hear several hours of testimony and to consider evidence from the challenger and Senator Chambers. Only testimony from the challenger, Senator Chambers and his attorney, and other witnesses invited by the two sides was allowed; in other words, it was not a public hearing like those often held at the Capitol, where anyone is invited to testify. As in a court case, the only evidence allowed to be considered was evidence submitted by the two parties. After considering all the evidence presented to us, the committee voted unanimously to recommend dismissal of the challenge. This week the committee also voted unanimously to adopt a report that explains the legal reasoning for our decision to dismiss the challenge. In these residency challenge cases the burden of proof rests with the challenger. The report stresses that the challenger in this case was not able to produce sound admissible evidence; that the law on residency puts special emphasis on a person’s voting record and intent to return regardless of where he or she may be spending his or her time; and that Senator Chambers produced strong evidence on these fronts. The report now goes to the full Legislature, which must vote to confirm or reject our recommendation. For more coverage of this story, you can read the Journal Star’s summary here.
Tobacco Tax Poll Results
Thanks to all of you who took my informal poll about the tobacco tax! Though it’s a small sample, it’s always interesting to hear from you. Similar to the results for the Nebraska population in general, in which over 70% favor increasing this tax, over 80% of this small sample supports increasing the tobacco tax (over 70% strongly in favor and over 10% moderately in favor).
Events This Week
This was a wonderfully full week for meeting with constituents and other Nebraskans. On Tuesday morning the Autism Society of Nebraska held their legislative breakfast, bringing together autistic Nebraskans, their families and care attendants, and senators to talk about the opportunities and challenges they experience every day. On Tuesday evening Humanities Nebraska hosted a reception. Humanities Nebraska supports artistic and cultural events throughout the state.
On Wednesday the Nebraska Association of Social Workers held its annual legislative day. Over 100 social work students, instructors, and practitioners from across the state came to the capitol. I enjoyed speaking to the group and eating lunch with a table full of Creighton social work students who are already working with hospital patients, school children, sex trafficking victims and clinic patients in our area. After lunch the chamber balcony benches were full of social workers and social work students watching the gun bill debate.
On Thursday morning a small group of AmeriCorps volunteers came to visit my office. Several of them are serving in Bellevue Public Schools with College Possible, a program that helps students prepare and succeed in college. It was an honor and a pleasure to meet with these volunteers and to hear about their work in the Bellevue schools.
Unicameral Youth Legislature
I invite all Bellevue high schoolers to apply for the annual Unicameral Youth Legislature, which this year will run June 11-14. High school students will take on the role of state senators at the State Capitol: participants 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 get to learn about the inner workings of the Legislature directly from senators and staff. Scholarships are available; you can get more details about the program here, or you can call the Unicameral Information Office at 402-471-2788. The deadline to register is May 15.
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All the best,
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