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Now that the New Year has finally arrived, it is safe to say that this is the calm before the storm. The new biennium Session is scheduled to begin on January 9, so the political fireworks are about to begin. There will be several hotly contested bills that the State Legislature will have to grapple with this year, including such things as legalizing medical marijuana, so this week I would like to point out what some of the more important issues will be so that you will know what to watch for in the days ahead.
The first item to be settled will be the rules. This is easier said than done. The Legislature will most likely adopt the rules from the previous session in order to conduct business until a new set of rules can be approved. During the last biennium session, the Legislature argued over the rules for the first month, essentially shortening the longer 90 session into a 60 session, making it very difficult to pass non-priority bills and to pass a budget. This year we hope to have a much shorter debate over the rules, so that we can have more time to conduct the business of the State and to get more things done.
Running immediately out of the chute will be those seeking to chair the various committees of the Legislature. This year I will serve again on the Committee on Committees. The Committee on Committees decides who serves on each committee. Chairmanships, however, are determined differently. Any Senator can apply to become the chair of a committee, but they must first garner a majority vote of their peers in the Legislature. The vote is taken by way of a secret ballot on the chamber floor, so nobody knows how each Senator voted. The secret ballot is one of those rules I would like to change. I believe the public has a right to know how their Senator voted on these various chairmanships. Nevertheless, I will seek to maintain my current position as Chair of the Building Maintenance Committee, which is categorized as a Special Committee of the Legislature.
This year we will have 90 days to conduct the State’s business and to pass a budget. However, because the voters approved Medicaid Expansion last November, the Legislature will have to figure out a way to pay for the added expenses. Because the State’s cash reserves have been dangerously depleted, the Legislature will be forced to either raise taxes or to cut spending (or do both). A fight will necessarily ensue over raising taxes, which the Governor has vowed to veto, and also over which programs or departments to cut. I believe the only sensible way to balance the budget is to make appropriate cuts. Raising taxes only gives legislators more of other peoples’ hard-earned money to spend Willy Nilly.
Added to the stress of having to work out a budget will be the public’s need for property tax relief, which I have vowed to set as my number one priority again this year. I will introduce a Constitutional Amendment to give every property owner a 35 percent credit or refund of their property tax bill on their State Income Tax Return. Needless to say, this will surely liven the debate over how the State spends your hard-earned tax dollars. If legislators don’t want to listen to me, then they will be forced to hear from the voters in 2020. If all things go according to our plan, a similar citizen-led initiative will appear on the 2020 ballot, allowing the people to override the lack of support or indecisiveness of the Legislature. Moreover, if Gov. Ricketts really wants property tax relief, as he says he does, then let him begin by supporting our Constitutional Amendment for property tax relief.
Finally, farmers and ranchers desperately need a new way of valuing their agricultural land for tax purposes. Therefore, I will introduce new legislation this year to change the way we value agricultural land from the current market based system to a productivity based system. This will be my best attempt yet at making this transition. This year I hope to have the Governor’s support in making this change. With God’s help, I believe we can make this change become a reality this year!