Nebraska’s Corrections Department is in disarray and stands in desperate need of reform. Last week another inmate from the Tecumseh State Prison died. Daelan LaMere was the fourth inmate to die this year, and he was only 22 years old. Although his official cause of death has not yet been determined, methamphetamines and Ecstasy were found in his bloodstream. The obvious question we should be asking is: How did he obtain these illicit drugs in a medium-maximum security prison?
Drug abuse is a major concern in our prisons. According to a recent press release from Director, Scott Frakes, “More than 80 percent of the prison population has some level of substance abuse issues, which creates an environment of demand.” If we know that demand for drugs and alcohol runs high, how is it that inmates continue to obtain them?
Security at the Tecumseh facility has become much too porous. For instance, the number of alcohol and drug related violations at the Tecumseh facility alone has increased from 200 charges to almost 700 charges within the past year. Somehow alcohol and illicit drugs are finding their way into our medium-maximum security prison, and something has to be done to prevent it.
Some of the problems are internal. Two other inmates died at the Tecumseh prison back in March when 60 inmates took over a housing unit for over three hours. After covering their faces with bandannas, they set fire to mattresses and assaulted other inmates. Just as disturbing, though, was the fact that authorities discovered a large stash of fermented fruit alcohol. Apparently, the inmates had found a way to make their own alcohol inside the prison.
The problems at the Department of Corrections are not limited to drugs and alcohol. In April the Omaha World Herald released findings from their own investigative report, showing that 78 convicted felons had refused DNA testing, which is required by State law. Since the release of their report the number has decreased to 13 inmates who have refused the testing. But, why wasn’t the DNA testing being administered to all of the inmates prior to April?
There is no question that Director, Scott Frakes, inherited a mess to clean up. However, security and discipline, especially at the Tecumseh facility, needs to improve rapidly. Senators on the Judiciary Committee remain baffled by these stories and others, and they are now considering launching their own investigation. The bottom line is that security and discipline in our prisons must improve significantly this year.
When the Nebraska State Legislature debated making cuts in the State Budget to the University of Nebraska system, Don Walton, responded by writing an opinion column in the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper. In his article, he described certain opponents of the budgetary cuts as arguing that the cuts would be “draconian and deeply damaging both to the university and to the state, a cut so deep that it would reverse the university’s upward trajectory and leave permanent scar tissue.” To be sure, I have received e-mails which echo similar sentiments. Therefore, I would like to set the record straight about the budgetary cuts which have been made to the University of Nebraska system.
The University of Nebraska system began the year with a budget of $583 million. The colleges took a mid-year cut of $13 million. The final budget passed by the Nebraska State Legislature carved out another $10 million in cuts. Then, the Governor’s line item veto took another $5.8 million away from the Universities, but spread it out over two years. So, the University of Nebraska system took a total of $26 million in cuts this year.
Last Thursday the Regents of the University of Nebraska approved budgetary cuts estimated at $30 million, which was enough to cover all of these budgetary cuts. At the same time they approved a 5.4 percent tuition increase for the 2017-2018 school year, and another 3.2 percent tuition increase for the 2018-2019 school year.
So, why did the Regents approve these tuition rate hikes? One reason for the tuition rate hikes was to pay for the salary raises approved for the administrators of these schools. For instance, University of Nebraska President, Hank Bounds, received a 6.3 percent salary increase last September, raising his salary from $480,000 to $510,000. Meanwhile, the chancellors each received three percent increases in their salaries. Finally, Hank Bounds’ most recent proposal included a 1.75 percent increase in the NU salary pool for faculty, with increases based upon merit.
On April 3, 2017 University President, Hank Bounds, said that the Legislature’s proposed budgetary cuts would hurt the University of Nebraska’s ability to attract new students and retain faculty. However, last week he projected enrollment to increase by one percent. President Bounds also vowed to trim more than 100 positions from the University of Nebraska system without eliminating any faculty positions.
The fact of the matter is that the University of Nebraska system has been bloated with an abundance of fat available for trimming. According to Nebraska State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, the University of Nebraska system has been operating at a rate which is 34 percent higher than the national average for public universities.
The University of Nebraska system has plenty of room to make budgetary cuts without eliminating faculty positions or compromising the integrity of its degree programs. For instance, in the past each college has had its own IT center. However, going forward these IT centers will be consolidated into one center, which will serve the entire University of Nebraska system. Besides information technology, similar kinds of cuts will also be made in human resources, financial operations, and travel.
Although the Board of Regents approved tuition rate increases for each of the schools in the University of Nebraska system, the colleges will remain affordable and competitive. Once these tuition rate hikes go into effect, the University of Nebraska will continue to remain a bargain compared to the other Big Ten universities. By way of comparison, the University of Nebraska will continue to rank within the 40th percentile of Big Ten universities.
It has been my pleasure to serve the people of District 47 this year in the Nebraska State Legislature. Now that the Legislative Session has finally come to a close, I thank you for the opportunity to have represented you. Moreover, I look forward to doing much more to bring relief to your property tax burden.
The 2017 Legislative Session ended with no substantial property tax relief in sight. For this reason, I decided that the issue of property tax relief needs to be handed over to Nebraska’s other Legislative House, namely the voters. So, immediately upon last Tuesday’s final adjournment I addressed the media to initiate an effort to amend Nebraska’s Constitution for property tax relief.
In January I will introduce a resolution for a constitutional amendment calling for property tax relief. If the Legislature approves the resolution, the matter will be put on the ballot for the voters to decide in November 2018.
If the Legislature does not approve the resolution next year, I will ask the voters to put it on the ballot by way of a petition drive. This is the more difficult way to go because 130,000 signatures or 10 percent of the electorate would be needed for the petition drive to be successful.
My decision to call for a press conference and to make this announcement was based solely upon the primary concern of my constituents living in Legislative District 47. Folks living in the Panhandle are suffering under an undue load of property taxes. At the time of the press conference on Tuesday I had not been in talks with any lobbyists about a constitutional amendment for property tax relief. However, going forward I will be seeking advice from trusted advisers and I will be working with other Senators about how best to word the resolution I will be introducing next year.
For forty years the legislature has talked about property tax relief, but they’ve never done anything about it. We cannot afford to wait any longer. I did not come to Lincoln to sit on my hands and do nothing. The time to act is now!
Last Monday Governor Ricketts used his line item veto to pare down the State’s biennial budget. This step was necessary due to decreasing revenues coming into the State’s General Fund. State revenues have been down 11.4% overall for the year. Last week the State Legislature upheld each of the Governor’s line item vetoes. Because I believe even more cuts may be coming later this year, I voted to uphold each of the Governor’s line item vetoes.
After analyzing the Governor’s cuts to the budget, though, I became concerned about the impact that these cuts might have on our nursing homes and other critical programs for those who are most in need. So, I investigated the matter for myself. After talking with the Governor, I have since been assured that his budgetary cuts won’t have any adverse effects on our nursing homes. The Governor’s cuts were made to a block appropriation (a lump sum) for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Consequently, DHHS will not be reducing funding for our nursing homes; instead, areas have been identified where these cuts may be applied on peripheral programs without any debilitating effects on our nursing homes.
The Governor also cut $11.8 million in Medicaid spending for each of the next two fiscal years. This amounts to a 1.40% reduction in Medicaid spending. However, this will not mean that providers will receive across-the-board rate reductions. Again, the cuts were made to a block appropriation for Medicaid spending in the biennial budget. So, when Calder Lynch, the Medicaid Director, testified before the Health & Human Services Committee on May 18, he assured the committee members that Heritage Health would continue to fund all of their programs and services.
The situation is similar for the Division of Developmental Disabilities. Governor Ricketts’ vetoes amount to a 2.12% reduction for each of the next two fiscal years for the Department of Developmental Disabilities (DD). DD received the largest decrease, so it has been charged with the responsibility of managing their programs within their appropriated funds while minimizing adverse effects to critical services and without limiting access to programs for eligible individuals and families. They are now looking for ways to cut spending without eliminating these programs or services.
The Division of Behavioral Health will get a 1.62% reduction for each of the next two fiscal years. Again, this should not be misconstrued as across-the-board reductions. The Division of Behavioral Health will make cuts in non-core programs, such as training, special projects, initiatives, and administrative costs. Critical services will remain intact and will continue to be funded.
Finally, the Division of Children and Family Services will receive a 0.38% reduction for each of the next two fiscal years. This will not result in across-the-board rate reductions. Instead, Children and Family Services (CFS) will manage their appropriated funds in ways which minimize adverse effects to their programs and services. For instance, CFS plans to change how it administers drug testing contracts in order to garner enough savings to survive the Governor’s line item veto.
As you can see, while the Governor made several necessary cuts to our State’s biennial budget by exercising his power of the line item veto, none of these cuts will have any adverse effects on essential programs and services for those who need them. Instead, each of the departments named above are finding ways to cut spending without eliminating essential programs or compromising the quality of their services. I believe this will be good for Nebraska. In the end our State Government will be run with a higher degree of efficiency.
After I read through my copy of this year’s proposed biennial budget, I knew I would have to speak out. I knew long before the proposed budget ever came out that tax revenues would be down this year. I based my conclusions upon what I saw happening in agriculture. Contrary to the opinion of some of my colleagues in the Nebraska Legislature, I know that agriculture is the engine which drives our State’s economy. Commodity prices have been low, farmers have been struggling to pay their property taxes, and agricultural land valuations have unfairly raised the market value of agricultural land for property tax purposes. With these conditions in place, I figured something had to give.
Two weeks ago I spoke out on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature and pointed out the fallacy in the proposed biennial budget. The problem is that the proposed budget assumes a five percent increase in tax revenues. The economist, Thomas Sowell, pointed out this kind of economic fallacy on the federal level back in December 2012 when he said, “The Congressional Budget Office has been embarrassed repeatedly by making projections based on the assumption that tax revenues and tax rates move in the same direction.” They do not. The State’s budget should be based upon real numbers, not projected increases in tax revenues, which are nothing more than speculative and hopeful guesses. Therefore, I made the suggestion that we should resort to using last year’s budget, save for the Department of Corrections and the salaries of State employees.
Last Wednesday my previous comments on the floor were validated by the hard numbers of our most recent tax receipts. Overall, receipts for the General fund are down 11.4%. Bad economic news for the month of April prompted Governor Ricketts to hold a special news conference on Thursday to address the problem of our budgetary shortfall. According to the Governor, tax receipts have fallen short of their projected income 14 out of the last 22 months, and revenues for April fell short of their projected goal by $55.5 million. After the Forecasting Board revised their projections for the year, it was determined that the State would need $835 million over the course of the next two months in order to put us back on track. However, revenues for May and June from the previous year had only brought in $793 million. So, the reality is that our revenues have been going down, not up. Therefore, it makes no sense to continue spending by a budget which assumes a 5% increase in tax revenues.
It is my firm conviction that State Senators will be called back to Lincoln in the fall to reconcile our budgetary problems. If we wait until the fall, as I believe we will, we will be forced to make deep cuts into our State’s budget. All four appropriations bills have now been approved in the State Legislature. Therefore, it is up to the Governor to make the necessary cuts in order to save a special session of the Legislature later this year. Governor Ricketts may use his line item veto to make the necessary cuts in the budget or he may call the Senators back in a few months to fix the problem.
Political wrangling over the state’s biennial budget began in the Nebraska Legislature last week. Some Senators like to say that we don’t have a revenue problem. Actually, we do! There simply isn’t going to be enough of it to go around. Revenues will likely go down or stay similar to last year. Therefore, increases in the biennial budget can no longer be justified. Budgetary cuts must be made this year. Unfortunately, many of the Senators who comprise our state’s Legislature do not have the guts to make these necessary budgetary cuts.
The Appropriations Committee’s current budget proposal assumes a five percent revenue increase this year. I believe this is a faulty assumption to make. Because revenues will likely be down or be similar to last year, I believe the budget should have been prepared on the basis of actual numbers instead of projected income, which is really nothing more than a speculative guess. Therefore, I introduced an amendment to a budget bill which would have replaced the current budget proposal with last year’s budgetary numbers with an exception made for payment increases for state employees and health insurance increases, which have already been agreed upon through collective bargaining. My amendment, AM 1288, lost by a vote of 19-10-19. This means that 19 Senators voted for the amendment; 10 Senators voted against it; and 19 Senators voted “Present – Not Voting.” The amendment needed 25 “Yes” votes or what we call “green” votes to pass.
In an effort to increase revenues for the State, Sen. Watermeier had introduced LB 44 back in January of this year. LB 44 would impose a state sales tax on Internet sales. LB 44 was debated on Select File on Thursday with no vote ever being taken on the bill. LB 44 is a very controversial bill.
LB 44 puts lawmakers, like me, into a conundrum. If the Appropriations Committee’s budget is to become law, we would need the extra income collected through Internet sales in order to balance the budget and to make ends meet. However, the State’s Attorney’s General office has already declared the bill to be unconstitutional and the Governor has vowed to veto the bill should it ever reach his desk. Complicating matters even further is the fact that my bill, LB 601, would direct any revenues collected through an Internet sales tax to the Property Tax Cash Credit Fund. Therefore, I believe the only real solution to our State’s budgetary problems is to cut spending now!
If our State Senators do not make the necessary budgetary cuts they need to make now, we may suffer a greater budgetary shortfall than we experienced last year. Last year, we fell $900 million short of what we needed to meet the demands of the budget. Consequently, I have told the members of the Legislature from the legislative floor that if we do not make these necessary budgetary cuts now, we will likely be called back for a special session of the Legislature sometime in the autumn months in order to make these necessary cuts then. The issue of budgetary cuts is no longer a question of, “should we?”; instead, it is a question of, “when will we?”
The current budgetary crisis facing the Nebraska State Legislature reminds me of what former President Ronald Reagan wrote in an Opinion article in the New York Times on February 18, 1993: “The problem is not that people are taxed too little; the problem is that government spends too much.”
Last week Governor Rickets signed into law a consolidation bill which included one of my own bills. The Health and Human Services Committee added my bill, LB 342, into Sen. Blood’s priority bill, LB 88. I believe the resulting bill will be very good for Nebraska.
LB 88 will be good for our state because it ensures Nebraska’s participation in the new Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact (ENLC). The ENLC allows nurses to have a single multistate nursing license so they may practice in their home state as well as in another compact state. For instance, a nurse living in Kimball, who is licensed in Nebraska, would be able to work in both Kimball and in Pine Bluffs without having to obtain a separate nursing license for the state of Wyoming. In the event of a natural disaster, the ENLC also allows nurses from out of state to respond readily in order to help those in need of medical attention without unnecessary interference from state governments.
The main reason we need LB 88 is because it helps us address the current nursing shortage we have in our state. Many of our hospitals, medical clinics, and nursing homes already struggle to find the qualified help they need. The aging Baby Boom population is especially increasing our demand for nurses. The Nebraska Center for Nursing expects half of all of Nebraska’s nurses to retire within the next ten years. Nebraska’s shortfall is projected to be nearly 4,000 nurses by 2020. Membership in the ENLC will encourage nurses living in other states to move to Nebraska. It does this by removing the expensive barrier of repetitive and redundant licensing.
Another benefit of this law is that it amends the Nurse Practice Act to streamline licensure for military spouses. This legislation allows military spouses with nursing licenses, who often relocate every two years, to practice in Nebraska. Because licensing can be very expensive, I do not want the spouses of our military personnel to have to shoulder this burden every time they move to another state.
The Enhanced Nurse Licensure Compact also does much to keep patients safe. All nurses practicing under the multistate license must meet a minimum set of licensure requirements, including a fingerprinted federal criminal background check. The requirements contained in the ENLC represent the highest regulatory standards for licensed health care professionals in the country, and nurses who fail to meet these standards will not be eligible for the multistate license nor the privileges which accompany it.
The clash between East and West finally came to a head in the Nebraska Legislature last week. Two bills that are very important to me were debated on the floor. One had an easy ride, while the other one had a bumpy and rugged ride.
On Thursday my bill, LB 382, advanced to Enrollment and Review for Select File. LB 382 was a bill I introduced which takes highway allocation funds out of the category of restricted funds in order to provide some flexibility for county governments. LB 382 was able to advance in the Legislature because Speaker Scheer placed it on the list of Consent Calendar bills. Only bills that are considered to be non-controversial and which have no fiscal impact on the State’s General Fund are considered for the list of Consent Calendar bills. Thursday was devoted entirely to Consent Calendar bills. LB 382 passed by a vote of 29-0-16. This means that 29 Senators voted for the bill; nobody voted against it, but sixteen Senators voted Present-Not Voting. Four Senators were absent and did not vote. LB 382 had the easy ride.
The legislative match of the week came on Friday when LB 461 came up on the floor for debate. LB 461 is an omnibus bill created by the Revenue Committee, which consolidated income tax relief bills with agricultural land valuation bills, rolling them into one new bill. The bill poked at the clash between those living in our State’s population centers, who want income tax relief and residential property tax relief, and farmers in our rural districts who need property tax relief and agricultural land valuation reform. 24 amendments were proposed for the bill, virtually killing it before it ever got out of the gate. Debate on the bill lasted for three hours, resulting in a stand-off and ending in a filibuster.
This is bad news for farmers in Nebraska. However, I want all of my constituents to know that I am not done pursuing property tax relief and agricultural land valuation reform. I went to Lincoln to fight for two things: Property tax relief and agricultural land valuation reform. These two issues shall forever remain at the forefront of what I do legislatively until they become a reality in our State. Fortunately, my agricultural land valuation reform bill, LB 602, was not one of the bills consolidated into LB 461. My bill remains in the Revenue Committee and can still be voted out. Consequently, the fight isn’t over yet, and I am exploring new strategies and new ways to facilitate property tax relief and agricultural land valuation reform with the sincere hope of making it happen for us this year.
Congratulations to Nailah Pereya Galdean for winning the Safe Digging Poster Contest!
The One Call Board of Nebraska recently invited elementary age students and youth organization members in our district to travel on a magical and educational journey while teaching them the importance of underground utility services and the dangers of unsafe digging practices.
Utilizing a fun and educational DVD combined with a comprehensive Teacher’s Resource Guide developed by the Common Ground Alliance, educators took the opportunity to explain the necessity of the underground utilities we use every day. The “Call Before You Dig” message was carried throughout the lesson explaining the importance of using safe digging practices along with the associated dangers of damaging an underground utility, such as the loss of key services like 911, electricity, internet and heating/air conditioning.
To conclude the educational segment, students were encouraged to create posters highlighting safe digging and “811” – the National “Call Before You Dig” telephone number. Several of these posters were randomly selected and used in various promotional venues including flyers, websites and billboards across the State of Nebraska. In addition, six individual classes that participated in the Safe Digging Pirate Adventure were randomly selected to receive a complimentary bench, commemorative plaque and a tree for their school, along with a cookie party to celebrate their knowledge of the importance to “Call Before You Dig”.
Nailah Pereya Galdean, a student at Prairie View Elementary School in Ogallala, NE was named as one of the contest winners. To celebrate, there will be a special event at the school on Friday, April 21 at 12:30 p.m. MST the One Call Board of Directors will be presenting the school with their chosen tree, complimentary park bench, and a commemorative plaque. The public is invited to attend this event to recognize the school’s participation in and knowledge of safe digging practices.
Despite the short week a lot happened in the Legislature last week. Two important bills and one resolution came up on the floor of the Legislature for debate last week.
On Monday LR 6 came up for debate on the floor. LR 6 is a Legislative Resolution introduced by Sen. Laura Ebke, which calls for an Article V, Convention of the States. I receive more e-mails from constituents living in district 47 in support of LR 6 than on any other piece of legislation. I expressed strong support for LR 6 during the debate. However, the resolution was filibustered without a vote ever being taken. Consequently, the resolution likely won’t come up again for a vote this year. The resolution will most likely be carried over to next year’s session.
On Tuesday LB 44 advanced to Select File. LB 44 is a bill which would enforce a sales tax on Internet sales. While the state of Nebraska needs the extra income an Internet sales tax would generate, my primary interest is to divert the revenue from an Internet sales tax to the Property Tax Credit/Cash Fund in order to give our citizens some much needed property tax relief. This was why I voted for this bill and this is also why I introduced LB 601. If passed into law, LB 601 would divert these funds to the Property Tax Credit/Cash Fund.
On Wednesday Sen. Mike Hilger’s firearms bill, LB 68, overcame a filibuster attempt to advance to Enrollment and Review for Select File. This bill would prevent counties and other local municipalities from adopting gun laws more strict than our state laws. The purpose of the law is to prevent a patchwork of differing gun laws across the state. Nebraskans need consistency in their gun laws across the state so that law-abiding citizens can remain law-abiding citizens. The bill gives the Nebraska Legislature the exclusive authority to regulate the ownership, possession, transportation, carrying, registration, transfer, and storage of firearms, ammunition, and firearms accessories. The bill allows local authorities to regulate the discharge of firearms, and to provide zoning designations, and to enforce policies relating to the use of firearms by law enforcement agencies and other city employees.