This has been a year for me as a newly elected representative to learn about the Legislature as an institution. I ran for office to represent you and to make a difference for the better. My goal is to earn your trust. Even though we may not agree on everything, I will do my best to communicate my positions and what I stand for. I am working hard to do what is in the best interests of the people of District 48 and the State of Nebraska. I do want to thank those people who have contacted me during the session and would continue to ask for your input.
The Appropriations Committee is a good fit for my talents. As a person who has worked with accounting, numbers, finance and budgets, the assignment to the Appropriations Committee has placed me in a position to make a difference and contribute. After the third time through the budget, working with the experts on the Legislature’s Fiscal Staff, and asking many questions, I have gained a great deal of knowledge about what makes state government work. The current Chair, Senator Heath Mello, is a master of compromise to get a budget that the entire nine member committee can all support given their different priorities. Governor Ricketts found the Appropriations Committee’s budget consistent with his goals making vetoes unnecessary. My goal is to continue to expand my knowledge on the state’s budget and work to match funding to priorities to build a better Nebraska in the future. With this experience I can be a strong voice for western Nebraska priorities.
The following is a summary of this year’s actions on the $8.7 billion state budget:
- Overall growth in spending: I have heard from the taxpayers that the growth in government spending must be modest. The 3.1% increase in expenditures was one of the lowest in 30 years and a full percent below the 10 year average.
- Property tax relief: As the revenue projections for the State increased, the Appropriations Committee did more than the Governor recommended by increasing the funding for property tax relief by an additional $8 million over two years to $204 million per year. This increase is in addition to the $60 million added previously by the Committee.
- K- 12 funding reduces property tax reliance: Another budget item that reduces reliance on property taxes is funding for K-12 education. This year’s biennial budget increases state appropriation for K-12 education by the full amount determined by the TEEOSA formula. An additional $37.1 million is provided in FY15-16 and an additional $5.6 million for FY16-17.
- Make medical education in the Nebraska the best in the world: The University of Nebraska Medical Center, under its new leadership, Chancellor Jeffery P. Gold, MD, has a proposal to develop a Global Center for Advanced Interprofessional Learning. If the Legislature appropriated $25 million for this project, the Medical Center will raise $75 million in private funds for the construction of a new facility. This new facility would be the site of a state-of-the-art training program called iexcel. Using next generation technology in simulated real-life clinics and hospital space, it will allow students and practitioners in all health care professions the opportunity to learn and practice as a team.
- Technology deployed across Nebraska’s communities will allow this center to be a resource for the entire state and beyond. Satellite simulation centers in Scottsbluff, Kearney, Norfolk and Lincoln will efficiently bolster continuing education and statewide training opportunities. Scottsbluff will be the first remote site to get a simulation center.
- Medical education will be more effective. The ability to practice and master real-life scenarios in a virtual, no-risk environment before treating patients in a real life risk environment is a leap forward in medical education.
- LB 533, a bill I introduced, became a part of the state’s budget to support the operation of the Center.
- Funding for child advocacy center services: Another part of the budget package that I am very pleased about is the $500,000 per year appropriation for the support of child advocacy services. This funding will assist child advocacy centers fulfill their two-fold mission to help children who have experienced a traumatic event (such as child abuse) and to hold perpetrators accountable. The state mandates county governments to provide child advocacy center services, but provides limited funding. This means that these centers must raise funds from various other sources including community fundraising. Under this program, funding is targeted to operate accredited satellite offices. This means that professional video-recorded forensic interviews will be provided. These services will be accessible to children, their families and law enforcement in the region. These child advocacy centers still will need charitable fundraising to support their other functions. LB 485 was the bill I introduced that was the basis for this appropriation in the state’s budget.
Personal property tax relief was provided by LB 259. LB 259 was separate from the budget, but also provides significant tax relief of about $20 million per year. It provides businesses and farmers an exemption on the first $10,000 in value of farm equipment and other taxable personal property they own. Railroad and pipeline companies, which also have taxable personal property, get a proportional tax break.
Passing legislation to meet the needs of the people and the businesses of District 48:
As a representative of District 48, I see my role as that of an advocate for needs of Scotts Bluff County and the North Platte Valley. In my first year, I focused on bills that will assist the District.
Dry editable beans are a major cash crop to Agriculture in the District: As a person who helps finance agricultural production in the Valley, I know the importance of the sale of dry editable beans. In 2013 the sale of these beans brought in $117,700,000, and they were grown on 117,000 acres. The State of Nebraska has established a commission to promote the profitability, sale, export and research of the production of dry editable beans. The Dry Bean Growers Association asked me to introduce LB 242. LB 242 increases the amount producers and first purchasers pay per cwt to promote the sale of these beans and to conduct research. The Panhandle Research Center conducts the research, works to improve yields and the quality of the beans.
After some extended debate, the bill passed. Effective August 1, the assessment per cwt increases from 10 cents to 15 cents. Authority is provided for the Dry Bean Commission to increase the assessment to 24 cents cwt if needed in the future.
Surface Water Irrigation Districts Law was amended to address operational issues: Another bill that I introduced and made a priority for the District was LB 561. LB 561 updates the law governing irrigation districts. These surface water districts date back to the beginning of irrigation in the District. Many provisions of this law had not be updated since 1943.
- Among other provisions, the amended law allows an irrigation district of less than 15,000 acres to eliminate subdistricts and hold at-large elections. The bill specifies that in the case of land owned or leased by a corporation, trust or other legal entity, the entity will identify an elector-designee in writing not less than 30 days prior to an irrigation district election.
- LB 561 provides a process for determining who is entitled to vote if two or more persons claim conflicting rights to vote on the same acreage. It also allows irrigation districts, at their discretion, to conduct elections by mail. The bill passed 48-0.
Oil and Gas Waste Water Disposal: My colleagues and I became involved in the disposal of oil and gas wastewater at the beginning of the session and will continue to work on the issues as they are studied this summer. As Senators, we received concerned communications about this proposal before the Nebraska Oil and Gas Commission. Residents raised concerns about the specter of contamination of water for drinking, irrigation and livestock, as well as heavy truck traffic damaging Nebraska’s road ways. Since the route goes by schools and towns, residents raised concerns that the truck traffic posed a highway safety problem.
- I introduced LB 512, a bill that would provide specific authority for the Oil and Gas Commission to regulate oil and gas waste or production water from other states, and also impose a regulatory and infrastructure fee on waste water from an out-of-state well. The bill had a public hearing where the public expressed their concerns and the oil and gas industry presented their case that the proposal was safe from their prospective. This public hearing was the first time the Legislature used remote site interactive technology to allow people to testify in Scottsbluff. Based upon this testimony and concerns raised, I introduced LR 154 to conduct a Legislative Study of the Oil and Gas Commission’s authority and role in the disposal of oil and gas wastewater.
- Senator Chambers introduced another bill, LB 664, to require any company that applies to dispose wastewater in the state to provide a list of all chemicals present in the wastewater. In an unprecedented move, the Legislature on a vote of 37-6, voted for the bill introduction at this late date. A public hearing was held but the bill has no chance of passage this year. This bill will be in play next session if needed. The issues will be discussed and studied over the summer with possible legislation next session.
Stimulating investment in new high technology small businesses and creating new higher paying jobs: Senator Hilkemann designated LB 156 a Senator priority bill so that it could be considered this year. What LB 156 does is add another $1 million of funding to the current $3 million allotted to the Angel Investment Tax Credit Act. Under this Act, investors or groups of Nebraska investors must invest in small businesses in Nebraska in a qualified high-technology field. The small business must have 25 or fewer employees and have at least half of its payroll in Nebraska.
- The Investor gains a refundable tax credit that reduces their risk and encourages their investment. The tax credit is up to 35% in a non-distressed area and 40% in a distressed area. Only four businesses have been located outside of a distressed area. Seventy-two businesses have been approved by the state and 103 start-ups are eligible for funding.
- The funding for the credit has been exhausted on the first day the funds were available the past two years. The need for additional funding is clear. The additional funding is designed to support further investment in high technology start-up companies and create new jobs in Nebraska. Governor Ricketts signed the bill into law.
Eliminating unnecessary government paperwork: LB 241 is the bill I introduced to change a provision of law requiring cities that operate cemeteries to file deeds to cemetery lots with the County Register of Deeds. The statewide Organization for County Register of Deeds identified this as an unnecessary requirement. The records of the city cemeteries were more accurate. City cemeteries records not only reflect ownership, but also recorded the person who was interned in the plot. No real purpose was served by a duplicate recording of only the ownership with the County Register of Deeds. This bill was passed early in the session and provided me with my first opportunity to speak on and process a bill.
Addressing Nebraska’s road and bridge infrastructure needs: Nebraska should address its needs to replace aging roads and bridges. A 2014 report by TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation group, found that Nebraska’s bridges are in seventh worst condition in the nation. As validated by a study conducted by the Legislature, 3,279 of the 11,763 state and county bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. On behalf of cities and counties, I introduced LB 633 that would have appropriated $40 million for road and bridge infrastructure repair and construction. The $40 million would be divided into $20 million for the cities and $20 million for the counties.
LB 610, introduced by Senator Smith, phases in a 6-cent increase in the fuel tax. Over four years the tax will increase 1.5 cents per year and will generate $75 million in additional funding for roads infrastructure. The funding is divided equally by the state, cities and counties. Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill. My position was to support the override of this veto. I joined 29 other Senators on this override vote. The following are the points that I considered:
- Public Safety should be a priority: The first and foremost consideration for the Nebraska roads system is the additional revenue that is need to address safety concerns. Safety related issues include those caused by deteriorated infrastructure, as well as congestion in areas with increased traffic.
- The need is local: During my campaign, I heard from the voters about the need to improve our roads infrastructure. Good roads are a key to economic development and commerce. Our transportation infrastructure is the engine that powers Nebraska’s economy. Transportation is the economic lifeline for agriculture, manufacturing and business sectors that carries inputs and moves products to market.
- Enhancing transportation infrastructure will boost the economy in the short term by creating jobs in construction and related fields. In the long-term, these improvements will enhance economic competitiveness and improve the quality of life for residents and visitors by reducing travel delays and transportation costs, improving access and mobility, improving safety and stimulation of sustained job growth.
- Cities and counties do not have the funding: Cities and counties would need to increase taxes, but they would need to increase either property taxes or sales taxes, or cut other services. Counties and cities have no state aid funding source for their needs. Local government state aid went from $17.9 million in 2003 to $11.9 million in 2009 and then was totally eliminated in 2010. At the same, time the state has imposed a long list of unfunded mandates that require funding from local sources.
- Nebraska needs to build new four lane roads: Since 1988, western Nebraska has sought funding for the building of the four lane Heartland Expressway from north to south across the state. Western Nebraska and Scotts Bluff County need a four lane highway for the economic future. Even with the allocation of a ¼ % of 1% of sales tax revenues to the Department of Roads, the amount spent on new construction has not reached 2003 levels. The fuel tax increase will provide the funding needed for the economic future of western Nebraska. The residents and visitors that use the roads should be responsible for paying for them. General Nebraska taxpayers should not have to bear the entire burden.
Reforms to the Corrections System: In January when the session began, one of the biggest issues on the agenda was correction reforms. The talk around the State Capitol was that it would take $33 million to fund the reforms necessary. The following are bills that were passed or debated on corrections reform:
- LB 605 is the main reform bill. This bill reduces the jail time for mostly non-violent crimes not involving sex offenses, and increases the jail time for violent crimes and those involving sex offenses. It does include burglary and some other crimes as violent crimes. The goal of LB 605 is to move the state towards the enhanced use of probation for non-violent offenders. This bill passed unanimously.
- LB 598 is intended to address the crafting of rules for how and what reasons prisoners are segregated and placed in solitary confinement. It establishes an Office of Inspector General independent of the current structure and begins the process for removing the administration of parole out of the Corrections Department. This bill passed unanimously.
- The third bill, LB 173, was the most controversial. This bill it repeals mandatory minimum sentences, which also starts the earning of good time sooner. It allows judges more authority for the determination of the length of extended sentences. The bill was opposed by the Governor, the Attorney General and County Attorneys. This bill was laid over until next year.
More will need to be done to improve programing so the criminals can be rehabilitated and placed on parole. The 11.2% ($20.3 million) increase in the budget for the Department of Correctional Services is somewhat misleading. Almost half of this amount is related to inmate medical costs. Health care costs have increased significantly during recent years because of a larger population, an aging inmate population, inflation and the new Hepatitis C treatment. The budget includes $2.5 million for 59 additional security staff and $1.2 million each year for behavioral health staff.
Driver’s licenses for children of illegal aliens is authorized. I am proud to be from Scotts Bluff County with our strong Hispanic population, and I strongly supported LB 623. These Hispanic people, who I have come to know, are honest, hardworking, church going, family oriented people. These people are not looking for a handout. They are filling jobs that we desperately need to sustain and grow our local economy. I do not look at this as an immigration bill, but as a jobs and economic development bill. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that one of our major priorities should be to secure our borders for national security reasons, but we cannot confuse the children of immigrant’s needs for a productive future on the failure on the part of our federal government. As expected, Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill and, as expected, the Legislature voted to override his veto on a vote of 34 in favor, 10 against.
LB 268-The repeal of the death penalty is passed over the Governor’s veto. After 40 years of effort, Senator Chambers finally secured passage of the repeal of the death penalty over the Governor’s veto. The debate of this issue was the most emotional and heated of the year. This was probably the most difficult vote of the year for me. After reviewing the information both pro and con, I was conflicted.
It was my position that this decision should have been presented to the voters on the ballot. Our office received volumes of calls on both sides of the issue. In the end I voted against the repeal of the death penalty. As promised, the Governor vetoed the bill and pressed hard get Senators to uphold his action. The override of the veto received just enough votes to pass.
This is but a summary of what I believe were the major issues of interest to you. Thank you for contacting me with your concerns, problems, and positions. Your input keeps me grounded in District 48 and what I need to do to represent your interests in Lincoln and the Legislature. I look forward to being home in the District over the summer and fall and meeting with you.