Sen. John Harms
District 48


January 8th, 2014

Thank you for visiting my website. It is an honor to represent the people of the 48th legislative district in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature.

You’ll find my contact information on the right side of this page, as well as a list of the bills I’ve introduced this session and the committees on which I serve. Please feel free to contact me and my staff about proposed legislation or any other issues you would like to address.

Sen. John Harms

Newsletter – March 31, 2014

March 31st, 2014

‘Tis the season for Governor vetoes!

Not new, of course, but a veto is, indeed, a part of the government system of checks and balances. This session, Governor Heineman vetoed LB 671, legislation which no longer permits the hunting season for mountain lions and no longer provides ranchers and farmers with a special permit.

LB 671 passed after considerable debate on Final Reading. The rationale for passage led with the point that there is not enough scientific evidence to prove that Nebraska is overpopulated with mountain lions, which is usually the precedent set for enacting a law to create a hunting season in the first place. The repeal legislation will require 30 votes to override the veto.

Governor Heineman vetoed $65 million in the budget, including $2.5 million earmarked for building courtyard fountains at the State Capitol, $11.7 million in improving the heating and cooling system at the State Capitol, and $7.4 million to the Nebraska Supreme Court for an increase in salaries to probation officers. The Governor indicated that courtyard fountains were a superfluous expenditure and that funds would be better used as reimbursement in property tax relief to Nebraska citizens.

This may all seem reasonable except that the Governor line item vetoed $10 million in job training programs, as well as $7.5 million for state park maintenance and $5.4 million to increase rates to providers for services to the developmentally disabled. In my tenure in the Legislature, I have been an advocate for job training programs that lead to work under Aid to Dependent Children and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

As a past Western Nebraska Community College President, I know that training and education is key to providing low income families with the opportunity to obtain employment that leads to economic fortitude and a higher standard of living and quality of life. Low income families cannot escape poverty without job training skills, and if they are to be a contributing and tax paying member of society, these skills are paramount.

I am a proponent for increasing provider rates for services to those with developmental disabilities in Nebraska. Medical care in rural Nebraska is few and far between. Providers require travel, and a great deal of dedication to the job.

I’m privy to the current lack of compensation available to attract more individuals to become providers. It is absolutely essential to proper medical care in rural Nebraska, especially with regard to our aging baby boom population which will place a resource strain on our health system in the near future.

Nebraska needs to be able to provide care for our aging population, as well as our children and grandchildren. Community and home based care may be the only solution, according to research produced by our State Planning Committee in the Legislature.

I am an advocate for long range planning in our state. I legislate based on long lasting benefits that outweigh short term gratification. For example, a tax cut may always seem popular when proposed, and I am a firm believer in compensating hard working Nebraskans. However, if we do not have enough funding to care for our elderly and the disabled, then there is a lack of balance.

It’s not always about one solution; rather, a series of solutions over time that coincide and exist together to benefit not just the few, but us all.

News – March 20, 2014

March 20th, 2014

Greetings from the State Capitol!

LB 887 is legislation that implements a Medicaid expansion in Nebraska due to passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. This legislation has been termed the Wellness In Nebraska Act and purports to save money for Nebraska taxpayers in the long run. Currently, 24 states have implemented the expansion, 20 states have chosen not to based on the status of their budget and the prospect of sustainability, and seven states are currently pending a decision. Nebraska is one of those seven.

While I understand and empathize with those 54,000 citizens in Nebraska that would benefit from this legislation, I also understand the effects of attempting to implement a program that may not be sustainable in the future. The expansion of Medicaid to those low income persons without insurance aged 19-65 who have no children and are below 138% of the federal poverty level may seem to be the compassionate choice for Nebraska. However, I see a different case.

I ask you to imagine expanding Medicaid that is already burdened with its current enrollments, and then imagine 54,000 persons being thrown into an already fragile system. My concern is that we make a promise to our citizens and though while good intentioned, we fail them in that promise. I do not support expanding a program that may not be sustainable in the future. I do not trust the Federal government to keep their promise to fund our Medicaid over the next two years and then to support it at 90%. Already, our politics in Washington D.C. is out of control.

With high tensions and political strain and the lack of will to negotiate and compromise, I am hesitant as to the probability of our Federal government delivering on that promise. As it stands, I chose not to vote for cloture to cease debate and vote on the legislation. I still have unanswered questions. I did not have sufficient evidence yet that suggests to me that the program is sustainable in the future. Until then, I have to remain cautious.

Our current Medicaid program has been in place since 1965 and those that qualify are low income adults with children, children through age 18, those who are blind and disabled, and those persons aged 65 and older. The largest segment of individuals on Medicaid are the aged and disabled. My concern is for those persons already on the program and how much strain the expansion of new individuals will place on the system, with the possibility of a decline in the quality of care.

I have been Vice-Chair of the Appropriations Committee for seven years, and during those seven years, many groups and organizations have come to me to request funds for projects and various agencies, however my question has always been, do we actually have the dollars to give?

If that answer is no, then my answer must be no. It’s not a pleasant answer but it is the only answer that is available, unfortunately. As a Legislature, we have to make wise and frugal decisions and help as many people as we can; however at the end of the day, we only have so many resources and funds to expend for priorities and meaningful purposes.

LB 887 is a worthy purpose, no doubt. However, I cannot substantiate to my constituents that we can afford it yet. And so, I must deliver a frugal decision that may not be pleasant, but that is a part of my responsibility as a State Senator. LB 887, the Medicaid expansion, failed to advance this session.

Newsletter – March 11, 2014

March 11th, 2014

Greetings from the State Capitol!

LB 863 is legislation that has advanced from the General Affairs Committee regarding the elimination of an outdated provision of the law that requires cities and villages to petition and vote for hard liquor by the drink for its sale in the community. It’s a simple repeal of a provision that is outdated and antiquated in so much that the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission states it is no longer necessary. An amendment, AM2131, contains subject matter from seven bills: LB 1052, LB 888, LB 914, LB 863, LB 899, LB 861, and LB 855.

LB 1052 permits any licensed retailer who sells distilled spirits to issue pre-paid tasting cards to customers, LB 888 changes the hour of the sale and consumption of alcohol that may occur off a licensed premise until 2am, LB 914 permits a retailer with a Class C license and craft brewery licenses to be eligible for a limited bottling endorsement, LB 899 creates a definition for hard cider, LB 861 prohibits the use and distribution of vapor products and other products derived from tobacco, and LB 855 provides a process to transfer responsibility for an abandoned cemetery from a county to a cemetery association.

I motioned to divide the question into seven parts due to the nature of seven separate topics being incorporated into one piece of legislation, and each part must obtain a vote in order to be adopted to the legislation. I have done this in order to demonstrate my opposition to some of the alcohol-related bills that were intended to become part of this legislation.

For years, I have advocated for safety as well as the protection of our families and children, and as such, I have always battled with the alcohol industry in my tenure here as a State Senator. Any promotion of alcohol, whether it be a pre-paid tasting card or a time extension on the sale and consumption of alcohol off licensed premises, is simply not an agenda I can support.

Everyone needs a voice. I am the voice for parents and families who are trying to protect their children from drinking alcohol, from getting into a car while intoxicated or taking on drug and alcohol addictions at an early age. I am the voice that advocates for caution and safety over impulse and choice, as well as deliberation and due process for each piece of legislation.

It is my right to divide the question on the variances of LB 863 created by the committee amendment. The seven separate parts each contain a bill that underwent the committee hearing process, however due to the committee amendment, evades significant debate in the Chamber. I am certain the General Affairs Committee was presented with opposition from Project Extra Mile.

Project Extra Mile is a network of community partnerships that work together to prevent underage drinking, and I have always supported those efforts in the Legislature because it works toward the good of the people as opposed to the alcohol retailers and industry. Opposition was presented at the committee hearing, however no consideration seems to have been made to accommodate it. That’s where I come in and that’s why I divided the question.

It is my hope that we can debate each topic through the seven amended parts to give my colleagues a fair shot at hearing and debating both sides of the argument. Only then, can we make informed decisions and judgments when we vote yea or nay on legislation. Transparency and accountability through dividing the question is the right reason to compliment the right execution of our rules in the Legislature.

Newsletter – March 5, 2014

March 5th, 2014

Greetings from the State Capitol!

We are on Day 37 out of a short 60 day session with 23 days left. In those 23 days, we have 25 Speaker priority bills and 49 Senator priority bills that have been designated in the Legislature for the 2013 session. Of course, some of these have already been debated, though not many.

One that endured a lengthy debate was LB 132, the adoption of the Skin Cancer Prevention Act, introduced by Senator Nordquist and prioritized by the Speaker, that originally prevented those under the age of 18 from using a tanning bed, as well as required the owner to post a warning at the tanning facility.

The aspects discussed during debate pertain to parental consent and freedom of choice as well as scientific evidence on the danger of tanning long term. Ultimately, LB 132 was amended with AM2170 by Senator Scheer. This amendment provided that those under the age of 18 could use a tanning facility with parental consent. Through the amendment, this legislation advanced to Select File.

Senator Bolz introduced and prioritized LB 690 that requires a grant application for federal funds. We had considerable debate on this legislation. The purpose of the federal grant, which the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services must apply for by September 1, 2014, is to fund a coordinated system of home and community based long term care services.

LB 690 creates the Aging Nebraskans Task Force that is expected to implement a plan to address Nebraska’s aging population. This is important due to the baby boomer population that will skyrocket in 40 years. The State Planning Committee’s Policy Brief in 2013, for example, cites that our population for those 65 and older will increase from 246,277 in 2010 to 324,697 in 2020, and then to 418,643 in 2030.

This population will require an enormous amount of medical care. In the event we do not have the facilities to accommodate the expansion, home and community based programs will become a more viable solution and alternative in the future. Opposition during debate centered on the idea of limited government and the availability of federal funds in Washington, as well as questions surrounding the quality of home care against nursing care. Regardless, this legislation advanced to Select File.

LB 671 is legislation introduced by Senator Chambers that prohibited the hunting of mountain lions in Nebraska by repealing a law that authorized the hunting season as well as eliminating special permits for farmers and ranchers to kill mountain lions that prey on their livestock. Senator Chambers claimed the data does not support the idea these animals are so numerous or dangerous enough to require a hunting season to manage the population. Due to the absence of legitimate scientific evidence, this legislation advanced to Select File.

LB 781 is my legislation that removed a provision in our law permitting Fingerprint Background Checks to third party specialized providers under the umbrella of developmental disabilities at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. The Federal Bureau of Investigation requires this due to federal privacy and disclosure laws, and without the removal of this provision, the Nebraska State Patrol would lose access to the National Criminal Database. LB 781 is a Speaker Priority and advanced to Select File.

It is my hope we have ample time to discuss each Senator’s priority legislation, however it may be a long shot at best. Without the appropriate time to resolve issues prior to debate, it is likely the length of our debates will be longer than expected, and this will clearly reduce the success rate.

Newsletter – February 20, 2014

February 20th, 2014

After having spent a great deal of time on research in other states on pre-authorization holds within the fuel, lodging, hotel and restaurant industries, I firmly believe that the consumer has a right to know about debit card hold practices in Nebraska.

For this reason, I propose a new law: LB 880.

My intent is to protect low income families in Nebraska. Currently, debit card accounts may have pre-authorization holds up to 72 hours or more for an amount above the purchase price if a debit card is swiped at gas stations, restaurants, and lodging or rental car companies.

An illustration that demonstrates this predicament is a family pulling up to a fuel station in order to fill up a tank of gas. The customer inserts a debit card for payment and fills up $50 worth of a tank. The family then proceeds to drive along a highway in rural Nebraska and stops at Walmart to purchase diapers and baby formula.

At check out, the debit card is declined.

The reason the card is declined is due to the fact that the card merchant placed a $50 hold on the debit card above the purchase price for liability protection. The family cannot access that $50 for at least 72 hours, or three days. The amount withheld can make the difference between having or not having food, medicine or basic necessities. Low income families may not have the income in their account to afford a hold above the purchase price for 72 hours.

LB 880 is legislation that simply provides notification to the consumer in the form of an oral or electronic communication, or a post with 14 point type in capital letters displayed at point of sale on the maximum amount and duration of the hold. This legislation only applies to debit cards, which are clearly more time sensitive and more directed to the personal income in a banking account.

A business should have knowledge that the hold is being conducted through information provided by the credit card industry. If such holds are taking place, a manner of notification must be provided to the customer. A violation would be applicable under the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, which carries a penalty of up to $2,000 under civil action.

LB 880 requires the Attorney General to report to the Banking, Insurance and Commerce Committee by January 2016 regarding consumer complaints on pre-authorization card hold practices; and the Department of Banking and Finance may work with vested groups on consumer awareness brochures that are to be distributed to business entities and financial institutions

I crafted this legislation to protect low income and working class families who are not aware that debit card holds may be placed on their account. I am opposed to these holds but under the spirit of compromise and advancement, I intend to ensure notification to the consumer, as I believe the consumer has a right to know and a right to prioritize, control and protect their pocketbook.

Newsletter – February 12, 2014

February 12th, 2014

LB 393, a bill to repeal the motorcycle helmet law for persons 21 and older in Nebraska met its fate on Tuesday, February 11 with a cloture vote. A cloture vote requires 33 votes to stop debate and immediately vote on the bill. At failure to meet the 33 votes to do so, we stop debate on the bill, but simply move on to the next issue. If 33 votes are recorded, then a vote is taken on the bill, whether it advances or not. LB 393 did not come to a vote as the filibuster and cloture vote took effect.

I am strictly opposed to repealing our helmet law in Nebraska.

The potential fiscal costs to our state can be staggering with regard to long term care and moderate to severe injuries in Nebraska, notwithstanding the fatalities and tragedies that can occur. These tragedies cause immense sorrow for the families and children of loved ones who have perished on the road while operating a motorcycle without a helmet. My stance has never changed on this proposal in my tenure as a State Senator in the Nebraska Legislature, and I stand by my decision.

Let me give you some facts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Unhelmeted motorcyclists are three times more likely to suffer brain injuries than helmeted riders in a crash. Studies show that unhelmeted riders involved in crashes are less likely to have insurance and more likely to have higher hospital costs than helmeted riders in similar crashes.

In Florida, operators 21 and older were required to carry a mandatory minimum of $10,000 in medical insurance in the year 2000. However, head injuries increased 82% during the 30 months after the law change and the cost of treatment increased to nearly $40,000. More important to note is that this is four times as high as the minimum medical insurance requirement.

States that have reduced or repealed the helmet law have experienced an increase in motorcycle fatality rates. For example, in September of 1997, Texas changed the law so that helmets only apply to those under the age of 21. As a result, helmet use in Texas dropped 66% and fatalities increased 31% in the first year after the repeal.

Public opinion is not altogether on the side of the repeal. According to a May 2013 survey of 900 Nebraskans conducted by Research Associates, 81% indicated the Nebraska Law requiring motorcycle helmets should be continued; 18% indicated it should be repealed; 2% had no opinion.

Advocates for the repeal note that revenue will come to Nebraska and the economy will be boosted through tourism in our state. However, here are a few facts to look at in comparison. The National Safety Council cites total projected costs of motorcycle accidents for 2012, which include wage and productivity losses, medical expenses, administrative expenses, motor vehicle damage, and employer costs, at $51,494,800. As you can see, the economic impact is no small matter, and certainly not positive in comparison.

I understand that the freedom to choose is important, but when the state picks up the cost and families deal with the heartbreaking news of a loved one being killed on our roads, not only do I feel heartache for the families, but a responsibility as a State Senator. As such, I have to weigh my conscience in addition to philosophy and reason, and the outcome is that I simply can never support choice when so much is at stake, and so much is at risk for the people in our great state.

Newlsetter – January 27, 2014

January 27th, 2014

In a short 60 day session, there isn’t a great deal of time for each of our 49 State Senators to accomplish all their wishes, goals and aspirations for 2014. That indicates to me that the quick identification and prioritization of key and relevant legislation is paramount for Nebraska.

LB 807, the Nebraska Roadway Safety Act, which establishes primary enforcement, is my Senator priority this session. That being said, I have introduced a few more bills of interest for you.

LB 727 ensures that an applicant for a Driver’s License must specify either a “yes or no” on the application form as to whether the applicant wishes to be an organ donor, as opposed to choosing not to respond to the question. This provides clarification for the Department of Motor Vehicles on individuals who choose to be an organ donor, as opposed to assessing a blank answer on the form.

Currently, if a license has been revoked, suspended, cancelled or impounded, it does not affect the organ donor status. We include that if a Driver’s License has been expired, that it does not affect the status as well. We want to save lives through the implementation of a large organ donation list, and it is my hope that this legislation advances from the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

LB 880 is debit card hold legislation that requires all fuel, retail, lodging, rental car and hotel industries to inform the customer when a hold is placed on their debit card. It simply requires a sign to be posted at point of sale informing the customer on the maximum amount and duration of the hold, as well as providing for oral or electronic communication. The penalty is in the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act and carries a maximum civil penalty of up to $2,000.

LB 827 is a Community Homes appropriation that provides General Funding for Federally Qualified Community Health Centers in the amount of $1,500,000 for FY2014-15. This important legislation seeks to address the increasing numbers of low income uninsured patients and to provide low cost and preventative services to Nebraska’s working poor families.

LB 728 seeks to eliminate the FBI Fingerprint National Criminal Background Checks for only contracted providers, however state operated checks will still be maintained. Employees through contract services will still be required to have a background check, but through private background check services. This largely pertains to confidentiality, and the fact that our state is not in compliance with federal regulations on access to FBI Fingerprints. Without this legislation, we would have to discontinue the background checks due to not being in compliance.

LB 728 is technical legislation that extends the financial audit deadline from October 15 to November 15 of each year for Community Colleges in Nebraska. The Government Accountability Standards Board has required a multitude of new requirements to be inserted in the financial reports, which requires more time. This piece of legislation is necessary in order to ensure our Community Colleges have ample time to fulfill their financial reporting and audit obligations.

As some of you may know, I am the Chair of the Performance Audit Committee and we have introduced three key pieces of legislation. LB 898 addresses problems with Access Nebraska, LB 836 addresses Tax Incentives in Nebraska and LB 837 requires more accounting checks for state agencies. Accountability and transparency have always been the gold standard in my eyes, and for this reason, I will continue to serve you to the best of my ability based on core principles and values for the remainder of my term in the Legislature.

Newsletter – January 14, 2014

January 14th, 2014

Greetings from the State Capitol!

The 2013-14 legislative session begins this year with contentious and deliberative legislative proposals, some of which include Medicaid expansion, prison reform, and tax policy.

Among these proposals is one that is just as important, if not more, for the reason that it saves lives in Nebraska. This is LB 807, the Nebraska Roadway Safety Act, a comprehensive piece of legislation that addresses four key safety components in our law.

In 2010, we passed LB 945 establishing penalties for texting and driving which carries a $200 fine for the first offense, $300 fine for the second offense and $500 fine for a third and subsequent offense. We implemented a three point penalty to the driving record upon conviction. These penalties have no lasting effect unless we can enforce the law as a primary offense in Nebraska.

The Act changes our secondary texting law to primary in Nebraska in order to ensure that a law enforcement officer can pull over a citizen who is observed to be in violation. This is imperative to saving lives!

Also, and due to current law and the passage of LB 415 in 2007, it is not legal for those in the Graduated Drivers License Program to drive between midnight and 6 a.m, to use an interactive wireless communication device while operating a motor vehicle and to carry more than one passenger who is under the age of 19. Once again, this is only a secondary law.

When a novice driver is in violation of these provisions, a tragedy can never be reversed and the criminal penalties, which could be as high as manslaughter in an accident causing a fatality, can never be averted. These actions are final, and with it, are far reaching and severe consequences. As a result, the Nebraska Roadway Safety Act seeks to make these provisions susceptible to primary enforcement, so that a law enforcement officer can operate as a useful and preventative measure.

The legislation seeks to address our seat belt law, which is secondary and enforceable by a $25 fine. Children under the age of six are required to wear a child safety restraint system through primary enforcement. We seek to make it a primary offense for ALL persons who do not buckle up in Nebraska.

One seat belt worn, is one life saved. In the last ten years, 1,400 people died due to not wearing a seat belt. We can increase seat belt usage by 12-15% and potentially save lives in the future. We just need the proper tools to enforce the law!

The Act further stipulates that a school bus driver cannot use an interactive wireless communication device while driving on the road. It should be no surprise that children are particularly vulnerable in an accident. We want to prevent that accident from happening in the first place by prohibiting usage of a cell phone while operating a school bus.

I am a firm advocate in protecting our children and families with standard safety legislation. In the future, it is paramount that we require mandatory screenings for those with medical impairments while operating a motor vehicle on the road. Driving is a privilege, not a right and public safety takes precedence. I hope to see this as part of the agenda in the next legislative session.

The Nebraska Roadway Safety Act will save lives and prevent needless fatalities, impacting not only this generation, but many generations to come. No other legislation this year has the ability to make such a positive difference in the lives of the people we serve in Nebraska.

Newsletter – May 31, 2013

May 31st, 2013

Greetings from the State Capitol!

This week we debated line item vetoes issued by the Governor on the budget. These line item vetoes consisted in reductions amounting in $40.2 million in General, federal and cash funds over the next two years in Nebraska.

A few line item vetoes were issued on funds that support the replacement of the Medicaid Management and Information System, on public mass transit aid, on funding for railroad inspectors, on Court Appointed Special Advocates that help foster children in the state, on increased funding for dental services at six Federally Qualified Health Centers, and special cash funds for homeless assistance, affordable housing assistance and state aid for legal aid services.

Also, funds for a data analysis position within the Coordinating Commission for Post Secondary Education were vetoed, as well as Capital reconstruction improvements and funding for the Nebraska Medical Center Nursing College, which were all ultimately overridden by the Legislature.

Motions to override the Governors Veto require 30 votes for passage into law. There were 11 motions and around 28 amendments filed to refute the line item vetoes and discuss the budget. Of these filed during debate, 18 amendments and 4 motions were adopted to the budget legislation.

A motion was filed to reinstate appropriations for County Court employees and CASA advocates. This motion reinstated funds for the Learning Community, the Medicaid Management and Information System, mass transit and public transportation, a dental director at the Department of Health and Human Services and dental services at six Federally Qualified Health Centers, as well as a data analyst position with the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Post Secondary Education. Critical funds for homeless assistance, housing and legal aid were also reinstated during the debate. Hence, the motion prevailed and was adopted to the budget.

I am proud to say that the Wildcat Hills Project in Scottsbluff has been approved for funds on construction. The WildCat Hills project will expand a facility so they can display the wealth of fossils available in the area, which will assist in attracting visitors to our state and western Nebraska.

The Game and Parks Commission requested $250,000 from the agency cash fund for each of the next two fiscal years for a total of $500,000 for this project, and $500,000 will come from our General Funds. I look forward to the economic and community benefits we will receive in the future from this project.

Our budget ensures that a little over $3 million goes to Chadron State College for the construction of a Range Land Center, which houses the range management program and $12 million to Wayne State College for the renovation of the U.S. Conn Library. The Nebraska museum of history located in Lincoln will also have $6 million over a three year period for future renovations.

The data analyst position within the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Post Secondary Education is necessary since data alone cannot give us a perspective unless we can chart a course and set some goals based upon it. We must have the capacity to analyze the data that is being collected by the Commission, so that we can focus on promoting a valuable college education in our state.

At the end of the day, we passed a conscientious and fiscally responsible budget, one that does not impede upon our taxpayers and preserves crucial funds in our cash reserve, as well as keeping in line with strong Nebraska values that center around our families and children.