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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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.