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The end of the 2016 legislative session has come. The last couple days were full of tense debate. The winner take all bill was debated. Supporters of the bill said allocating all five electoral votes to the statewide winner makes Nebraska’s vote count as much as possible. Opponents argued doing such would make Nebraska irrelevant. Opponents say allocating all electoral votes to the statewide winner ignores the minority voice and reduces competition in close presidential elections. By splitting the electoral votes, opponents say Nebraska is put in the national game. LB 10 passed second round debate on a 34-15 vote, but on final reading, with two Senators changing their vote, the bill failed on a 32-17 cloture vote. The winner take all bill has been introduced many times over the past several years, and supporters say it is only a matter of time before they will be successful and Nebraska will return to a winner take all system.
LB 947, a bill that would allow DACA youth granted lawful presence in the United States by President Obama, was passed by the Legislature. These youth were brought to the United States at a very young age, have been educated, and are contributing members of our society. The only “home” these youth know is the United States. Notwithstanding the concerns about our immigration policies, and past and present failures to secure our borders, DACA youth have been granted temporary status, they are being educated in our schools, and they are all gaining valuable skills. It is important to keep these individuals in our state and not have the valuable skills they possess being used and contributing to the economies in other states. This bill passed final reading on a 33-11 vote. A gubernatorial veto is expected. It will take 30 votes to override this veto.
The Governor signed LB 817, the Direct Primary Care Agreement Act, on March 30, with a ceremonial signing on April 12. The bill, introduced by Senator Merv Riepe, passed on a 48-0 vote. I was a co-sponsor of the bill, and was honored to be invited to the ceremonial signing.
Direct Primary Care (DPC) is a contract between a health practitioner and a patient where the patient pays a monthly retainer for primary care services, including unlimited consultations and an annual physical. DPC is an alternative to health insurance, is not subject to state insurance regulations, and a health practitioner will not bill a health insurance carrier for services rendered. Patients who participate in DPC Agreements are encouraged to purchase a catastrophic health coverage plan that meets federal regulations.
DPC Agreements provide patients instant access to their health practitioner through their mobile phone either via a phone call or text messaging. It is intended to build and strengthen the patient-doctor relationship. With a DPC Agreement, a patient who needs the services of their health care practitioner can call or text their symptoms to their doctors, and the doctor is able to diagnose and prescribe medication without an office visit. The goal of the doctors who are a part of DPC Agreements is to prevent health problems and monitor chronic conditions to avoid costly hospitalizations and emergency room visits.
As I look back on this session, it is amazing to think about all the issues that were debated. We had many issues that were controversial that may or may not have gone the way Senators wanted them to go. We had many issues that were not controversial. All in all, the legislative process worked exactly as it should and bills were given full and fair debate. After completing my second session, I continue to realize how important it is to work together and to have compromise, and just how important it is to let the process work, no matter how challenging it may become. I continue to involve myself, learn new things, and take it all in while enjoying my time serving the citizens of District 48. Now that session has come to its end, I look forward to the interim and all the work that lies ahead in preparation for next year.
I have enjoyed and appreciated all the correspondence and telephone calls I have received from my constituents. I encourage you to continue to contact me. Now that the interim is upon me, a majority of my time will be spent in the District. If anyone would like to meet with me, I would encourage you to contact my Lincoln office to set up an appointment. Thank you, citizens of District 48, for allowing me the great opportunity to represent you.
As the Session winds down, there are less than 10 days remaining, a lot of work is being done. Senators are working through lunch and staying into the evening trying to get as many of the issues debated as possible.
The Governor approved our budget with no vetos. Included in the budget is funding for three of my bills, the federally qualified health centers, the Access College Early Scholarship Program, and the Cultural Preservation Endowment Fund. The budget contains adjustments for state agencies, funding for an infrastructure bank for expressways, bridges and economic development, ongoing prison reform, deferred maintenance for the state’s community colleges, as well as funding for repair of a levee around Offutt Air Force Base. Overall, spending growth was held to 3.5%.
Over the past week, we have debated some controversial issues. One was Senator John Kuehn’s right to farm constitutional amendment. I supported this bill as it is important to protect our farms and ranches in Nebraska. The bill generated extended debate with many Senators expressing their concerns about the bill. Because it appeared there would be no agreement on the bill, Senator Kuehn agreed to bracket LR 378CA until April 20, 2016, essentially killing it for the year.
Medicaid expansion was another bill that generated strong debate. Many Senators had misgivings about the expansion of Medicaid saying it was too costly, the federal government could not be trusted to keep up their funding, and that expansion in general was not sustainable. While this bill would have been the most conservative expansion plan in the country, operating as a three-year pilot project, with no compromise or agreement on the bill, it was bracketed until April 20, 2016. The introducer of LB 1032, Senator John McCollister, has said he will bring this bill back again next year.
The Governor’s property tax proposal bills came up for debate this week. The first bill, LB 959, would make small changes to the school funding formula in hopes of providing progress towards property tax relief. These changes are expected to provide about $8.5 million in property tax relief, however, financing would need to be made up from the state’s general fund. LB 959 was advanced to Select File. The second part of Governor Ricketts’ property tax proposal, LB 958, generated a little more debate. The bill cleared first round debate and was advanced to Select File, but not without much discussion, tense negotiations between urban and rural Senators, and ultimately a last minute compromise. Under the compromise, agricultural land owners would get an additional $20 million in property tax credits, down from the Governor’s proposed $30 million.
My priority bill, LB 1082, was signed by the Governor. This bill changes the powers and duties of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The bill will require periodic sampling and reporting of fracking wastewater, as well as monitoring of produced water transporters. The bill also reduces the promotional duties of the Commission, allowing it to focus on health and safety issues relating to oil and gas in the state. It has been a long journey, with a lot of of interim work including hearings, town hall meetings, and reviews, but we came up with what we thought was a good step forward in protecting our state’s underground water supply.
Many issues have yet to be debated. Some fairly controversial ones are up for debate next week. LB 643, Senator Tommy Garrett’s medical marijuana bill carried over from last session, will generate much discussion and debate. This bill currently has five amendments pending so debate will be robust. LB 10, Senator Beau McCoy’s winner-take-all bill, also carried over from last year, will be debated. This bill would award all electoral votes to the statewide winner of the presidential race. Nebraska is the only state in the nation other than Maine to award its electoral votes by district rather than bundling them all for the winner. Also up for debate is LB 745, Senator John McCollister’s Game and Parks Commission bill. This bill would raise all Game and Parks permit fees. Senator Ernie Chambers has introduced over a dozen amendments to the bill, so I anticipate extended debate on LB 745. These, as well as many other bills, are waiting for debate before the final day of the legislative session, April 20, 2016.
It has been an extremely busy session. A lot has been accomplished, but a lot remains to be done. I want to thank my constituents, as well as all the citizens of Nebraska, who have taken the time to contact me via telephone, email or written letter expressing your views and concerns.
High school students are invited to take on the role of state senators at the Unicameral Youth Legislature June 5-8. At the State Capitol, student senators will sponsor bills, conduct committee hearings, debate legislation and discover the unique process of the nation’s only unicameral.
The Unicameral Youth Legislature gives behind-the-scenes access to students who have an interest in public office, government, politics, law, public policy, debate or public speaking. Students will learn about the inner workings of the Legislature directly from senators and staff.
Registrants are encouraged to apply for a Speaker Greg Adams Civic Scholarship award, which covers the full cost of admission. Applicants must submit a short essay. Other $100 scholarships are also available.
The Office of the Clerk of the Nebraska Legislature coordinates the Unicameral Youth Legislature. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Extension 4-H Youth Development Office coordinates housing and recreational activities as part of the Big Red Summer Camps program.
To learn more about the program, go to www.nebraskalegislature.gov/uyl or call (402) 471-2420. The deadline for registration is May 15.
A new forecast of the State’s revenue was completed on Friday. The forecasting board raised its revenue forecast by $30 million for the two-year budget period that ends on June 30, 2017. By law, $17 million forecasted for the current cycle must go into the cash reserve, or rainy day fund. The remaining $13 million can be utilized for priority bills that have appropriation requests or revenue reductions. The Chairman of the Appropriations Committee had stated early this session that it would be our goal to leave $10 million for this purpose. The Appropriations Committee can now finalize our mid-biennium budget, with floor debate beginning March 9.
Individual and Committee priority designations were due on February 19, with Speaker priority designation being announced February 22. Individual Senators get one designation, Committees get two and the Speaker gets 25. Priority bills and consent calendar bills will be the only bills heard on the Floor for the rest of the session so selection of which bill to prioritize is really significant and can be a real balancing act between other bills of importance.
My priority bill is LB 1082. LB 1082, introduced by Senator Ken Schilz, is a bill to change certain provisions related to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. It is a culmination of hearings, fireside chats, town hall meetings, fall hearings by the Natural Resources Committee, and attendance at an EPA review session and States First review. The bill would revise the policy and purpose of the Commission, eliminating the encouragement that it promote the industry, and replacing it with language that supports development of the industry in a responsible manner while promoting health, safety and the environment. The bill would require that notice of an application for a commercial underground injection well be provided to the affected local governing body and the NRD where the well would be located; require Class II injection well operators to sample and analyze fluids injected at least once annually and provide data to the Commission; and require operators to keep bonds current. The bill would authorize the Commission to conduct periodic sampling and reporting of injection fluids; certify and monitor produced water transporters; conduct periodic evaluations of financial assurance requirements; and to require public information meetings and forums for public interaction on permit applications.
Not all of the concerns expressed during the process are included in this bill because they were out of the scope of the Commission, and may be within the purview of the Department of Roads or Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. However, I believe the people of western Nebraska were heard loud and clear relative to this matter.
The Legislature is almost half way through the 2016 session. We have debated several bills thus far, and many more issues are still waiting to be debated, including Medicaid expansion, prison reform, cigarette taxes, property tax cuts, as well as debate on the budget.
Last week, I had hearings on three of my bills. LB 713 is a bill that provides funding for the Access College Early Scholarship Program. The ACE Scholarship Program and the Nebraska Opportunity Grant Program are the only programs that provide grants solely to Nebraska high school students with significant financial need. Low-income students who have access to dual-credit options while in high school would be the benefactors of LB 713. Dual-credit courses provide college-level, advanced skills training in career academies focused on the needs of local industries, most often provided by the community colleges, whose graduates are more likely to stay and work in their community. According to the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, the percentage of students participating in dual-credit courses not identified as being eligible for free and reduced lunch, a common indicator for poverty, is approximately 9.3% The percentage of students who do qualify for free and reduced lunch participating in dual-credit courses is only 6.8% The intent of LB 713 is to provide additional funding to the Access College Early Scholarship Program so that the percentage of students in poverty who have access to dual-credit options while in high school will be comparable to those students who are non-poverty students.
LB 923 is a bill that would appropriate funds for federally qualified health centers. Nebraska’s federally qualified health centers are local, non-profit community based health providers that serve low income Nebraskans and medically underserved communities. The centers provide quality, affordable, integrated primary care and preventative services including medical, dental and behavioral health services. There are seven centers located throughout Nebraska. The health centers receive federal and some state funding. They also charge individuals with no access to public or private health coverage on a sliding fee scale dependent on their income. These centers can turn no one away. Now, more than ever, our uninsured numbers are skyrocketing, and we must help support the centers to fill a vital role. New funding through this legislation will allow centers to serve another 12,000 Nebraskans statewide. Investing our dollars in health care will allow these people to continue to work, support their families and participate in their communities. The additional funding that would be provided in this bill would not solve all the problems of the uninsured, but it begins to reach out to more families so they can get the care they need. I want to thank Jeff Tracy from CAPWN for traveling to Lincoln to testify in favor of LB 923.
Finally, LB 715 would continue funding of the Nebraska Cultural Preservation Endowment Fund beginning on December 31, 2017, continuing through December 31, 2026. The Nebraska Cultural Preservation Endowment Fund was created in 1998 to provide stabilization of arts organizations, fund arts education programs that have significant statewide impact, and advocate for the importance of the arts to our economy, education and quality of life. The Cultural Endowment Funds have been spread throughout the entire State in the form of grants. These funds not only improve the quality of life within Nebraska communities, but are an economic tool to attract and retain a quality workforce and maintain a tax base we so desperately need for our infrastructure support.
The 104th Legislature, 2nd Session is underway and we have just completed the first ten days. Bill introduction is complete and hearings on all introduced bills have begun. We have started debate on last year’s carryover priority bills. Extended debate has occurred on anatomical donations, poker, co-payments for inmates, and meningitis vaccinations. Many more contentious issues will be coming up and I expect thorough debate on each bill. We have until February 19 to declare our priority bill. This is significant because in a short session, only priority bills and consent calendar bills (non-controversial bills advanced out of committee with no dissenting votes) will be debated.
Major issues for our legislative session appear to be rebalancing the budget, property tax relief, school financing, Medicaid expansion, and a highway funding bill brought by Senator Smith. This highway funding bill, also called the Transportation Infrastructure Bank, is of great interest to me as it has implications for the Heartland Expressway, and is an initiative put forth by Governor Ricketts.
I have introduced nine bills this year. Along with those nine bills, an amended Oil and Gas Commission bill, this year introduced by Senator Schilz, will be presented to the Natural Resources Committee. This bill reflects proposed changes to the Commission commensurate with the discussions, meetings, public comments and concerns expressed throughout the year. I do want to thank Senator Schilz and the Committee for their diligence in this matter.
One of my bills, LB 773, is on early childhood development and establishes a task force to study local needs regarding the early childhood workforce, the ability of the current state systems to meet the needs identified, and an agreement on the competencies necessary to close the achievement gap for children at risk of failing in school. Findings and recommendations are to be reported to the Legislature no later than December 1, 2017. I am passionate about this area because I see the direct linkage with children entering kindergarten ready to learn and reducing special education costs, reducing behavioral problems, reducing dropout rates and teen pregnancies, and ultimately reducing crime and the cost of corrections. This bill has already had a hearing before the Education Committee where it had 12 testifiers in support.
As always, I welcome your comments and input, and I encourage you to telephone my office or email me.
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