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Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to you as we wrap up this very difficult and strange year. Hopefully the year ahead is a better one. The new year and another session of the Unicameral Legislature will be upon us soon. Just as many of our holiday celebrations will look different this year, this upcoming session will look different from past sessions.
The first day of the 107th Legislature will convene on January 6th, as required by the state’s constitution. The newly elected senators will be sworn in and the body will select a new Speaker of the Legislature. The members will then move to elect committee chairman. There are 14 Standing committees. Some of those chairmanship positions are contested races. All senators have been encouraged to limit the number of bills they introduce due to health concerns related to the pandemic. The rules of our Unicameral Legislature dictate that every bill introduced receives a public hearing. Public hearings are necessary to the success of each bill, but it presents challenges as far as maintaining social distancing procedures and the public’s health. This session, most of the hearing rooms will have a capacity of only 27 people in the audience at a time. The hearing rooms have been modified to allow for some social distancing, both for the testifiers and senators. As a part of new cleaning procedures put in place this session, the pages will be disinfecting the testifier chair and table between each testifier.
We know that nothing is 100% fail proof but there is a responsibility to our staff and those who enter the capitol to help minimize the spread of Covid while remaining open to all Nebraskans. This summer when the Nebraska Legislature finished the 106th Legislative session, some of the operating procedures were changed to provide safeguards against the spread of Covid. We were able to learn a lot from that summer session but more modifications are being made for this upcoming session. The Lincoln/Lancaster County Public Health Department continues to consult with us on our procedures in the hearing rooms and the chamber to be as safe as possible.
The Norris Legislative Chamber is where the Legislature convenes to have floor debate and vote. In the past, the public was allowed to view the legislature in progress by watching from the North balcony, but unfortunately due to covid restrictions that balcony will be closed to the general public. The legislature and the hearings will continue to be live streamed so that everyone can still watch what is happening live. Senators will be able to use the East balcony if they have had possible exposure to covid and they will be allowed to participate in debate. The South balcony will be available for any member of the legislature who would like to watch the session but allow for more social distancing than is available on the floor of the chamber.
I wish everyone a joyous holiday season and a restored hope in the new year to come.
Now that the election is over and the dust has mostly settled, I will be turning my attention to the upcoming legislative session. The Legislature will have eight new incoming senators, five of which are brand new, and three that are former senators. The three former senators were term-limited out, sat out for at least two terms, and have come back for another stint. Of course, each new senator changes the dynamic of the Legislature, and finding how we all work together is key to the success of the legislative session. Since the election, I have been working to build relationships with these new senators. With senators being termed out, some of the old alliances are now gone. New alliances will need to be forged in order to get things accomplished.
I am working very hard on next year’s agenda of items and bills that I want to introduce. Several are directly related to issues within the 44th legislative district, and others are statewide issues that have the potential to benefit the majority of Nebraskans.
I have also decided to seek a change in my leadership role within the Legislature. I will not be seeking reelection as Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, a position I have held for the last four years. I have instead decided to seek the chairmanship of the Executive Board of the Legislative Council. The Executive Board of the Legislative Council supervises all legislative services and employees. The board is responsible for processing any legislation that governs the Legislature or the legislative process. That can include some of the following subject areas: legislative ethics, term limits, senator and employee salaries, legislative candidate requirements, and any constitutional amendments pertaining to these issues. Senator Hilgers served as the chairperson of the Executive Board for the last two years and has decided to run for Speaker of the Legislature. Having served for six years on the Executive Board, I feel my qualifications and my experience would serve me well as the chairman.
The 107th legislative session is scheduled to begin on January 6, 2021. However, depending on the Covid situation, it is not clear if that will come to pass, or if there will be an alternative schedule. The Legislature does have to be cognizant of the fact that we are obligated to pass a budget this session. The state’s fiscal year ends on June 30th, and we must have a new biennium budget in place before that date. One way or another we will be meeting between January and June 30th. Hopefully in the next few months, a vaccine will be widely available. In the meantime, we will continue to adhere to the health directives and practice social distancing. I am confident the Legislature will be able to meet and conduct our business in a safe fashion and get the peoples’ business finished before the June 30th deadline.
This past week we concluded our final days of the 106th Legislative session. We should have been done in the middle of April, but because of COVID, we finished on August 13. Some of the highlights of the last 17 days of the session were the passage of LB1107 and LB814. I have discussed both bills in previous articles so I will not plow that field again. But it is particularly important to note that the members of this Legislature came together and compromised to bring some much-needed property tax relief. Although the first increment of that relief will be modest, once fully implemented, there will be sufficient property tax relief for every property taxpayer in the state.
Now that the session is behind me I can turn my attention to issues for next year. With the session starting in January my time to work up legislation for it is quickly passing. Here are a few ideas I am working on.
How many of you know that we have a whiskey distillery in the 44th district? It is in Moorefield, just east of Curtis. It is a family run business and has been very successful. So successful, in fact, they are running into some volume restrictions that would prohibit them from expanding without running into a mountain of additional regulation. With just a minor change in statute, they could continue to expand their business and enjoy the benefits of economies of scale while maintaining quality. But more importantly, it will allow a Father, Son, and Grandson to work together in a family business.
Of course, I will still be hunting for a way to compensate landowners for the damage done by the state of Nebraska’s wild animals. I hope to work with the Game & Parks Commission to find the resources and the mechanism to allow for large game damage to be at least partially reimbursed to the landowner. I have had conversations with G&P in the past and have run into a brick wall with this idea. But the dynamic has changed a little with the passage of LB126, the Landowner Early Deer Hunt bill. I received cooperation from the Commissioners themselves in passing that bill, so I am hopeful the Commissioners and I will be able to work together again on this type of legislation.
Lastly, I will continue to work on reducing the property tax burden on agriculture. I know we passed property tax relief this past session, but the challenges of agriculture, especially with the drought and commodity prices well below the cost of production, cannot be overlooked when it comes to maintaining a healthy economy here in the State of Nebraska. The reliance upon property taxes to fund our schools here in rural Nebraska is out of balance and I will continue to work on finding ways to make the way we pay for our children’s education more in line with the people and property that are benefiting the most from it.
By the time this week’s article is published the Legislature will be wrapping up the 2020 session. And everyone will be able to sleep easier! All of us senators, the lobbyists, and especially the taxpayers. I hope I do not jinx LB 1107 by saying it was passed by the Legislature as I am writing this on Monday. It will not be up for a final vote until Thursday of this week. LB 1107 is a major step forward in relieving the property tax burden that property owners are facing when it comes to funding our K-12 education system here in Nebraska. When fully funded, this new property tax relief fund will provide $375 million per year to the property taxpayers of Nebraska who also pay income tax. This new property tax relief fund will be an income tax credit, so you must file a Nebraska income tax return in order to receive the relief. This relief along with our existing property tax relief fund will help make the property tax burden here in Nebraska a bit easier to bear.
I will give the lion’s share of the credit for this LB 1107 package to Senator Scheer of Norfolk. Senator Scheer is our Speaker in the Legislature and therefore in a unique position to move things along or stop them. This process started over a year ago when Speaker Scheer stood with a majority of rural senators, myself included, and said no to the passage of LB 720. LB 720 was the Nebraska ImagiNE Act. This is the replacement for the incentive package that Nebraska offers companies to locate here and create jobs, which is set to expire this December. The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce had never been told no before. The fact that about 20 mostly rural senators stood and said until we provide property tax relief to all property owners in Nebraska, we will not budge, was huge. Fast forward to this “mini-session” we just completed and again Speaker Scheer put the right senators in the room and skillfully guided them to a compromise that has become LB 1107. Keep in mind that LB 1107 was a shell bill that Speaker Scheer introduced way back in January to have a vehicle to move just this type of legislation forward. None of the components of LB 1107 were Speaker Scheer’s, but the final bill was introduced by him, so under the rules of the Legislature, he is in complete control of that bill.
As I finish this week’s article I want to provide a side note. I get a kick out of the constant effort by the press to try and amplify the rural/urban divide in the Legislature. I suppose it depends upon your definition of rural and urban. I believe most of the Omaha senators believe all senators outside of Omaha are rural. Most of the Lincoln senators believe all the senators who come from outside Lincoln and Omaha are rural. I do not put much stock in the rural/urban divide. We are all Nebraska senators and represent our constituents as well as everyone in the state of Nebraska.
It was a busy week in the Legislature the previous week. We made some headway, covered a lot of territory and subject matter, but we also spun our wheels quite a bit. The only thing we are dealing with is priority bills, both personal and committee. Fortunately, last Friday we passed bills that have a personal or committee priority tie to myself. I am sure you have been reading and hearing about some of the dustups between a few of my colleagues. Let me tell you it is never as exciting as what the press tries to make it out to be. Unfortunately, sometimes during the heat of debate, passion and emotion takes a front seat to decorum. All in all, it is not a pretty process at times but it does work most of the time.
LB 814, a bill to prohibit dismemberment abortions was heard for three hours this past week. Senator Geist will need to show Speaker Scheer a vote card with at least 33 names of senators in favor, before we will have another three hours of debate and a cloture vote to move this bill on to the second round. I am hopeful Senator Geist will have more than 33 to show the Speaker. I am a co-sponsor of this bill and I want to see it across the finish line.
LB 147, a bill to allow teachers to restrain students who are being violent to themselves or to other students, had its second three hours of debate on the first round. It went down on a 32-15-2 vote. Senator Groene, the principal introducer, had 33 votes lined up for the cloture vote but at the last minute one senator flipped his vote and the bill was dead. I do not fault anyone for changing their mind, but if you have given someone your word on a particular issue and your vote flips, you owe that senator the courtesy of telling them as soon as you can so they have time to try and replace your vote.
Of course we are still trying to work out a deal to provide property tax relief for all Nebraska taxpayers. I do believe there are several million dollars available for that purpose. The challenge now is how do we redistribute those funds in an equitable and fair manner. Hopefully by the time you are reading this the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared and there is a plan in place to provide significant property tax relief to all property owners across the state.
As you can tell from the three paragraphs above, we are dealing with some highly charged issues during the waning days of the 106th Legislature, second session. It is no wonder we get a bit testy with each other from time to time. Covid has also brought challenges to our lives on a daily basis these last few weeks and months. I am more than ready to wrap this session up and head for the wide open spaces of southwest Nebraska.
The Nebraska Legislature reconvened the 2020 session on July 20th and in the first few days of session we were able to advance a number of bills that had previously been debated before we postponed the session in March. Many of the bills that I recently wrote about in my previous articles were advanced to the next stage of debate. LB 632, which includes LB 861, among others, is now on Select File. LB’s 803, 899, 931, and also LB858, which includes LB 367, are on Final Reading. Although I am happy that the bills that I introduced are moving forward, there is still a lot of important legislation that we must pass before we adjourn for the year.
Before the legislative session was postponed due to COVID-19, the Natural Resources Committee conducted a number of hearings for gubernatorial appointments. The Natural Resources Committee met on Wednesday of last week to confirm those 9 appointments. They will be voted on by the full body later in this session.
Confirmation of gubernatorial appointments is a seldom-publicized but important responsibility of the Nebraska Legislature. When the governor makes an appointment to certain boards and commissions, the appointee will appear before the relevant legislative committee for a hearing, usually answering questions about the duties of the board or commission they are appointed to, as well as about their personal qualifications. If the appointee is approved by a majority of the committee, the appointment will move to the floor to be voted on by the full body. A majority vote is required to confirm an appointment.
The Natural Resources Committee has general oversight over a variety of boards and commissions, including the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Power Review Board, the Nebraska Environmental Quality Council, Nebraska Ethanol Board, the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and the Nebraska Environmental Trust, among others. These entities regulate our state’s natural resources. Individuals appointed to these bodies must appear before our committee for a hearing. Members of the public can attend confirmation hearings and may testify in support, in opposition, or in a neutral capacity for the appointee. This process serves as an important check on the power of the executive branch and gives the public a chance to weigh in on the appointments. We are also preparing for our final confirmation hearing of this session, which will be held on August 4th.
The Nebraska Forecasting Board met on July 23, 2020, to revise the current revenue forecast for the State of Nebraska. We were expecting the forecast to be lower, but it wasn’t by as much as people were expecting. For the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the projection was lowered by $50 million, which is about 1% of the state’s total tax collections. In Nebraska, we are faring better than other states. Still, we all must keep in mind that with this pandemic there are no certainties so we must remain vigilant and cautious.
This will be my last article before we resume the 2020 legislative session on July 20th and finish our remaining 17 days. We have senators and staff who need to be there in person to do their job, and with the continuous spread of Covid, the legislature will have to take precautionary measures when it reconvenes. Some of the changes that have been proposed but could change before session are the following:
Normally the balcony is open to the public but due to restrictions, the balcony will be closed for the remainder of the legislative session. Legislative debate and hearings will still be live streamed through NET. For those of you who watch the daily legislative activity on the internet you will see a few changes in the chamber.
Since the legislature does not allow for the senators to vote remotely, senators who have a temperature of 100.4 or higher or who exhibit Covid-like symptoms will be allowed to sit in the east balcony, there will be a microphone so the senators can still participate in debates and they will be able to vote from there. Also, you may see some of the senators sitting in the south balcony or under the balconies, as to allow for social distancing.
Senator offices will be open to the public. If you visit a senator’s office I would encourage you to wear a mask and practice social distancing. If you would like to talk to myself or any of the other senators we are also available via email or telephone.
We still have some very important issues to address this year but with these safeguards in place we are all hopeful that we can remain mindful of the health concerns while completing the people’s work and still pass some meaningful legislation.
An ongoing issue is wildlife damage that many landowners of the state have and are currently experiencing. Since this is the time of the year many producers begin to see wildlife damage I encourage anyone starting to see damage to contact the Nebraska Game and Parks right away. This can be done by filling out an online form (which can be found at http://outdoornebraska.gov/depredation/), or by calling the district office at (308)-535-8025. Game and Parks will then send a wildlife biologist to assess your damage. This will give you the best chance to be issued a depredation permit to thin the herd and hopefully protect your crops. Game and Parks may also offer you other forms of assistance, including fencing, scare devices, and technical advice. The process of obtaining a depredation permit or other assistance can be frustrating at times. If you have any issues while dealing with Game and Parks, please contact my office. I am continuing to look at all options to compensate landowners for feeding the state’s wildlife.
Two weeks ago, I mentioned that each standing committee may designate two bills as committee priority bills. This session, the Natural Resources Committee chose LB 632, the bill I wrote about in my last article, and also LB 858 as their committee priority bills. LB 858 was brought to me by the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, better known as MEAN. This bill reorganizes, updates, and simplifies the basic governance of MEAN, which has remained largely unchanged since 1981. Since it was designated a committee priority bill, the committee amended three additional bills into it. The bills added by the committee amendment are LB’s 367, 855, and 856. LB 367 extends the termination date of the Nebraska Litter Reduction and Recycling Act from October 30, 2020, to September 30, 2025, and it strikes language which allows transfers from the Nebraska Litter Reduction and Recycling Fund to the General Fund at the discretion/direction of the Legislature. LB 855 eliminates legislative confirmation for members appointed to the Niobrara Council. Lastly, LB 856 extends the sunset date for the Petroleum Release Remedial Action Act from June 30, 2020, to June 30, 2024. LB 858 is currently on final reading.
Unfortunately, two of the bills in LB 858 have sunset dates and therefore are time sensitive. The Legislature’s suspension had put these bills into a time crunch, and they must go into law as soon as they are passed so as not to interrupt the programs they authorize. In order to do this, we will need to pull the entire bill back to select file and amend it to include an emergency clause, which will allow it to be enacted as soon as it is signed by the governor. This will ensure there will be no disruption to the funds that are administered by these bills.
Another bill I introduced this year, LB 899, was designated by Senator Moser from Columbus as his personal priority bill. The bill amends Section 70-625 to give public power districts in Nebraska the authority to develop biofuels to help offset greenhouse gas emissions. This bill came out of the Natural Resources Committee on a 8-0 vote and is currently on select file.
In addition to committee and personal priority bills, the Speaker can designate up to twenty-five Speaker Priority Bills. This year, the Speaker chose LB 803, a bill I introduced, to be one of these twenty-five bills. This bill would create a checkoff program for pulse crops. Creating a checkoff for these crops will provide additional funds for their production, research, and market promotion. Pulse crops include a variety of peas, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans, and lupine. These crops have been grown in Nebraska for quite a few years and are gaining popularity with farmers as an alternative crop. After I introduced the bill, there was some discussion if the program should instead be named the “Dry Pea and Lentil Commission” because “pulse” is a broad classification of the legume family, and Nebraska already has a Dry Bean Commission. Changing the name of the checkoff would reduce confusion. I plan to offer an amendment to make this change.
As I mentioned in my last article, I would like to update you on bills that have a priority status and will be debated when the Legislature resumes the 2020 session on July 20th. Each of the standing committees are allowed to designate up to two bills as committee priority bills. Typically, committees will use this as an avenue to combine a few bills together. The bills are usually noncontroversial and would likely pass on their own, but due to time constraints, their best chance of passing is to be included in a committee priority bill.
The Natural Resources Committee used one of their priority designations on LB 632. LB 632 was originally drafted as a shell bill. The original bill made no substantive changes and was only meant to serve as a vehicle for other legislation to be amended into. During the amendment process, LB 632 was deleted and replaced with the contents of LB 769, LB 861, LB 933, and LB 1201. Even though it contains several other pieces of legislation, the bill will still appear on the Legislature’s website and the agenda as LB 632.
The first bill included in LB 632 is LB 769. This bill would require each member of the Natural Resources Commission to be a Nebraska resident. Currently, there is no Nebraska residency requirement for serving on the Commission. This change would make the Commission eligibility requirements consistent with most other boards and commissions in Nebraska.
The second bill included is LB 861, which would amend the Nebraska Intergovernmental Solid Waste Management Act by creating a statewide regulatory system for containers. This would help ease the burden on retailers and restaurants, which are currently forced to comply with a patchwork of city, county, and agency container regulations. It also encourages the state to utilize recycling and secondary processes, specifically biomass and pyrolysis.
The third bill is LB 933, it would amend laws relating to utility disconnections and reconnections. The bill would put a cap on the fees a utility can charge for disconnecting or reconnecting service. It would also allow customers to postpone disconnection by showing that their household includes an ill or handicapped individual who would be harmed by disconnection through a note from a doctor, APRN, or physician’s assistant. Utilities would be required to post certain information about their disconnection and reconnection policies online as an additional part of this bill. Utilities owned and operated by villages would be exempt from these requirements.
Lastly, LB 1201, as amended, would create a plan development group to put together a stand-alone state flood mitigation plan. The state’s current flood mitigation plan is included in the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency’s larger state hazard mitigation plan, but has not been updated for several years. The bill would require the Department of Natural Resources to complete the state flood mitigation plan and report it to the Governor and the Legislature before December 31, 2021.
As you may remember, the Speaker of the Legislature, Jim Scheer of Norfolk, suspended the Nebraska Legislature’s session back in March because of public health concerns due to COVID-19. As of right now the plan is for the Legislature to resume the 2020 session on July 20th and we’re scheduled to complete our work by August 13th. The Speaker said, “the decision to resume the session was based on the belief that Nebraska will have reached the peak of COVID-19 cases by that time-and will not have experienced a resurgence in cases following the loosening of restrictions on businesses and social gatherings.” He also said, “Please keep in mind that I reserve the right to alter this 2020 Reconvening Session Calendar should it appear best to do so.” There have been plexiglass shields installed in the legislative chamber and there will be other safety measures put into place to protect members of the legislature and the legislative staff.
When we suspended the session in March, we still had seventeen days left in our 2020 session and a number of bills that were scheduled for debate. One of the most important items we must address is our budget. We won’t know the complete impact of COVID on our budget so we must proceed with caution. The speaker sent out a list of all of the priority bills that have a general fund impact. We will look closely at those bills because we must be very cautious on how we appropriate funds. None of my bills were on that list.
Due to our short timeframe, bills that have been given priority designations will be debated first and have the best chance of passing. Three of my bills have been prioritized. In the next few weeks I will give you a quick refresher on these bills and other bills of interest.
Before the legislature suspended session I designated LB 931 as my personal priority bill. It was originally introduced by Senator Halloran of Hastings. LB 931 would amend Nebraska Rules of the Road relating to vehicles’ maximum weight overload exception by allowing seasonally harvested products to be transported from farm storage to market or factory. There is some question as to whether farms can haul from their fields to bin and bin to market. Carrier enforcement was interpreting the law one way and the farmers another way. The intention of this bill is to make this clearer to everyone. This bill was voted out of the Agricultural committee on an 8-0 vote and there were no opponents. This bill is currently on Select File and myself, along with a couple of other senators, are continuing to negotiate possible minor language changes to the bill that will continue to allow agricultural producers to move their crops to market in a timely fashion and eliminate the concerns of the Nebraska Department of Transportation.