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On Wednesday of this week we began the 107th Legislature by swearing in eight new senators. Only five of them are truly new, as we are welcoming back three veterans who have chosen to return for another term. As always, committee chair elections provide a little drama for the first day. Hopefully this year that will be kept to a minimum. There are a few contested races as I am writing this, but anyone can self-nominate from the floor to be chairman of any committee, so all races could be contested. I am hopeful that does not happen because I am currently running unopposed for Chairman of the Executive Committee. There are nine members on the Executive Committee, three positions are elected by the entire body of the Legislature: the Speaker, the Chairman and Vice Chairman. The remaining six members of the Executive Committee are elected from their respective caucuses. The three caucuses are roughly the same as our Congressional districts. This ensures that representation from across the state is on the Executive Committee.
Once the Chairs for all committees are elected, we begin the challenging task of committee assignments. Returning Senators are generally granted seniority when it comes to committee assignments. Seniors, like myself, with six years’ experience will be given priority for committee preferences. Juniors, those with four years’ experience, will follow. Then the Sophomores, with two years’ experience, and the Freshmen will be plugged in the remaining spots. This is another area where the caucuses come into play to ensure a fair representation from across the state on all committees. There can sometimes be trading of committee assignments. If the two senators wanting to trade assignments agree and the committee making committee assignments agrees, a switch can occur. This does not happen very often but occasionally takes place.
After the Chairs are elected, the office merry-go-round begins with moving offices inside the Capitol. Chairmanship offices are assigned, as Senators heading a committee have a larger staff to work with. If you are not a chair of a committee, then it comes down to seniority, again, as to where your office is going to be. Then add in that the Capitol is in the middle of a ten-year HVAC upgrade and you have many challenges. Before the HVAC project, all senators were placed on the first two floors of the building. But during each two-year phase of the construction, one-fourth of the building is being renovated and those offices are unavailable to anyone, so many senators will have offices in the tower. Any of you who have been to the capitol know how slow the elevators are, so you can imagine that the offices in the tower are not extremely popular.
It promises to be an eventful year in the Legislature. Stay tuned for more updates from me throughout the session. You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov, and you can also click on the Live Video Streaming NET logo to watch the session.
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.
The Legislature was called back to reconvene earlier this week by the Governor in order to pass emergency funding for the state of Nebraska. The Governor will use these funds for the COVID-19 pandemic here in Nebraska. He has asked for $83.6 million to be transferred from our cash reserve funds to the emergency fund. The largest portion, $38.1 million to go toward local response efforts. This will provide funding for a variety of needs like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), other supplies for local jurisdictions, support to local health departments for staffing, and call centers. Another area that would receive funding is information technology which includes funds for additional laptops, servers, and other essential expenditures that will need to be made. Of the other funds, $13 million is for additional staffing and overtime needs for our veterans’ homes and DHHS care facilities including nursing, administrative, and other health care professionals. Overtime and surge staffing for DHHS due to the size of the response areas and the need to cover them will receive $4 million. The immediate need is for staffing in epidemiology and interpreters to meet the increased demands of the Division of Public Health. University of Nebraska Medical Center will receive approximately $3.4 million for lab equipment, software programming, personnel, COVID-19 lab testing, UV light boxes, and a Knowledge Center. UNMC has been nationally recognized as a go-to place for events like COVID-19, Ebola, and others. We are very fortunate to have such a facility in our state. The final $25 million is for “just in case” use by the Governor. If Governor Ricketts does not see a special circumstance where this money is needed I am confident he will not spend it and will return it to our cash reserves.
I know everyone is on edge with this situation. Our lives and our routines have been disrupted and that is unsettling to most of us. We have never seen anything like this in our lifetimes and the uncertainty of what our future holds can be very unnerving at times. Many of the predictions are dire and many people are scared but I am very confident it is not going to be as bad as some are predicting. This pandemic can be handled with some common sense and some discipline. I am sure if we follow what our medical experts are telling us we will get through this. Events like this will define us, our state, and our nation into the future. If we take a moment and think about past periods of crisis in our lives and how impossible it looked at the time, yet in retrospect, it was a challenge, but we survived and in most cases came out stronger for the experience. For this period in our lives, we will make adjustments and do what we have to do and keep moving forward. It may not be exactly as we had planned, but life has a way of taking a different path occasionally. At times like this, we are forced to focus on what is really important to us and readjust our priorities. I hope we all can come to the conclusion that keeping up with the Jones’ is not as important as family, friends, and neighbors. The need for everyone to be engaged in this situation is important. Also, a huge thank you needs to go out to everyone who is still working to keep us healthy, keep us safe, keep the lights on, and all of the other jobs that make our lives enjoyable. We will make the adjustments necessary to get through this pandemic and in a few months, this too shall pass.
The second and final bill that received the Natural Resources Committee priority designation was LB 632, which was reported out of committee on March 6th. The bill itself is a carryover bill from the 2019 session. LB 632 is 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 requires that each member of the Natural Resources Commission be a Nebraska resident. Currently, there is no Nebraska residency requirement for serving on the Commission. This change will make the Commission eligibility requirements consistent with most other boards and commissions in Nebraska.
The second bill included in LB 632 is LB 861, which amends the Nebraska Intergovernmental Solid Waste Management Act. The bill would create a statewide regulatory regime for containers. This will help ease the burden on retailers and restaurants, who are currently forced to comply with a patchwork of city, county, and agency regulations on containers. The bill also encourages the state to promote and utilize recycling and secondary processes, specifically biomass and pyrolysis.
The third bill included in LB 632 is LB 933, which would amend laws relating to utility disconnections and reconnections. The bill would put a cap on the fees a utility can charge for disconnection or reconnection of service. It also allows customers to postpone disconnection by showing that their household includes an ill or handicapped individual who would be harmed by disconnection. This can be done through a note from a doctor, APRN, or physician’s assistant. The bill also requires utilities to post certain information about their disconnection and reconnection policies online. Utilities owned and operated by villages are exempt from these requirements.
LB 1201 as amended would create a plan development group to develop a stand-alone state flood plan. The state currently has a flood plan included in the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency’s larger state hazard mitigation plan, but this plan has not been updated for several years. The group would hold two public hearings to allow the public make their voice heard. 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.
Please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns that you might have. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my phone number is (402) 471-2805. You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov, and you can click on the Live Video Streaming NET logo to watch sessions, hearings, and other Capitol events.
This week we have begun full-day debate. I do not anticipate having to go to late-night sessions until later this month. Depending on how much progress we can make during the days will determine how quickly our late night schedule will begin. Tuesday of this week was Day 33 of our 60 Day session.
I have designated LB 931 as my personal priority bill. It was originally introduced by Senator Halloran. LB 931 would amend Nebraska Rules of the Road relating to vehicles maximum weight overload exception by the addition of 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 interrupting the law one way and the farmers another way. The intention of this bill is to make this clearer to everyone. Nebraska is a year-round harvest state. This bill was voted out of the Agricultural committee on an 8-0 vote and there were no opponents.
The Speaker can designate up to twenty-five bills as Speaker Priority Bills. This year the Speaker has chosen LB 803 to be one of the twenty-five bills. I introduced LB 803 this year. This bill would create a checkoff program for pulse crops. By creating a checkoff on these crops there will be funds available for production research and also for 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 now and are gaining popularity with farmers as an alternative crop. By being part of the checkoff chickpea producers would be eligible for revenue insurance.
Senator Moser has designated LB 899 as his personal priority bill. This is a bill I introduced this year. The bill amends Section 70-625 which gives authority to public power districts in Nebraska to develop bio-fuels as long as they help offset greenhouse gas emissions. This bill came out of the Natural Resources Committee along with an amendment to it.
Senator Lindstrom introduced LB 1014 which at times is referred to as The Multiemployer Welfare Arrangement Act or “MEWA”. Senator Dorn designated LB 1014 as his personal priority bill. It would allow self-employed individuals to participate in health insurance offered by regional cooperatives. Land O’Lakes is a farmer co-op but is a national brand and if you are a member they can offer you an insurance package and therefore be able to take advantage of group rates. If LB 1014 is advanced it will affect farmers and agricultural co-ops alike. This bill has passed General File and is currently on Select File.
Last week all forty-nine senators and committees had a deadline to designate their priority bills. Once those advance from their respective committees’ debate will then begin on the floor. As chairman, I have designated LB 858 as one of two committee priority bills for the Natural Resources Committee. LB 858 was brought to me by MEAN the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, this bill reorganizes, updates, and simplifies the basic governance of MEAN. Also, it is important to note that this bill is what we refer to as a Christmas tree bill which is a common practice for committee priority bills. We take one bill and amend a few smaller bills that are usually not controversial to it so they all have a chance to pass this year. If you look at the committee amendment it will list all of the bills attached to LB 858, the original bill. The bills added in the committee amendment are as listed: LB 856 which extends the sunset date for the Petroleum Release Remedial Action Act from June 30, 2020, to June 30, 2024, LB 855 which eliminates legislative confirmation for members appointed to the Niobrara Council, and LB 367 extends the termination date of the Nebraska Litter Reduction and Recycling Act from October 30, 2020, to September 30, 2025, and it also strikes language allowing transfers from the Nebraska Litter Reduction and Recycling Fund to the General Fund at the discretion/direction of the Legislature.
There is a big federal push to supply money to service providers to build high-speed broadband out to rural areas across the nation. The FCC launched the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, RDOF, which will supply $20.4 billion over a 10 year period to help service these areas. These areas experience slow speeds, limited coverage, or are devoid of service. Senator Brandt is addressing this pressing issue at the state legislative level with LB 996. LB 996 allows the state of Nebraska to participate in the FCC’s Digital Opportunity Data Collection that will assist with the collection of data. The 2020 census will be on April 1st of this year. That data will then be used to designate new census blocks that will aid in the expansion of high-speed broadband. Under these 2010 census blocks, 100mi² is considered served. This is a disservice to folks who need improved broadband coverage to run businesses, schools, and residences.
A brief update on the Revenue Committee’s priority bill. LB974 was debated upon Thursday and still remains on General File. There is a strong sentiment in the body that the incentive package for the state, the Nebraska Advantage Act which expires in December of this year, will not move forward until there is property tax relief. There is enough support to stop that bill. In doing so it will then put pressure on the chamber to put pressure on senators to work out a compromise before it is advanced.
Last week the legislature gave second-round approval on my bill LB 126 and amendment 2380. This amendment made the following changes to the bill: A limited permit to hunt deer issued to a qualifying landowner would run Saturday, Sunday, and Monday immediately preceding the opening day of firearm deer season. No more than four permits may be issued per qualifying landowner or designated members of his or her immediate family. Of those four permits no more than two permits may be issued to persons who are younger than nineteen years of age and no more than two permits may be issued to persons who are nineteen years of age or older. This amendment would limit one permit per person. Lastly, the cost is five dollars per permit.
The Revenue Committee gave a committee priority designation to LB 974. The bill will allow the ability to lower property taxes and change school funding in Nebraska. On February 13th the bill was advanced out of the Revenue Committee along with committee amendment AM 2433. The committee amendment would strike the entire original bill in place of new language. The amendment would repeal the Personal Property Tax Relief Act beginning with 2020’s tax year; which spans from January 1st to December 31st, 2020. It would also lower the taxable valuation for residential and commercial assessed valuation for school districts, starting in 2020 to 95%, 2021 to 91% and 2022 and thereafter to 87% of actual value. Ag land taxable valuations would also be reduced, starting in 2020 to 65%, 2021 60% and 2022 and thereafter to 55% of actual value. The statutory maximum tax rate for school districts for fiscal year 2022-2023 is $1.05 per $100 of taxable valuation. After the 2023 fiscal year, each school district will have its own statutory maximum levy. The maximum levy will be 5 cents per $100 of taxable valuation plus the local effort rate of $1.00 or the calculated local formula contribution. School districts that have passed a levy override prior to the effective date of this act will have access to a levy exclusion for the 5-year period of their levy override. This bill should be debated this week. Once that happens I will have a better idea if it is going anywhere. Schools are opposed to the current form of this bill. It remains to be seen if we can amend it to their satisfaction.
Senator Wendy DeBoer from Omaha introduced LB 1073 which was referenced to the Education Committee. This bill would allow more state funding to school districts and reduce our reliance on property taxes by making three changes: Ag land valuation would be lowered from 75% to 55% of its actual value within the TEEOSA formula only. Secondly, the local effort rate would be decreased from one dollar to ninety-nine cents. Lastly, each school district would receive 7.5% in basic funding aid which is a new source of state aid. This bill also creates a 16 member School Finance Review Commission. They are tasked with preparing a final report with recommendations on maintaining adequate and equitable funding for public schools.