Action on water, prisons, parks marked 2014 Legislature

2014 Nebraska Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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April 17, 2014 - 6:15pm

As farmers and gardeners across Nebraska prepare to sow the seeds of a future harvest, the Nebraska Legislature has just finished its sowing for 2014 – planting seeds for some major initiatives, while casting aside others.

Among the big-ticket items passed measures passed were those for reforming Nebraska’s prisons, funding water projects, and repairing state parks.

Lawmakers also decided not to move on other major issues. Proposals to expand Medicaid, speed highway construction, and ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation were all stopped by filibusters.

There was also a middle group of bills that were not so dramatic, but still important – on everything from industrial hemp to taxes. (For information on all the bills and what the Legislature did with them, click here.)

Gov. Dave Heineman, in his last year in office, highlighted taxes in his State of the State speech in January. "We can help our farmers and ranchers by supporting the Nebraska Farm Bureau proposal to lower ag land valuations from 75 percent to 65 percent. That’s one part of tax relief. The other challenge is Nebraska’s high income taxes. And the Nebraska Legislature sets those rates," he said.

The Legislature did not change those rates. Nor did it move toward lowering ag land values.

But senators did make other changes, tying income tax brackets to inflation, so Nebraskans don’t find themselves paying a higher rate if their incomes rise with the cost of living. They cut taxes on military retirement and Social Security. They exempted ag repair parts from sales tax. They cut property taxes, especially for older and disabled Nebraskans. The governor described the changes as "meaningful, responsible and sustainable" tax relief.

Lawmakers also dealt with the state’s overcrowded prisons, approving new money to pay counties to house state inmates and increase vocational education for prisoners. There is more funding for mental health services, and treatment and supervision of people who commit drug and other nonviolent crimes. There will be more probation officers for juveniles diverted from the adult courts. These initiatives are projected to cost more than $30 million a year when fully implemented.

Nebraska is also contracting with the Council of State Governments for recommendations to reform its criminal justice system. Sen. Brad Ashford says that could involve creating a commission to re-examine sentences approved by the Legislature. "We get concerned about a particular crime so we increase the penalty. That’s understandable, that’s what legislature’s do. But it’s not probably good policy," he said. "We need to back off of that and develop an actual commission or structure on how those sentences are going to be imposed."

There were big changes in water as well. Lawmakers approved more than $30 million for projects like dams and reservoirs. They expanded the Natural Resources Commission to include representatives of cities, manufacturing, wildlife conservation and other interest to decide how to spend the money. Sen. Tom Carlson says that should contribute to an important goal. "We have a group that is large enough and has enough viewpoints on there that they’ll be able to evaluate a project really well: Does this contribute to water sustainability?" Carlson said.

The legislation specifically requires a plan for water sustainability in the Republican River basin, where groundwater levels have dropped in some areas.

Senators also directed more money to Nebraska’s state parks, after dozens were shut down for deferred maintenance. Tax from sales of boats, personal watercraft, all terrain and utility vehicles will go to the parks, along with money from the cash reserve, for an infusion of more than $30 million during the next five years. Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery says that’ll help bring parks up to snuff. "That will allow them to maintain the parks at the level where they need to, so that we don’t get in this situation again," he said. But Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, angered that his proposed ban on hunting mountain lions failed, promised to go after Game and Parks funding next year.

At least as significant as what passed were some proposals the Legislature rejected. Expanding Medicaid to cover about 54,000 more low income Nebraskans was filibustered to death for a second year in a row by opponents who said it would cost the state too much. Sen. Kathy Campbell said advocates need to spend more time talking to Nebraskans about the federal money the state is rejecting. "Once you sit down and start talking to people about what those dollars – the $2.3 billion from now until 2020 -- would have meant for the state, and how we could have utilized that, then people step back and say ‘Oh, okay. Tell me more about this,’" Campbell said.

Lawmakers also decided against borrowing up to $200 million to speed road construction. And a proposed ban on job discrimination based on sexual orientation fell 7 votes short of the two thirds majority needed to overcome a filibuster. Still, 26 senators – a majority – voted to end the filibuster – up from only 15 who supported a similar measure in 2007.

A binful of other proposals passed, including a ban on sales of e-cigarettes to people under 18, university research on industrial hemp, more insurance coverage for autism, publicly-funded legal guardianships, replacing the Capitol’s ventilation system, and installing fountains in the building’s interior courtyards. Come November, voters will also be asked if they want to legalize video betting terminals at the state’s horseracing tracks.

Many other proposals fell by the wayside, including setting up a nonpartisan commission for redistricting.

That, and many others, may come up again when the next Legislature, with more than one-third new members due to term limits, convenes in January.

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