Articles by: Paul Hammel

Legislature wraps up 2013 session with leftovers

Legislature wraps up 2013 session with leftovers

The 2013 session of the Nebraska Legislature was like a six-course meal in which you save the main courses as leftovers.

That’s because some of the biggest issues, including tax reform and Medicaid expansion, were deferred for debate next year to allow for more study and more arm twisting.

But, as they always say at the State Capitol, what needed to be done was done. A balanced budget — as required in the State Constitution – was passed. No taxes were raised. Some good laws were passed, and not-so-good laws not passed.

Here’s some random thoughts at the end:

– Gov. Heineman passed on vetoing a couple of bills in the waning hours of the session, which kept the vibes good at the end. It was pretty clear anyway that the tax break for wind farms, Legislative Bill 104, had more than enough support to override a threatened veto by the governor.

– did anyone notice the necktie worn by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist on the final day? Krist, who helped ground the effort to buy a $2.2 million airplane for the governor, had a tie featuring dozens of planes on it.

– some interesting picks for the Tax Modernization Committee. The Exec Board got to pick the final two members of what turns out to be a 14-member committee. They picked two Democrats known for their support of social programs and work on state budgets.

One, as expected, was a freshman, Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz, who is a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Another, in a bit of surprise, was not a freshman: Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist. (Krist, who sponsored the amendment to add the two extra senators, had said he wanted those to be freshmen to provide continuity on tax policy for future Legislatures.)

Reportedly, the committee was seeking to better “balance” the committee, which has some strong conservative voices and, until the last two additions, had nine Republicans and only three Democrats.

Nordquist pointed out that as chairman of the Legislature’s Retirement Systems Committee, he’s dealing with potentially a huge funding liability, keeping state pensions afloat. And he’s a key member of the Appropriations Committee.

– Beatrice Sen. Norm Wallman joined Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers late in the session by asking that paper copies of bills be placed at his seat in the legislative chambers.

The high stacks of red notebooks dotting the chamber went away a couple of years ago when senators got notebook computers. But one stack made a comeback this year when Chambers — who is not a computer user — returned and asked that he be provided the bills on paper to him. (We are big supporters of paper publications on this blog!)

Chambers was seen often thumbing through the pages, reading up on a bill. Wallman, not so much.

– in a bit of surprise, a feud didn’t develop during the year between Heineman, the Republican governor, and the new chair of the Appropriations Committee, Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, a Democrat.

They had clashed often in past sessions, but appeared to tone it down this session due to the important and hard work of crafting a budget. Give credit to Mello, who displayed a talent for budget detail and explanation. Also give credit to former State Sen. Lavon Heidemann, now the lieutenant governor. He and Mello talked frequently about the budget during the session.

June 6, 2013 Comments Read More
Nebraska Legislature winds down 2013 session

Nebraska Legislature winds down 2013 session

seersuckerYou can tell when a legislative session starts to wind down.

Senators start to have a little fun. Like create a new Facebook page for “Ken Larsonbaugh,” an almagamation of three Republican senators, Ken Schilz, Tyson Larson and Scott Lautenbaugh.

The fictious “Larsonbaugh” seems to be preoccupied with goats, which sure beats a preoccupation with filibusters.

And, on Thursday, there was an effort to hold a “seersucker day” at the State Capitol. Some sort of U.S. Senate tradition with a Midwest twist. Some pretty crazy get-ups from senators and lobbyists. (Pictured above are lobbyists John Lindsay, Julia Plucker and Justin Brady)

So it’s almost over, and several senators will tell you it’s none too soon. It was a long, tough session, where two of the biggest issues — Medicaid expansion and tax reform — were booted into next year.

There were more threatened filibusters, near filibusters and real filibusters this year than in the past few. Give credit to Sen. Ernie Chambers, and give credit to the other senators who watched the master of delaying bills and took notes on how to do it.

And veteran lobbyist Walt Radcliffe (a seersucker fan) blames term limits. With fewer years to serve, senators take a short-term view of legislation and getting things done (or not).

Here’s a couple of observations:

– that tax reform study will be well worth watching. Senators say it’s about tax fairness; Gov. Dave Heineman wants fairness and tax cuts. Expect friction over the conflicting goals.

– lots of speculation about who will run for governor and U.S. Senate. Former State Sen. Mike Flood, who would be a formidable candidate for governor, is still dealing with a major health issue in his family, his wife’s breast cancer.

One question: who will the Omaha business community back? Anther question: is Jon Bruning, who said earlier this year he wants to remain attorney general, ready to run again for either job?

Ben Sasse, president of Midland University in Fremont, has said he plans to embark on a 45-day listening tour as he considers a bid to succeed U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns.

A clarification to a previous post on this blog: the governor has no plans to endorse Sasse. We’ve been told the governor does not intend to get involved in the Senate primary.

– gotta like new State Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion. He speaks his mind. Maybe too much. Bloggers are having a field day with his comment in a recent Lincoln Journal-Star story that his “biggest mystery in life” is women.

Said Kintner, “No one understands them. They don’t even understand themselves. Books and books and books have been written about it, and no one understands it.
Men are very easy to understand. Very basic, very simple.”

One blog, thegloss.com, pointed out there are many more mysterious things, like black holes, Pluto and “why politicians keep saying dumb things to alienate women.”

Kintner, remember, is married to one of Gov. Heineman’s top aides, Lauren Kintner, who heads the policy research office.

(Another update: Kintner, on Friday, says he plans to quit being so open about his feelings with the press after the treatment of his comments by liberal blogs.)

– State Auditor Mike Foley found another example of fiscal mismanagement at the State Health and Human Services Department. It’s one in a string of recent financial missteps. Raises the question; has HHS ever been run well?

 

May 30, 2013 Comments Read More
U.S. Senate must not be “most exclusive club”

U.S. Senate must not be “most exclusive club”

The U.S. Senate has long been called the “world’s most exclusive club.”

 If so, why are so many politicians from Nebraska, and elsewhere, running as fast as they can from it?

 On Saturday, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman said “no” for a second time to a run for an open seat in the Senate. The conservative Republican was a virtual lock to win the seat being vacated by U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, who is retiring.

 But Heineman repeated once again that he loves being governor, and lacks the “passion” to run for the federal office.

 Johanns, a former governor who picked Heineman to be his lieutenant governor, is leaving to spend more time with family. That’s a nice way of saying the U.S. Senate is no longer fun or rewarding.

 In 2012, another former Nebraska governor, Ben Nelson, retired from the U.S. Senate saying  he too wanted to spend more time doing something else.

 Heineman talked with Johanns and other governors-turned-senators to see what it would be like in Washington. Apparently Heineman heard enough to convince him life as a freshman senator from a small state isn’t how he wanted to spend his retirement years.

 It takes a long time to get something done in grid-locked D.C. By contrast, as governor, Heineman can influence state policy and can make a difference in the growth of the state.

 He hasn’t gained a big win in a couple of years, but by staying put, it breaths new life into his plan for a major reform of the state tax system. His proposed shift — off state income taxes and onto state sales taxes — would have become mired in claims that it was just “political” and a way to gain votes if he was running for the Senate.

 Heineman is now poised to take a serious run at tax reform.

 

 

 

May 28, 2013 Comments Read More
Late nights bring harsh words in Nebraska Legislature

Late nights bring harsh words in Nebraska Legislature

Night sessions at the Nebraska Legislature can bring out some of the harshest debate of the year.

 Some of that is understandable. The night-time work typically comes at the end of the session, as the clock is running down. People want their bills passed. Tension is high, And people just get tired at night.

 Plus, as one sage observer once observed, it takes some time to make enemies. By the end of a session, senators pretty well know who has their back, and who has a rhetorical knife aimed at it.

 That was the case the other night when debate turned to the pension plan for state teachers.

 The state administers the plans for Nebraska school employees, as well as a separate plan for Omaha Public School workers. (That’s a strange arrangement that might lead to a merger someday, but that’s another story.) 

 This year, faced with a $108-million pension gap caused by the cruddy economy, State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, the chairman of the Legislature’s Retirement Committee, worked out a compromise with teacher, school board and administrator groups.

 It seems like a pretty balanced deal: Current and new teachers would pay a little bit more toward retirement, so would school districts. And the state would kick in an extra $20 milion a year. Pension benefits for new teachers would be reduced slightly. The gap would be reduced and managed.

 The pension bill, LB 553, sailed through first-round debate. But on second round, at night remember, the boo birds came out.

 Nordquist, a leading Democrat in the body, was suddenly a dart board for a group of Republican senators. They didn’t like the deal, and wanted to put off and do more study of alternatives, like switching to defined contribution plans (think 401K) now common in the private sector.

 Aren’t you penalizing new teachers, Omaha Sen. John Nelson asked, by asked him to pay more and cutting their benefits.

 That brought a harsh rebuke from Nordquist’s Omaha colleague, Sen. Heath Mello, who called the plan to delay LB 533 the most fiscally irresponsible amendment of the session. He said it would leave taxpayers with a $108 million bill instead of $20 million, and leave teachers wondering if they’ll have a pension to retire on or not.

  Mello has toned down his criticism of GOP Gov. Dave Heineman this year after being elected chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. But on this night, Mello took a shot at the governor, tagging him for not including any proposal in his budget to resolve the pension problem. That’s unprecedented and irresponsible for a governor, the senator said.

 Attempts to get a response from the governor’s office were unsuccessful. It was night after all. So we have no idea why he didn’t have a proposal. Maybe he was OK with delaying a decision. Maybe not.

 The furor eventually died down and the pension bill advanced easily. But the daggers were out on the legislative floor for a while, which might illustrate what’s ahead when the budget is debated.

 *   *   *

 An interesting fight is brewing over tax breaks for wind energy, pitting the big wind farm people against the small wind farm people.

 The Legislature just advanced LB 104, which would give a sales tax break for big wind farms, including a $300 million one planned near Allen, in hilly northeast Nebraska, by a Kansas company.

 But another wind bill is awaiting debate, LB 402, would help mostly small wind farms. It requires wind farms to jump through a few hoops to obtain a sales tax exemption, including requiring them to parts from Nebraska suppliers and line up local investors from Cornhusker Staters.

Two rural groups that have supported wind energy from the start, the Nebraska Farmers Union and Center for Rural Affairs, say they support LB 402, and not the big wind farm bill.

 The community-owned wind farms envisioned in LB 402 provide 2.3 times the jobs and 3.1 times more economic benefits, they said. Meanwhile, backers of the big wind farm bill say that Nebraska’s 6-year-old law to inspire smaller, community-owned wind farms hasn’t worked and the state needs a simpler incentive.

 It all sets up an interesting fight later in the session over whether the state can afford both bills. Each have hefty fiscal notes. Legislators may have to choose one over another.

 Gov. Heineman, a past supporter of wind energy, says he opposes the big wind farm bill, because it will benefit an out-of-state company. He’s supported tax breaks for out-of-state corporations in the past, such as Yahoo and Facebook, but on this one, not so much.

 Attempts to get his opinion of LB 402 were unsuccessful, like the attempt to get some response on the pension criticism.

 

 

 

April 26, 2013 Comments Read More
Planes, wind and data centers: Legislature in stretch run

Planes, wind and data centers: Legislature in stretch run

There’s plenty of big issues ahead for the Nebraska Legislature, but chatter recently has focused on whether the state needs to buy a state plane, harness more wind energy and provide more incentives for data centers.

Data centers are highly sought by Midwestern states, because they have a lot of things sought by such computer complexes: cheap electricity, cheap land and lack of catastrophic natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes.

Iowa and Nebraska recently engaged in an economic development tug-of-war over a billion-dollar data center planned by Facebook.

In the beginning, it sounded like the social-networking giant would locate in Kearney, Neb.,  which had invested over $1 million on a shovel-ready site. But Altoona, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines, won out. Maybe the nearby Adventureland amusement park will now be adding a social media ride.

It was a plumb for Iowa, but one has to wonder whether taxpayers are getting a great bargain from data centers. The state tax incentives from Iowa totalled $18 million spread over several years, and Facebook will create about 30 jobs. That’s a pricey $600,000 per job. And Altoona waived any property taxes from the company for 20 years.

That bang-for-the buck issue will likely come up Wednesday when state lawmakers finally start debating a bill to provide a new tax break for large wind farms that locate in Nebraska. The state has lagged behind its neighbors in attracting wind farms, despite abundant wind. LB 104 seeks to remedy that by providing a tax break offered by our neighbors: a sales tax exemption on the purchase of turbines, towers and other wind farm components.

But wind farms aren’t great generators of jobs, either. But they bring other benefits, like generous lease payments to local landowners, which can boost the economy in rural areas.

Iowa officials said that the more abundant wind farms in the state were attractive to Facebook, which has a goal of powering 25 percent of its data centers (which are huge consumers of electricity) from wind or other renewables. Nebraska, which has about 1/12th the wind power as Iowa, missed an opportunity, said the Sierra Club in a press release.

As for the state plane, some interesting politics afoot there. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee initially rejected the idea of buying an old plane from the University of Nebraska Foundation for $2.2 million, citing less expensive options (like chartering planes).

But some votes switched, and now the plane purchase — a priority of Gov. Dave Heineman — has taken flight and is part of the proposed budget.

The governor needs a plane and a way to get to the remote corners of the state. But if you talk to plane people, they’ll tell you there are better bargains out there, for newer planes.

The background chatter is raising questions about whether the plane issue might be more about the trappings of office and helping out the NU Foundation than finding the best deal.

April 24, 2013 Comments Read More
An April Fools’ joke gone awry?

An April Fools’ joke gone awry?

April Fools’ jokes are, by their nature, supposed to be funny.

 But an April 1 press release sent out by the anti-Keystone XL pipeline group, Bold Nebraska, didn’t get a laugh from the Nebraska governor’s office.

 The fake press release stated that Gov. Dave Heineman had written a letter asking President Obama to reject the controversial pipeline because of the risk of damage to Nebraska’s vast groundwater resources.

 That would have been a complete about-face for the Republican governor who has been a whole-hearted supporter since TransCanada decided in late 2011 to reroute its 36-inch, crude oil conduit around Nebraska’s groundwater-rich Sand Hills area.

 Heineman, remember, called a special session of the State Legislature due to his objections over the initial route that crossed the Sand Hills.

 But with the route changed, he’s totally pro-pipeline.

 A spokeswoman for the governor labeled the Bold Nebraska spoof as “immature” and ‘childish.” 

 But a Bold spokeswoman said the press release was intended to make a serious point — all of the statements

April 2, 2013 Comments Read More
Nebraska emergency radio woes drawing attention

Nebraska emergency radio woes drawing attention

 

 If you’re a state trooper, pinned down by gunfire, trapped inside of a building, and have no way to call for help on your radio, that’s a problem.

  A real big problem if you’re wounded and need medical assistance.

 And a big problem if you’re trying to help rescue a nearby hostage.

 That’s essentially what happened last June when state troopers and local deputies and police moved in to halt a hostage situation at an Alliance drug store in which the owner was taken hostage by a drug addict with an AK-47, who shot at everything that make a sound or moved.

 A cop got shot when he initially answered the call. A deputy and a trooper got shot later when the gunman heard sounds. The hostage got shot as he ran for freedom.

 Luckily, a couple of troopers pinned down in an adjacent building didn’t get shot, though they had to resort to using their personal cell phones in an attempt to find out what was going on. Unfortunately, cell phone batteries run out. They left them with no communications.

 Now, after a second and a third dangerous incident in which the state’s new $17.3 million didn’t work properly, state leaders are starting to pay keen attention.

March 26, 2013 Comments Read More
Politics aplenty in Legislature’s tax debate

Politics aplenty in Legislature’s tax debate

Let’s make one thing clear: the Nebraska Legislature hasn’t even started debating what changes to make in the state’s tax system. They’re just talking about a study of the tax system right now.

 But already, politics is creeping into the discussion of LB 613, the bill to authorize the study.

 To wit:

 – Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas introduced the annual bill to provide a sales tax exemption on ag machinery repair parts, a proposal that gets shot down year after year. She didn’t expect it to advance. But, in a major surprise, it did.

 So now Dubas is in the awkward position of pushing a bill (since prioritized by North Platte Sen. Tom Hansen) that will compete for dollars with her own priority bill, one that will increase reimbursements for foster parents. 

March 19, 2013 Comments Read More
Kearney Arch seemed doomed from the start

Kearney Arch seemed doomed from the start

The Great Platte River Road Archway Monument

 On a hot August night back in 1999, I can recall standing on Interstate 80 — which had been closed to traffic — as the 1,500-ton Great Platte River Road Archway Monument was hauled into place atop massive, bulldozer-like crawler machines.

 It was a spectacle to be sure. Dignitaries from across the state gathered as the $60 million Arch was slowly crawled across the four-lane interstate. Beverages were served, cannons were fired, and yearly attendance of 1 million was predicted.

 This hunk of steel and prairie trail history, it was said, would finally realize a long-time dream of the state: to lure travelors off I-80 to stop, shop and stay a spell in Nebraska. Finally, we Cornhuskers would have an attraction we could boast about, like Mt. Rushmore or the Rocky Mountains.

 But I remember thinking this was a lot of trouble, and expense, just to place a museum over the Interstate. I wondered quietly what could be accomplished if millions weren’t wasted on locating this steel, fort-like structure above the Interstate.

March 11, 2013 Comments Read More
Is Gov. Heineman more serious about U.S. Senate run?

Is Gov. Heineman more serious about U.S. Senate run?

 Guessing what Gov. Dave Heineman will do is a dangerous game.

 He’s an unpreditable guy, as evidenced by his recent selection of Lavon Heidemann as lieutentant governor. No one saw that coming.

  And remember when he shocked everyone by calling for a special legislative session on the Keystone XL pipeline?

 There are other examples. Overall, it’s safe to say that Heineman, a former Army ranger, plays his cards very close to the vest before he plays them.

 But there’s some indications out there that he might seriously be looking at running for the U.S. Senate. At very least, he’s looking more seriously than he did two years ago.

 Back then, when U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., decided to retire, the Senate seat was Heineman’s to take. But the governor decided to pass in 2012, partly because he doesn’t like Washington, D.C., partly because he prefers being a leader to a legislator, and partly because he had more work to do as governor. His decision, of course, opened the way to the surprise election of former State Sen. Deb Fischer.

 Now, with the pending retirement of U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., Heineman is taking another look, and maybe a more serious look. And there’s reasons to take a more serious look.

 Heineman, 64, has two years left to serve as governor. So the clock is ticking. It’s no fun being a lame duck, and, by all appearances, he’s going to have a hard time getting major initiatives through a more and more independent State Legislature. Look at what happened to his bold tax reform plan this year. It was turned into a study.

 What is the governor going to do when he leaves the Mansion? That’s a good question. The rumor mill has been passing around talk for several months that he might become president of the University of Nebraska. But J.B. Milliken already holds that job, and there’s no public indication that he’s going anywhere. So there’s no solid post-governor plan for the governor.

 Now, we hear that the governor grew frustrated with the current tone of things in Washington during a recent visit there for the National Governor’s Association meeting. And there’s a lot of talk about the need for a Republican resurgence, after failing to win the White House last fall.

 Two years ago, Heineman was a long shot to run for Senate. He may not be this time.

 

 

 

 

 

March 4, 2013 Comments Read More