Post Tagged with: "nebraska legislature"

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
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
Governor’s tax ideas die, but might live another day

Governor’s tax ideas die, but might live another day

 Gov. Dave Heineman’s two tax reform bills will die a quiet death on Wednesday afternoon.

 The governor rightly read the tea leaves and asked over the weekend that they be removed from discussion. The bills were going to die anyway.

 But what lives on is a real, and a real serious, discussion about reforming the state’s tax system.

 It’s not a total defeat for the Republican governor — a retreat of major proportions, yes — but not a total defeat. He started a debate, and just might get some tax changes he likes, after a committee of state lawmakers studies taxes over the next nine months and offers suggestions for changes.

  But indications are the conversation is headed for some changes the governor didn’t support when he first unveiled his hard-charging agenda to eliminate all state income taxes. Look for lots of talk

February 20, 2013 Comments Read More
Elections for Nebraska Legislature again reward hard workers

Elections for Nebraska Legislature again reward hard workers

When all the campaign contributions are tallied for the 2012 elections, they’ll likely smash all records for spending on state legislative races.

But Tuesday’s results again confirmed that those who work hardest usually win.

The most fiercely contested races in the state were won by those who knocked on the most doors, put up the signs and connected best with voters.

November 8, 2012 Comments Read More
Prenatal and Mitt Romney

Prenatal and Mitt Romney

One of the most controversial votes in the Nebraska Legislature this spring was lawmakers’ dramatic override of Gov. Dave Heineman’s veto of the prenatal care bill.

 That bill will provide taxpayer-funded prenatal care for low-income women who are in the country illegally — a resumption of a decades-long policy that was ended two years ago when the federal government told the state it had to fund it in a different way.

 That same issue confronted Massachusetts in 2003, and then-Gov. Mitt Romney took an entirely different course than Heineman, an early and faithful supporter of the presumptive GOP nominee for president this year. Romney, in 2003, supported changing the program so that prenatal care could continue.

 That may make for an odd coupling during Romney’s visit to Omaha today.

 Heineman has been consistent in his view that illegal immigrants do not warrant taxpayer-funded benefits, even if those benefits might help a child (who will automatically become a U.S. citizen upon birth) be born healthy and without life-long birth defects.

 The Nebraska governor has also been an outspoken critic of President Obama’s health-care law, which is similar to an insurance-mandate adopted in Massachusetts when Romney was governor.

 We’ll see if those divergent stances come up today.

 Meanwhile, this what then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said in 2003 when Massachusetts joined four other states in taking advantage of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) program to provide pre-natal services (the step Nebraska took this year). 

 ”This new coverage will give thousands of children in Massachusetts a healthy start by providing access to prenatal care,” Secretary Thompson said. “Prenatal care is crucial to the health and well-being of both mother and child. Vital services during pregnancy can be a life-long determinant of health and we should do everything possible to make this care available to everyone.”

“President Bush and I are committed to doing everything we can to encourage states to use all their SCHIP funds to expand health coverage to low-income children and pregnant mothers in their states who otherwise would remain uninsured,” Thompson said.

May 10, 2012 Comments Read More