Senator Steve Erdman, of Bayard, has said that he plans to introduce a tax bill in January that would require the state to refund half of what everyone pays in property taxes when they file their income taxes. Since schools account for about 60 percent of the property tax, this would amount to roughly a 30 percent property tax cut for everyone. "Local units of government who collect taxes will be able to collect their taxes just like they normally do. And it'll be up to the state to find the funds to refund or credit all these people," Erdman said. Some have misgivings about Erdman's plans though. Senator Jim Smith, the chairman of the Revenue Committee agrees that taxes are too burdensome but is critical of the plan. "I think it borderlines on recklessness if we have a proposal with such a sizable fiscal note without some explanation or understanding or idea of how it's going to be paid for," Smith said. Senator Kate Bolz criticized the plan because she doesn't see how the state could make up the $1.2 billion gap this bill would cause in the state budget. Governor Pete Ricketts was also critical of the plan, saying without an actual way to finance the cuts the plan is just a fantasy. Erdman has also started a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot so voters could vote on the bill in case the legislature decides not to pass the bill.
State Senators Lou Ann Linehan and Patty Pansing Brooks have set off on a tour of elementary schools across Nebraska as part of an interim study. The goal of the study is to examine reading and literacy issues in schools across the state and determine how widespread they are and whether or not they are related to learning disabilities, like dyslexia. Speaking to a group of Druid Hill teachers in Omaha Linehan said "We want to figure out how to help you." Melissa Comine, OPS's chief academic officer, said OPS elementary schools spend 120 to 130 minutes per a day reading and another 40 to 60 minutes a day on writing. Extra time is built in for students who aren't grasping concepts quite as quickly. Third grade teacher, Lisa Olsen, said she didn't receive much training on identifying learning disabilities during her undergraduate studies. Linehan said that it seems some teaching colleges seem to do a better job of readying teachers and administrators when it comes to learning disabilities like dyslexia.
Karl Elmshaeuser of Ogallala was recently appointed by the United States Department of Agriculture to the position of state director of USDA Rural Development. Before this position with the USDA Elmshaeuser led the West Central Nebraska Development District, an entity which assisted counties and communities access state and federal grant programs for building infrastructure and economic development, for 11 years. During his tenure the West Central Development District received two national awards for innovative programs. He also served on the Nebraska Rural Development Commission, Nebraska Regional Officials Council, and on the National Association of Development Organizations board of directors. The USDA Rural Development program provides loans and grants to help expand economic development and opportunity in rural communities.
Governor Pete Ricketts announced Wednesday that he will be implementing a performance pay system for about 3,000 nonunion govermment employees in his cabinet agencies. This means that employees will now have to earn their raises through performance rather than receiving automatic increases based on cost of living. Ricketts said he'll evaluate how this system works and then make a recommendation that the Nebraska Association of Public Employees consider this performance based system for the almost 17,500 other state employees. Mike Steadman, a negotiator for the public employees union, said he wasn't sure whether his members would agree to a performance based system. Such systems, he said, need clear measurable goals that are realistic in order to be fair. The new pay system will be applicable to employees in the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Transportation, State Patrol, and Department of Environmental Quality.
Former State Sen. Lowen Kruse, a retired Methodist pastor who was actively involved in peace and social justice issues, passed away at 88 years old on Friday. Kruse was first elected to the legislature in 2000 and eventually became vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee. During his time in the legislature he advocated for increased restrictions on underage drinking and harsher penalties for drunk driving. He was also actively involved with Nebraskans for Peace and Omaha Together One Community.
State Sen. Bob Krist, chief sponsor of a Nebraska law restricting protests at funerals, welcomed the news of the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear a case on the law on Monday. "I'm very happy we're not going to face any challenge... It's an early Christmas" Krist said pf the decision. The law in question places a ban on protests within 500 feet of a church, funeral home, cemetery, or place of worship during a funeral. Westboro Baptist lost its case in both the U.S. district court and then the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Krist said he wasn't surprised by the outcome, saying those that drafted the bill did a lot of work and research on how to properly balance the rights of both protesters and mourners. Krist credited Bob Swanson, a Navy veteran who started the American Legion Riders program, with helping get the bill through the legislature.
TransCanada is asking the Nebraska PSC for clarification on their approval of the new route for the Keystone XL pipeline. More specifically they're asking whether they now need to file an amended application in light of the new route change. TransCanada has still not said whether it will build along the route, and it's unclear how long that decision will take. The change in route will require TransCanada to deal with new landowners, plan more pumping stations, and receive new approval from the Nebraska Public Power District, all of which could add months or years onto the project.
Pete Ricketts said his new role as vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association will allow him to better advocate for Nebraskans' issues. He listed how he had advocated for NAFTA with vice president Mike Pence at the annual RGA conference in Austin earlier this November. When asked if he's trying to elevate his national profile Ricketts said it was more of a byproduct of his efforts to make sure Nebraskans have a voice with national leaders. He said the organization also allows governors from across the country to share best practices with each other. An example he gave of this was a panel held at the RGA conference discussing how states are dealing with the opioid epidemic.
Last week the Nebraska Public Service Commission narrowly approved a route across nebraska for the new Keystone XL pipeline. The approval was a curveball for TransCanada though, that's because it wasn't the route they had favored. The approved route runs further east of the favored route, is five miles longer, and will require TransCanada to consider delays and extra costs of adjustng their route for the third time now. The PSC approved the alternative route so it would run by the already existing Keystone pipeline, this would make it easier for the company to monitor both lines and respond to any situations that may arise. There are also questions of whether the pipeline is still financially viable, especially with the additional costs of a new route. When TransCanada originally proposed the line in 2008, oil was trading for $150 a barrel, now it is around $50 a barrel. This has resulted in some major oil companies leaving the tar sands region in pursuit of cheaper more easily accessible oil. However Jeff Share, editor of the Houston-based Pipeline & Gas Journal of Houston, has said the XL's position has improved slightly. Other major pipeline plans have been canceled which has improved demand for the Keystone XL.
Todd Watson, a Lincoln resident who co-owns real estate and technology businesses, announced that he will be challenging Deb Fischer for the Republican nomination. Watson ran in 2014 as an independent against Ben Sasse and got roughly one percent of the vote. Watson said he's returning to the Republican Party now to "make Republicans conservative again." His platform is defending the constitution, national security, social conservatism, fiscal control, and economic growth.
State Sen. Lynne Walz has called for an investigation into state-licensed facilities for mentally ill Nebraskans that remain open despite repeated violations of state care standards. Walz said her interest stemmed from the death of a veteran that was mentaly ill. The veteran was found dead in her room on September 3rd, the death appeared to be caused by a fall. She had suffered from uncontrollable vommitting and diarrhea for at least three days prior without any treatment. The state departement of Health and Human Services had completed an inspection of the facility about a month before the veteran's death, however they took no action until October 5th when they revoked the facility's license. Courtney Phillips, the Chief Executive Officer of HHS, defended the department saying the departments decision still resulted in the loss of the facilities license and that a special investigative committee was not necessary. Walz however said she intends to introduce a legislative resolution during the 2018 session to create an investigative committee to look at these issues.
State Senator Laura Ebke has formally requested that the Governor and Attorney General turn over public documents relating to problems at the Nebraska State Patrol. Ebke made the requests under the state's public records law. The request seeks information related to Rickett's June 30th decision to fire the agency's superintendent and place 6 of its officers on paid administrative leave. Ebke has said that the intent of her request is to help law makers decide whether legislation related to the patrol should be introduced. "I don't think any of us wants to go down the path of an investigative committee if we don't have to," Ebke said. "I'm not saying we won't end up there." The request focuses on the handling of a complaint of a female trooper alleging sexual assault by the patrol's contracted physician, the patrol's internal investigation of a trooper who struck an unarmed drunk driver in the head with the butt of his rifle, and an internal investigation in a high speed chase that ended in the death of the fleeing driver.
Niocorp Developments Ltd announced Thursday that it had struck a deal for constructing a new natural pipeline to serve its proposed mine in southeast Nebraska. The company said in a news release that it has signed an agreement with Rockies Express Pipeline LLC to build a 27.8-mile natural gas pipeline that will supply its planned Elk Creek Superalloy Facility. The agreement calls for Rockies Express to design, build and operate the pipeline, which will run from its main gas line in Marshall County, Kansas, to the site near Elk Creek in Johnson County. Niocorp would contract separately for the purchase of the natural gas to be carried by the pipeline. Niocorp said the deal is worth $63 million over 11 years and is dependent on the mining project going forward. The pipeline would still need government regulatory approval, which Niocorp said Rockies Express would be responsible for securing.
Senator Bob Krist of Omaha criticized Governor Ricketts on Thursday for budget cuts that he says risk the well-being of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, including the elderly and disabled. "This is what happens when one of the richest and most powerful Nebraskans attempts to represent the poorest and the weakest," Krist said in remarks prepared for delivery at a town hall session in Norfolk. Krist is preparing to wage an independent third-party gubernatorial race challenging Ricketts in the 2018 general election. The nine-year state senator has changed his party registration from Republican to nonpartisan in advance of the contest. Last spring, Krist said, state senators fell three votes short of the support they needed to restore $32.4 million in funding that Ricketts had vetoed, most of which went to Medicaid service providers, including NorthStar Services, which hosted the town hall session. NorthStar relies on state funding to provide employment services for people with developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome or fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as providing day services for the elderly, Krist said.
Local elected leaders are racing through a bond refinancing approval process for county jail bonds in order to keep tax perks that could be eliminated next year by proposed Republican tax law changes. Under the current Republican proposal, the tax-exempt status on some refinanced government bonds will not be available after Jan. 1, said Scott Keene, vice president and managing director with Ameritas. That tax-exempt status makes the bonds attractive to some investors and can be sold with a lower interest rate. Refinancing the county jail bonds, with the tax-exempt status, will save Lincoln property taxpayers between $4.2 million and $5 million over the next 10 years, or about $440,000 to $540,000 a year. The county had already begun the process for refinancing the bonds before the new tax law proposal came up, Keene said. But staff is speeding up the process, driven by the GOP tax plan. The goal is to get the refinancing package approved by the County Board, the Lincoln City Council and the Jail Joint Public Agency by Dec. 4. The bonds could be on the market a few days later, well in advance of what could be a Jan. 1 tax law change, Keene said.
State Senator Adam Morfeld of Lincoln wants Nebraska voters to decide whether the state should expand Medicaid to more low-income people. He said Wednesday he plans to propose the ballot measure in the next legislative session, which starts January 3rd. His announcement came after Maine voters approved a Medicaid expansion by ballot initiative on Tuesday. Governor Pete Ricketts’ spokesperson Taylor Gage, said the governor will work with state lawmakers against expanding Medicaid. If the measure were to pass the federal government would provide a higher funding match for coverage of the new groups than it does for existing Medicaid recipients.
The House of Representative passed Rep. Don Bacon’s first bill, a measure aimed at helping Gold Star spouses and dependents access on-base benefits. The Nebraska Republican said he has learned as a congressman how Gold Star families, or those who have lost a member serving during war, are disenfranchised. The bill creates a standardized policy across installations so the families can more easily access military facilities and certain benefits. The bill also extends benefits to gold star spouses, regardless of marital status, as long as they have dependent children. Senator Deb Fischer introduced companion legislation in the Senate on Tuesday.
Less than two months after Republicans' latest effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act imploded, a purple state just made a decidedly blue-state move to essentially expand Obamacare. On Tuesday, Maine became the first state to expand Medicaid with a ballot initiative. And it passed overwhelmingly: Maine voters agreed to grant health care to an estimated 70,000 low-income residents by a nearly 20-percentage-point margin by the time the measure was called by election watchers. In other words, a sizable number of voters in Maine just voted to do the exact opposite of what the state's Republican governor and Republicans in Washington have been trying to do. Maine Gov. Paul LePage vetoed a bipartisan legislative deal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act at least five times. What happened in Maine could provide momentum for progressives to get voters in other states to expand Medicaid, such as Alaska and Idaho, where groups have already started similar Medicaid expansion ballot initiatives next year.
A former University of Nebraska at Omaha student regent declared this week that she will run for the NU Board of Regents. Elizabeth O’Connor, an Omaha attorney, will run for the seat in District 4, which includes eastern Omaha and northeast Sarpy County. Regents Chairman Bob Whitehouse is vacating the position after two terms. Larry Bradley, an adjunct faculty member at UNO, also has announced that he will run for the District 4 seat.
The city council of La Vista approved $20 million in bonds to fund infrastructure improvements for the 84th street redevelopment on Wednesday. These improvements will assist the City Centre project which is being funded by developer City Ventures, and is expected to cost $235 million. La Vista had committed to spending $22.7 million on parking garages and temporary surface lots as part of the redevelopment. The city also agreed to $37.4 million in tax increment financing for the project. The bond funds will cover grading of the La Vista Falls golf course, which is being turned into a park, and street improvements in the area.