Legislative Bill 898, introduced by Sen. Sara Howard, would require public universities and colleges in the state to administer a sexual assault climate survey. Students might be asked about how well they think the school educates, prevents and investigates sexual assaults. The findings of the survey as well as information about the number of sexual assault complaints made to the school would be reported to the Legislature. The results would also be made available on a campus’ website. The report would not include students’ personal information but would include the types of sexual misconduct reported, the outcome of each investigation into sexual misconduct and the disciplinary actions taken by the institution. Tami Strickman, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Title IX coordinator, testified in opposition to the bill. She said the university supported the underlying concept of the bill and already did some surveys but was opposed to the bill because of constitutional questions it raised about the Legislature’s authority to direct the Board of Regents to adopt a policy. Strickman said the university is working with Howard on amendments to the bill that would alleviate some of its concerns. The committee took no action on the bill on Tuesday.
Safety advocates lined up to support LB671 and LB711 during the Transportation and Telecommunication Committee hearing meeting on Tuesday. LB671, which was introduced by Senator Krist, would make texting and driving a primary offense. This means drivers could be pulled over and ticketed for sending or reading texts or emails while driving. The bill would also require back seat passengers to wear seatbelts and allow for drivers to be pulled over for letting children ride without seatbelts or child seats. LB711, introduced by Senator Baker, also extended seatbelt requirements to back seat passengers. Spike Eickholt, a representative for the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, cited opposition to Krist’s bill saying that it would be problematic since police would be able to pull you over for simply touching or moving your phone. It would be hard for drivers to show they weren’t violating the law.
Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln introduced Legislative Resolution 293CA on Thursday, saying Nebraskans who find that cannabis eases their pain and suffering should not be forced across state lines or be treated like criminals. A bill introduced by Wishart last year that would have legalized medical cannabis drew opposition from the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and the Nebraska State Patrol, among others. It takes 30 votes from lawmakers to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot. Last year Wishart introduced LB622, the Medical Cannabis Act, which would have authorized a limited number of growers, processors and distribution centers to provide medical cannabis for people suffering from 19 different medical conditions. That bill is currently on general file. When the bill went before a committee last year, the Attorney General’s Office, Nebraska State Patrol and other high-ranking law enforcement authorities, and the state’s top medical doctor were all opposed to the bill. Opponents argued that the federal Food and Drug Administration should be the one making the decision about medical marijuana, not the Nebraska Legislature. They also argued that more research needs to be done on medical marijuana. Others argue that many activists see medical marijuana as the first step toward broader legalization. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 29 states allow broad access to medical marijuana and 17 allow limited uses.
Senator Rick Kolowski’s plan (LR270A) would make the minimum age for preschoolers 3 years old rather than 5 years old. Proponents of the plan said that it would expand early childhood education to nearly 42,000 children across Nebraska. However there was some sharp backlash to the resolution during its hearing in the Education Committee earlier this week. Opponents said the increase in students would place a heavy burden on taxpayers, particularly in districts that don’t receive state aid, while also driving private day cares and education centers out of business. If the bill advances from the education committee it would need support from 30 senators to be put on the general election ballot. Some committee members said the cost of the program would be too much for the state to absorb, particularly as it seeks to cut $173 million from its budget in the middle of the biennium. Adding another 42,000 children to the 10,000 students already enrolled in preschool programs across the state could cost an estimated $420 million, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said.
Another attempt to repeal Nebraska's prairie dog management law failed Tuesday, four votes short of what was needed to advance the bill from first-round consideration. The law allows counties in Nebraska to manage black-tailed prairie dogs, against the will of property owners if needed. Some have said the law is an egregious violation of property rights. Omaha Senator Ernie Chambers introduced legislation, LB449, to repeal the law. Senator Chambers and the issue have a long history in the legislature. He said the current legislation is overreaching and unnecessary. Senator Hughes opposed the repeal saying he had neighbors who didn’t manage the prairie dogs on their land and they then became an issue on his. Chambers said he will bring the bill again “and we’re going to discuss prairie dogs more this session,” he added.
Inspector General for Child Welfare, Julie Rogers, announced last month a nearly yearlong investigation her office had undertaken. In the investigation they verified 50 cases of sexual child abuse of children in the child-welfare system in Nebraska. The children ranged in age from 4 to 18. During the HHS Committee hearing this Wednesday Matt Wallen, the director for Nebraska Children and Family Services, was questioned extensively about what his department does to identify and prevent child sex abuse. He said that without Roger’s work they would have to rely on “self-discovery” and analyzing data that the Department of Health and Human Services collects to try and identify trends. Wallen also referenced the continuous quality improvement operation they utilize and updates to policy the department is undergoing. After that he described the licensing process for foster parents and outlined screening priorities for sexual abuse and exploitation.
The hearing for a controversial property tax bill was held at the legislature on Thursday. LB829, a bill introduced by Senator Erdman, would provide roughly $1.1 billion in property tax relief. Many questions came up during the bill’s hearing about how it would be paid for. The legislation doesn’t specify where the state is supposed to find the massive amount of money required to finance the tax cut. Opponents of the bill criticized it saying it would lead to drastic cuts in essential government services and increases in taxes in other areas. The parties testifying against the bill included groups like Nebraska based think tanks, the Platte Institute and Open Sky as well as the Omaha, Lincoln, and Nebraska Chambers of Commerce. Proponents of the bill were largely made up of farmers and ranchers as well as some commercial real-estate agencies. Supporters stressed that the legislature would have to figure out the funding issues because farmers and ranchers need the property tax relief now. No one testified from the Governor’s office during the hearing. However Ricketts has made it clear in the past that he doesn’t support the bill. During his State of the State address he unveiled legislation that would provide some more moderate property tax relief by using existing tax credits. Erdman has said that the Governor’s plan won’t do enough for struggling farmers though. He has also announced that they are gathering signatures to put the bill on the voting ballot so Nebraska voters can vote directly on the issue should it fail to pass the legislature.
The Alabama Senate election has sent fissures through the GOP. These divisions are so strong it resulted in one prominent Nebraska Republican leaving her position with the party. Joyce Simmons, a National Committeewoman for the RNC handed in her resignation after the party’s decision to support Republican Roy Moore in the race. Moore had been accused of sexual assault and harassment with teenage girls. The RNC had initially stayed away from Moore when the stories began to come out but came back after President Trump dismissed the allegations and supported him. Ben Sasse praised Simmons for her move saying “It takes guts to admit your party is a mess, and that’s what Joyce did by leaving the RNC today.”
In a unanimous vote this Tuesday the Nebraska Public Service Commission rejections motions from both TransCanada and the Sierra Club to clarify what the PSC had granted TransCanada when they had approved an alternate route last month. The commission also rejected motions made by TransCanada to amend its application in order address some questions and prevent litigation. A motion made by the Sierra Club to nullify the previous approval was also rejected by the commission. Robyn Tyvser, a TransCanada spokesperson, said the company is “going to take some time to review today’s decision and determine our next step.” All parties involved have 30 days to file with the Nebraska Court of Appeals if they wish to appeal the PSC’s decision. That process though would likely take a couple of years.
Monday, legislators called on Governor Ricketts to do whatever is necessary to stem high turnover in state prison jobs. The Department of Corrections is currently seeing turnover rates of about 1 person leaving the department each day. A 30 page report from a legislative oversight committee encouraged enacting higher pay, better benefits, raises for longevity, and other retention focused initiatives. A spokesman for Ricketts said that the Governor said that Nebraska has increased pay over the past 3 years and now pays more than South Dakota or Kansas. Due to a state law passed two years ago, if the state’s prisons are over 140 percent of capacity by July 1, 2020 an overcrowding emergency will be automatically enacted. The parole board would be required to release parole eligible prisoners until they reached a level of 125 percent.
Nebraska Democrats will field a 2018 gubernatorial candidate said Nebraska Democrat Party leader Jane Kleeb, even if it has to be her. This decision comes after party leaders were considering not running a candidate in order to try and help independent candidate Bob Krist in his bid to unseat current Governor Pete Ricketts. Kleeb said the Democratic Party will neither support nor oppose Krist officially, and that she had been in talks with multiple potential candidates and would make an announcement soon. University of Nebraska-Omaha political science professor, Paul Landow, said the NDP should back Krist because he’s closer to Democrat’s political and social values than Ricketts is. He called Kleeb’s plan “a ridiculous idea that destroys the credibility of the Democratic Party.”
NioCorp Developments Ltd said Monday it had received “conditional approval” to receive $100 million in tax incentives for its proposed rare metals mine in southeast Nebraska. The incentives would come from the Nebraska Advantage program, which offers qualifying companies tax rebates for hitting set targets for investment and job creation. The project NioCorp would receive these incentives for is a proposed mine near Elk Creek in Johnson county. It would extract niobium, scandium, and titanium. The mine has the potential to create $17.6 billion in revenue over a 32 year life and about $390 million of annual pre-tax income.
Evangelos Argyrakis, an Omaha attorney, has filed as a Democratic candidate for attorney general. He said if he were elected he would prioritize laws regarding the abuse and neglect of children. The office of the attorney general in Nebraska has been held by a Republican for almost 8 decades. Argyrakis said he know’s it will be extremely difficult to be elected but was heartened by a Doug Jones, a democrat winning the Senate race in Alabama. Another area of concern for Argyrakis is scams that target the elderly. Argyrakis is a first generation American and he graduated from Creighton Law in 1992.
Trent Fellers, the executive director of Reform for Nebraska’s Future, has confirmed that he has filed for an initiative petition drive with the Secretary of State’s Office. The petition, if it receives enough signatures, would put a measure on the ballot that would require the state to provide Nebraskan’s with an income tax credit equal to 50 percent of their property tax. The total would equate to roughly $1.1 billion statewide. Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Governor Ricketts, said “To pay for this proposal, the proponents would have to pass massive tax increases, cut virtually all state aid to K-12 education or have other unacceptable impacts on priorities Nebraskans care about.” He stressed that the Governor supports property tax relief but not the increase in state spending that comes with this proposal. Senator Steve Erdman has said that he will be introducing legislation that matches the petition so the legislature can act first, if they choose. Many take issue with the measure because it doesn’t specify where the $1.1 billion will come from. The state’s general fund holds $4 billion, of which $1 billion is dedicated to school aid. Opponents have said it’s unrealistic to expect state lawmakers to be able make $1.1 billion in cuts without harming education, human services, and public safety.
Department of Transportation officials have estimated that Nebraska will need $11.2 billion for improvements to the highway system, or $16 billion when adjusted for inflation. With a current annual budget of $500 million for roads that adds up to about a $6 billion budget gap over the next 20 years. Kyle Schneweis, director of the Department of Transportation, had a positive outlook though, when discussing the projections at a meeting with state lawmakers. He cautioned that revenue sources could significantly change in that time frame. Right now part of the gas tax is going towards maintenance of Nebraska roads but with the advent of electric cars, ride sharing, and autonomous vehicles revenues from the gas tax may decrease significantly.
With a next generation 911 system people would be able to send pictures, video, or text to an emergency dispatcher who in turn could send it to a police officer. State 911 Director, David Sankey, update senators about the plan to implement such a system in 2019. The system will cost $6.5 million and will be paid for using an existing monthly surcharge on wireless phones. The system would also be beneficial at times when users can’t speak or don’t know their address because it’s linked to GIS (Geographic Information System) that allows the dispatcher to pinpoint the caller’s location.
The continued low prices of corn and soy beans have many farmers unable to cover business costs. The average monthly prices for corn have been below $3.50 a bushel for over a year, while in 2011 and 2012 prices were between $7 and $8 a bushel. Within the U.S. median farm income has dropped to a loss of about $1,100 and economists aren’t predicting and increases in crop prices. The reason for these low prices has been attributed to large amounts of grain available in the market, as well as increased global competition. This is causing many farmers to get creative with how they operate and take a hard look at whether they can continue their operation.
An updated budget request from the Department of Health and Human Services shows an increase of about $30 million dollars from the budget they had requested in October. The CEO of HHS, Courtney Phillips, attributed the increased request to hearing new information on federal funding for Medicaid and lower than expected savings in the public assistance programs. This extends the state’s expected budget shortfall to about $200 million. This new request will be sent to Governor Ricketts for approval and to potentially be included in his budget recommendation to the legislature.
Nebraska’s new Medicaid system, Heritage Health, was launched on January 1st. Under the new program Nebraska contracts with private companies to manage and pay for Medicaid services. Courtney Phillips, the CEO of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that despite some challenges the program has been a success. However unpaid claims and a shaky authorization process have left health care providers upset and patients untreated. Marry Walsh-Sterup, an occupational therapist, said of the program “It’s been a disaster, no doubt about it.” Problems with the contracted companies have escalated multiple times to the point where HHS had to institute punishments on them by imposing financial sanctions, requiring corrective plans, and issuing written warnings. Under this new system 3 private companies - United Healthcare Community Plan, Nebraska Total care, and WellCare of Nebraska – are paid flat rates per a person by the state, like an insurance premium, the company then has responsibility to cover that person’s medical costs.
State senators and University of Nebraska officials are both working on separate proposals regarding free speech on campus. There has been a push in the legislature, led by conservatives, to write some legislation that would require the state’s public universities and colleges to uphold free speech rights. This is coming after an incident that occurred earlier this year where an undergraduate student recruiting for a conservative youth group, turning point USA, was called a “neo-fascist” and other names by a graduate student and TA. The bill coming from conservatives in the legislature is being drafted by Senator Halloran, who is using a model from the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that has helped pass similar legislation in other states. Meanwhile officials in the NU system have been circulating their own internal document showing the NU system’s “commitment to free expression.” Halloran’s bill would require the NU Board of Regents to create a committee on free expression, which would then report on how incidences of free expression, and its barriers were handled.