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Julie Schwartz on July 2, 2009 - 10:55am
The Nebraska Legislature ended three days ahead of the originally scheduled adjournment date. During the 2009 session, 236 bills were passed, including budget bills and issues ranging from encouraging wind energy development and establishing lethal injection as the state’s method of execution.
Budget: The Legislature’s top priority this year was to pass a balanced budget in a difficult economic climate. The final result was a two year $6.9 billion state budget that utilized both federal stimulus dollars and cash from the state’s reserve fund. Despite the nation's current economic condition, the budget provides for a 1 percent average growth in spending of state tax dollars for the next two fiscal years and keeps a $115 million annual property tax credit intact.
- Stimulus - Nebraska is projected to receive approximately $1.6 billion, not including tax benefits to businesses or individuals, from the ARRA. The State Budget Administrator has created a summary of how the received funds will be disbursed. Approximately $518 million will go to budget stabilization to cover funding shortages in three major categories: education, medicaid, and general purpose. $527 million will go to infrastructure improvements, including transportation, energy, water, community development, environment, military construction, and technology programs. Lastly, $547 million will be used to increase funding for a number of federally subsidized social programs and to temporarily fund the expansion of existing basic government services, such as education, labor, health and human services, and law enforcement.
- Transparency -Nebraska lawmakers have passed a bill designed to make government spending more transparent. Under LB 16, the Taxpayer Transparency Act, the state will be required to develop a website that provides data on the state budget, public contracts, and tax incentives. This will allow Nebraskans to easily see how their tax dollars are spent and will encourage transparency and efficiency in the state government.
Education: Much of the education policy focus in 2009 was on state aid to schools. The state aid formula was tweaked twice, swinging back and forth between favoring rural and urban schools, as Senators continued to try to equalize funding for all school districts. Senators also passed legislation providing free university tuition and fees for children of deceased officers and firefighters (LB 206) and offering loan forgiveness to certified teachers who are teaching in Nebraska for two years, as well as students working toward their initial certification (LB 547). The maximum loans forgivable were increased from $2,500 to $3,000 per year.
Health Care: Despite the tight economic times, Nebraska made some attempts to increase access to health care insurance and to address gaps in certain government services.
- LB 551 takes the positive step of increasing access to health care by allowing families to continue securing health insurance for children until they are 30 years of age, if the child is unmarried and meets other criteria. Insurance companies are allowed to charge an additional premium for the child. Currently, insurance policies must indicate that coverage may include any children younger than 23 years old.
- LB 603, enacted in part as a response to the drop-off of dozens of children last year under the Nebraska safe-haven law, will provide additional services, support, and professional resources to help families dealing with children's behavioral health issues. The legislation takes a step toward expanding services and helping more families access help by increasing the eligibility level for SCHIP from 185 to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. It also adds secure residential treatment to the list of Medicaid-eligible services. In addition, the legislation creates a statewide behavioral health hotline, provides post-adoption services, and increases funding for children’s behavioral health services.
- LB 488 will allow all veterans who served on active duty in the armed forces of the United States, other than active duty for training, to be eligible for admission to a Nebraska veterans' home.
- One important bill that died this session was LB 656 that, if enacted, would have established a council to develop a comprehensive plan for affordable health insurance with an individual mandate as a component.
Renewable Energy: The development of renewable energy, particularly wind power, in Nebraska was the subject of several bills passed by the Legislature.
- In an attempt to bring wind developers to Nebraska, LB 561 permits public power districts to waive their eminent domain authority for renewable generation facilities; allows renewable generation facilities to be exempted from meeting the least cost and public convenience and necessity criteria of the Power Review Board; changes the ownership and financing of Community Based Energy Development (CBED) systems; and creates a sales-tax exemption for new community-based projects begun before the end of 2011.
- LB 568 limits the duration of wind agreements to 40 years and terminates contracts if development has not started within 10 years, although parties can mutually agree to extend their arrangements. In addition, the legislation mandates that wind rights not be separated from the land from which the wind benefits are derived and that leases include descriptions of intended developments for a property and plans for decommissioning wind turbines.
- LB 436 aims to make it easier for people who generate their own electricity to sell the excess to utility companies. The legislation implements a statewide net metering policy and provides one to one credit for energy generated up to the amount used. Under the bill, any excess generation produced by the system during the month will be credited at the utility's avoided cost rate for that month and carried forward to the next billing period. Any excess remaining at the end of an annualized period will be paid out to the customer. Customers retain all renewable energy credits (RECs) associated with the electricity their system generates.
Immigration: Senators unfortunately passed LB 403, which requires state and local agencies to verify the legal status of most applicants for public benefits. The verification requirement will not apply, however, to individuals needing emergency medical care or applying for short-term cash assistance. The new law also states that public employers and contractors in the state must use the federal E-Verify database to check whether new employees are authorized to work.
- LB 260 creates the Nebraska Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act. The bill entitles wrongfully convicted persons to receive a maximum of $500,000. In order to file a wrongful conviction claim, claimants must have received a pardon, the conviction must have been vacated, or the conviction must have been reversed and remanded for a new trial and no subsequent conviction obtained.
- A Sentencing and Recidivism Task Force was established with LR 171. The seven-member task force will study the sentencing of juveniles and adults in Nebraska, as well as issues relating to incarcerated individuals’ re-entry into communities.
- Lawmakers rejected the efforts of some state senators to repeal the death penalty in Nebraska. Instead, after 15 months of having no means to carry out its death penalty, lawmakers enacted LB 36 which changes the method of execution from electrocution to intravenous injection of a substance or substances in a quantity sufficient to cause death.
- Lawmakers also passed LB 63 aimed at reducing violent crime and gang activity. The legislation increases penalties for more than a dozen crimes and creates several new gun, gang, and graffiti-related laws. In addition, a new office will be created that will run programs aimed at keeping children out of gangs and preventing violence.
Abortion: LB 675 will require providers performing fetal ultrasounds prior to an abortion to display the image in a manner viewable by the patient before the procedure is performed. The bill also requires the Department of Health and Human Services to compile a comprehensive list of clinics that offer free ultrasound services to women considering an abortion.
Missed Opportunities on Labor Rights: Lawmakers failed to pass two other labor bills. LB 557, if enacted, would have allowed unions to collect fair share contributions, which would not exceed the amount of dues required for union membership. Although fair share contributions would be an enforceable debt, the termination of employees for failing to pay a fair share would be prohibited. LB 267, if passed, would have permitted state employees providing services to individuals in residential care to refuse overtime after working 12 consecutive hours, unless an unforeseen emergency such as a disease outbreak or natural disaster occurs. Furthermore, employees would not have been required to work seven consecutive days under any circumstances.