Rural state senators block bill that would update Nebraska’s top business incentive program

Rural state senators block bill that would update Nebraska’s top business incentive program
Last minute lobbying on the ImagiNE Act included conversations on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature between supporters like Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, left, and Henderson Sen. Curt Friesen, an opponent. PAUL HAMMEL/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Rural state senators kept their word Friday, blocking passage of a major bill that would update the state’s top tax incentive program for business growth.

Lawmakers fell short of halting a filibuster, thus killing the ImagiNE Act for the 2019 session.

Several rural senators made it clear that property tax relief was a much higher priority for the state and that passing a tax “giveaway” for corporations — without delivering tax relief for regular Nebraskans — sent the wrong message.

Senate’s $750 billion defense bill includes flood-recovery funds for Offutt, 3.1% military pay raise

WASHINGTON — Nebraska military installations would see additional funding under legislation advanced Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

That panel assembles and approves its annual defense policy bill behind closed doors, but Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said in a Thursday press release that this year’s $750 billion legislation includes pots of money to benefit Nebraska facilities.

According to Fischer, the bill includes authorizations for:

  • $340 million for the Air Force to recover from natural disasters at facilities such as Offutt Air Force Base, which was swamped by this year’s flooding.
  • $7.2 million for the Army National Guard to help clean up and rebuild the Nebraska National Guard’s Camp Ashland training site, which also flooded.
  • $247 million to help the Air Force plan the Offutt rebuilding effort.
  • $29 million for construction of a Nebraska National Guard Bellevue Readiness Center.

Fischer said she also was able to include language raising the cap on military construction projects that can start without direct congressional appropriation. That will provide flexibility to accelerate the recovery process, she said.

The legislation also authorizes funding aimed at supporting the 55th Wing and the RC-135 surveillance planes based at Offutt.

That money would:

  • Upgrade the capabilities of the RC-135s.
  • Continue the Air Force’s conversion of several tankers into planes used to detect nuclear detonations.
  • Replace planes flying missions under the Open Skies treaty, which allows the countries involved to conduct reconnaissance flights over one another’s territory.

Fischer also touted the bill’s 3.1% pay raise for those in uniform.

The legislation still must be approved by the full Senate and House before heading to the president’s desk.

Medication abortion bill advances to final round of debate in Nebraska Legislature

Two days after abortion rights supporters filled the Capitol Rotunda for a rally, Nebraska lawmakers reaffirmed their support for a bill backed by abortion opponents.

On a 36-9 vote, lawmakers gave second-round approval Thursday to a bill that aims to help women who change their minds halfway through a medication abortion. Legislative Bill 209 advanced after lawmakers voted to halt a filibuster.

The measure, introduced by State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, is this year’s top priority for anti-abortion groups. Opponents of the bill acknowledged during debate Thursday that it would pass in the strongly conservative Legislature.

The bill would require that women be told that mifepristone, the first drug taken for a medication abortion, may not end a pregnancy and that it may not be too late to continue their pregnancy if they have not taken the second drug, misoprostol.

Albrecht said evidence shows it may be possible to continue a pregnancy if a woman gets high doses of progesterone within 72 hours of taking mifepristone. The bill refers women to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services website for help finding treatment.

But Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said the treatment has not been proven safe and effective. She said providers who offer the treatment are connected with religious groups opposed to abortion.

Medication abortions can be done during the first 10 weeks of a pregnancy.

Typically, women take the first medication in a clinic and are directed to take the second one at home, anywhere from six to 48 hours later.

Skill games. Lawmakers gave final approval to a bill that seeks to ensure that so-called skill games that have become commonplace in Nebraska bars and convenience stores are legal games of skill, rather than illegal video slot machines that spit out money based on chance.

But before the 44-0 vote to approve LB 538 was taken, senators engaged in a short debate over legalizing gambling and whether the skill games should be taxed to help provide property tax relief. Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne offered a last-minute amendment to impose a 6% tax on the gross revenue of the skill games, saying it is consistent with his views that casinos should be legalized in Nebraska and taxed to provide property tax relief.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the sponsor of LB 538, opposed the amendment, saying it was an attempt to kill the bill. He added that proposals to raise taxes ought to be funneled through the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, not brought up on the final round of debate.

Wayne ultimately withdrew his proposed amendment.

Income tax changes. Legislation to cut the corporate income tax rate will have to wait for another year, the chairwoman of the Revenue Committee decided Thursday.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan asked for LB 288 to be put on hold for this year, after it became clear the measure would have a difficult time advancing. She pledged to keep working on income tax issues in the coming months, with the hope of finding more agreement before the 2021 legislative session.

LB 288, as advanced from the Revenue Committee, would have made a couple of income tax cuts. It would have lowered the top corporate income tax rate to match the top rate for individual income taxes.

It also would have reversed a $22 million tax hike resulting from the 2017 federal tax changes. About 37,000 income tax filers were affected by a new $10,000 cap on the amount of property taxes that can be deducted on federal tax returns.

To pay for those cuts, the bill would have raised other revenue, creating a conflict with Gov. Pete Ricketts, who, Linehan said, would have vetoed it. It would have reduced some deductions for higher income earners and imposed income taxes on out-of-state companies that operate franchises in Nebraska. Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue raised a concern that the measure left out a proposed income tax cut for military retirees.

Linehan said Thursday that the governor pledged to work with her on the proposal next year.

Hearing aids. Nebraska children with hearing problems would have a better chance of getting needed hearing aids under a bill passed by state lawmakers Thursday.

LB 15, introduced by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, would require health insurance plans to pay for hearing aids and related services for people age 18 and younger — up to $3,000 of coverage in a four-year period. The requirement would not apply to small group employer plans or to self-insured employers.

Jeremy Fitzpatrick, board chairman of the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, hailed passage of the measure. Hearing aids can cost up to $6,000 per pair and must be replaced every 3 to 5 years, which creates a burden on many Nebraska families.

“LB15 will make all of us better by improving access to hearing aids to children who need them so they can learn and grow,” Fitzpatrick said.

Census count. A bill winning first-round approval Thursday would designate a special committee to ensure that all state residents get counted in next year’s census.

LB 436, introduced by Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln, would authorize the Nebraska State Data Center to form a Complete Count Committee on the state’s behalf. Hansen said the legislation would give the committee more authority and more ability to raise private support. The committee would lead outreach efforts to encourage full participation in the census.

The federal census, done every decade, determines how many representatives Nebraska will have in Congress. It also is used to determine how much each state will receive from various federal programs. Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha said Nebraska lost an estimated $20 million of federal funding because of the number of people missed in the 2010 Census.

Dust-up over consent calendar. “Consent calendar” is where noncontroversial bills are assigned for quick passage and little debate.

But the surprise removal of a consent calendar bill from the agenda on Thursday, orchestrated by four senators, brought a sobbing condemnation from one lawmaker. Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh called it disrespectful and hurtful that the four senators — Steve Erdman, Robert Clements, John Lowe and Dave Murman — had asked that a consent calendar bill that she sponsored be removed from the consent calendar without speaking to her.

She said part of the reason it was so hurtful was that she had dedicated the bill to her uncle, Douglas County Clerk Tom Cavanaugh, who died of cancer in 2015.

The request didn’t become known until minutes before the final vote on the proposal, LB 533, was to be taken. Legislative decorum typically requires senators to notify a colleague if they plan to amend their bill. That prompted Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks to label the move cowardly and inconsiderate. LB 533 did generate some grousing from Clements during earlier debate because it replaces the words “husband and wife” with “spouse” on state marriage license applications, to comply with federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 2015, legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

The speaker of the Legislature, Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer, stepped in later to say he would reschedule LB 533 for a vote on Friday. Many senators applauded.