Nebraska Legislative Update - April 20, 2021

Environment
Farm and Food
Small Business
Small Towns

The Watchful Citizen
“The salvation of the state is in the watchfulness of the citizen.” —Hartley Burr Alexander

Welcome again to your update on the Nebraska Legislature. The past two weeks have seen the advancement of a number of bills supported by the Center, as well as debate and advancement of the state budget.

On April 13, the Legislature passed the state’s $9.7 billion budget package through the second round of voting. This will constitute the state budget for the next two years.

In LB 380, the main budget bill, a compromise was reached on a debate over whether to build a new $15 million prison. Rather than allocate these funds for the construction of a new prison, AM 963  instead allocated $15 million from the capital construction fund to a newly created Prison Overcrowding Contingency Fund. The amendment also included  $200,000 to contract with the University of Nebraska to study prison overcrowding here in the state. The $15 million would be sequestered pending later legislative determination of their use.

AM 381, introduced by Norfolk Sen. Mike Flood, increased arts funding in the budget in the interest of supporting rural economic development, adding $900,000 from the General Fund to a competitive grant program in arts development. The amendment was adopted 28-9.

The bill also included $1.5 million in fiscal year 2021-22 and $3 million in FY 2022-23 to local public health departments. In health policy, the Center has also been monitoring LB 400, introduced by Sen. John Arch of La Vista. This bill is relevant to rural communities in particular, because it expands access to telehealth services. The bill passed Final Reading without opposition.

LB 83, a bill from Norfolk Sen. Mike Flood, which updates and amends the Open Meetings Act in order to expand the use of virtual meetings during emergencies, passed on final reading unopposed. The Center testified in support of this bill earlier in the session.

LB 108, a priority bill for the Center, passed the first round of voting 29-18. This bill is designed to improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to better help working families as they progress toward self-sufficiency. We are especially grateful to the Center supporters who have supported this bill at various stages, whether through testimony or contacting legislators. Your involvement has made a great difference in showing the importance of this bill to rural communities.

We encourage you to continue to support the bill as it advances to the next round of debate.

If you have an interest in any of these bills and would like to share your support, concerns, insights, or opposition via letter, phone call, or by visiting with your senator, please do not hesitate to contact me at nathanb@cfra.org or 402.687.2100, ext. 1032.

Economic development

LB 526 (Wishart)—Support: Increases funding to the Business Innovation Act, designed to support businesses with fewer than 500 employees engaged in proof-of-concept activities. In other words, to support Nebraska-based businesses that are developing innovative ideas. The grants would apply specifically to small businesses receiving federal grants, businesses creating new products or processes in collaboration with a Nebraska college or university, agriculture businesses innovating in value-added products, and to developing microenterprises. Microenterprise funding would be increased from $2 million to $5 million a year, and each of the other sections would go from $4 million to $10 million a year. We support this bill because of its effort to target increased grant funding to microbusinesses, which play an essential role in rural economic development.

Hearing held Feb. 26, before the Appropriations Committee.

LB 366 (Briese)—Support: Expands and improves the Nebraska Advantage Microenterprise Tax Credit in ways including the following:

  • Increase the maximum credit from $10,000 over an applicant’s lifetime to $20,000. This simply reflects the increased cost of doing business since 2005. 
  • Update restrictions on related parties. Current eligibility limits prohibit any linear family member from using the program once it has been used by another relative. This update would allow family members to use the credit so long as the businesses and ownership are completely separate.

Hearing held Feb. 4 in the Revenue Committee. Proponents, including the Center, argued this targeted relief to Nebraska’s smallest businesses is an important and unique tool for rural economic development. Many representatives of small business and rural economic development also testified to the importance of retaining this program. 

This bill has been placed on General File with AM 436, which extends the program 10 years, to 2032, and increases the refundable credit amount to 20 percent of new investment or new employment at the small business.

Read more about the hearing here 
Watch “Examining the Nebraska Advantage Microenterprise Tax Credit”

If you are interested in supporting this bill, please contact Trenton Buhr, policy associate, via email at trentonb@cfra.org

LB 74 (Geist)—Oppose: Eliminates funding for the Nebraska Advantage Microenterprise Tax Credit Act. This bill places an early sunset on the tax credit established by the act, which provides up to $10,000 in refundable tax credits to microbusiness owners for investment in the growth of their businesses. The $2 million saved would be dedicated instead to the Business Innovation Act.  

Hearing held Feb. 4 in the Revenue Committee. Opponents, including the Center, defended the Nebraska Advantage Microenterprise Tax Credit, pointing out that the vast majority of Nebraska businesses—more than 80%—fit into the microbusiness category. The Center testified that elimination of the tax credit would be inappropriate, saying it is crucial now, perhaps more than at any other time, that we support Nebraska microbusinesses. 

LB 74  was postponed indefinitely, thanks to the work and testimony of stakeholders and partners of the Center. We want to thank especially those advocates of rural Nebraska businesses and organizations who helped to save this tax credit through their testimony, and all those who contributed to demonstrating this program’s value

LB 388/ LB 456 (Friesen)—Support: Establishes the Broadband Bridge Program/Nebraska Enhancing Broadband Act to fund the development of broadband networks in unserved or underserved areas in the state. Under this act, a cooperative, internet provider, or political subdivision may apply for grants to develop these networks. Both bills rely upon the Broadband Data Improvement Program, which was developed by the Center for Rural Affairs in cooperation with Sen. Tom Brandt, to identify where grant funds should be allocated. LB 388 would appropriate $20 million for this effort, and LB 456 would appropriate $10 million. 

Hearing was held Feb. 8, by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. The Center testified in support, noting the crucial role of crowdsourcing data on broadband needs in underserved areas for using broadband funds efficiently.

LB 388 has advanced to General File, with a priority designation by Speaker Hilgers, and with AM 530 added.

Tax and budget

LB 524 (Brandt)—Support: Clarifies a provision in LB 1107, last year’s bill implementing the new refundable income tax credit for school property taxes paid. This bill clarifies the following: 

  • Those who are late on taxes levied before the beginning of the credit in 2020 will not receive that credit on late taxes paid after Jan. 1, 2020. 
  • That those who paid their 2019 taxes on time, that is in 2019, will be eligible for the credit. 

It also clarifies an ambiguity in the existing bill and makes sure the money is going where it is intended to go—as relief for taxpayers and not a reward for delinquency.

The Center offered testimony in support of this bill, arguing that the clarification would ensure that the monies allocated to this credit are used in the way intended.

LB 98 (Walz)—Support: Establishes a special valuation for five or fewer acres of agricultural or horticultural land, such that property taxes for that land would be 75% of the residential valuation.

Hearing held before the Revenue Committee on Feb. 10. The Center submitted written testimony in favor of this bill, arguing that taxing an agricultural producer at commercial or residential rates would be excessively burdensome for those small growers who may have land within city limits or on expanding city edges. This would help these small businesses while also allowing growing towns to expand without opposition from farmers whose taxes would, under the present law, see substantial hikes.

Food and agriculture

LB 324 (Brandt)—Support: Amends the Nebraska Meat and Poultry Inspection Law to support small, independent processors in the wake of the challenges they face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill would support independent processors, farmers, and consumers by making it easier for customers to purchase individual packages of meat directly from local processors and producers by creating the Independent Processor Assistance Program, which would provide grants for small, independent processors to grow their businesses, and by creating a roadmap for expanding local meat markets.

Hearing held Feb. 2 by the Agriculture Committee. This bill passed General File with AM 150 on a 46-0 vote. It has passed the Select File stage and will now receive its final reading and vote.

Read more about the hearing here
Watch “A Meat Sector that Works for Nebraska’s Farmers, Processors, and Customers”

If you are interested in supporting this bill, please contact Nathan Beacom, policy associate, via email at nathanb@cfra.org

LB 254 (Williams)—Support: Extends the application for the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit. This credit is an important tool to aid in the generational transfer of farm land, giving tax credits to both landowners and young renters alike, and providing three-year leases and financial education to beginning farmers. This is an important incentive for older landowners to work with young farmers in starting new businesses, ensuring that a new generation of farmers is able to take up where the aging generation is leaving off.

This bill was voted unanimously out of committee, and has been placed on General File.

Education

LB 108 (McCollister)—Support: This bill addresses what is known as the SNAP “cliff effect.” The cliff effect occurs when SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) beneficiaries reach a certain threshold of income that causes them to lose their assistance, but not to make enough money to replace the benefit, resulting in a net loss in income. As a result, it may discourage people from seeking wage increases. LB 108 will raise the level of income an individual can earn while remaining eligible for the benefit just high enough to account for this unintended effect.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left more people underemployed and in need of food assistance, so it is especially important that this cliff effect be addressed by raising the gross income threshold on SNAP eligibility.

A hearing was held Feb. 17. The Center testified in support, arguing that rural areas in particular stand in need of this bill, which will provide food access to working families, without punishing success in earning higher wages. The bill passed on General File 28-19, and now moves to the Select File stage with AM 975, which changes the income eligibility cap to 165% of gross income and sets a “soft sunset” which will require the state department of Health and Human Services to review the program for efficacy in 2022 and make a recommendation to the Legislature at that time.

Watch “Helping Families Find Success and Stability”

LB 396 (Brandt)—Support: Creates the Farm to School Program. This bill will establish a permanent position in the state Department of Education to coordinate a statewide program for the promotion of farm to school arrangements in Nebraska. Farm to school is a program through which school districts procure ingredients for student meals from local farmers, usually integrated with an educational element that teaches children about agriculture and where their food comes from.

This bill passed out of committee unanimously, was moved to General File, and has been prioritized by the Speaker.

LB 132 (DeBoer)—Support: Creates the School Financing Review Commission within the Department of Education to bring together administrators, financial experts, members of the public, and education officials to study better ways to finance public education in the state.

Hearing held Feb. 2 by the Education Committee. The Center testified in favor of this bill, citing the need to solve the complex problems in school financing in a way that adequately supports our schools without putting undue burden on farmers.

This bill has been placed on General File with a priority designation from the Legislative Planning Committee. It advanced with AM 555, which included changes presented and argued for by the Center to ensure that farmers and rural school boards are represented on the Commission.

Natural resources and environment

LR 5 (Gragert)—Support: Accepts the findings and recommendations of the Healthy Soils Task Force submitted to the governor and the Agriculture Committee. The Center supports the efforts of the Task Force and encourages the state to act upon its recommendations in pursuit of retaining and restoring the soil health crucial to keeping our land productive and healthy. 

This resolution was voted out of committee unanimously with AM 197, which states that the Legislature recognizes the findings and recommendations of the Task Force.

Other bills we are monitoring

LB 40 (Groene): Establishes the Nebraska Rural Projects Act, which provides state matching funds for industrial rail access to business parks constructed by economic development corporations. Referred to the Revenue Committee. Hearing held Feb 18. This bill has been placed on Select File, and moved to Final Reading without opposition.

LB 79 (Briese): Establishes that the minimum amount of relief provided by the Property Tax Credit Act grows by the percentage of growth in the value of the property taxed. Referred to the Revenue Committee. Hearing held Feb.10.

LB 176 (Lindstrom): Establishes a tax credit for farmers participating in federal conservation programs. Referred to the Revenue Committee. Hearing held on Feb. 4.

LB 235 (Brewer): Expresses the intent of the Legislature that the director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture create a state meat and poultry inspection program. Referred to the Agriculture Committee. Hearing held on Feb. 2. AM 799 added, which would express the intent of the legislature to create a pilot program for state meat inspection through 2024.

LB 266 (McCollister): Encourages the development of clean energy and requires that public power suppliers achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Referred to the Natural Resources Committee. Hearing held Feb. 11.

LB 306 (Brandt): Raises the income eligibility threshold for assistance with heating and cooling a home to 150% of the federal poverty level, and dedicates funds to home weatherizing. Referred to the Health and Human Services Committee. Hearing held on Jan. 29. This bill has been placed on General File with a priority designation from its sponsor.

LB 338 (Bostelman): Allows the Public Service Commission to consider community-based plans for the reallocation of funds for wireless service from the Nebraska Telecommunications Universal Service Fund. Referred to the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Hearing held Feb. 9 AM 110, AM 845, and AM 977 added. The bill is advance to the final round of Enrollment and Review 36-9

LB 455 (Friesen): Removes barriers to placing broadband attachments on existing electrical utility poles. Referred to the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Hearing held Feb. 8.

LB 482 (J. Cavanaugh): Prohibits the use of public resources for contributions to candidates or committees or for memberships in certain private organizations. Referred to the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. Hearing held Feb. 10. 

LB 483 (J. Cavanaugh): Provides for a climate change study and action plan. Referred to the Natural Resources Committee. Hearing held Feb. 11.

LB 506 (J. Cavanaugh): Requires distribution utilities to provide net-metering to customers with solar panels that will measure the amount of energy put back into the grid against energy used and reduce billing proportionately. Referred to the Natural Resources Committee. Hearing held Feb. 10.

LB 543 (Brandt): Requires agricultural equipment manufacturers to provide information, equipment, or tools for the repair of products sold to farmers themselves or to equipment repair businesses. Referred to the Judiciary Committee. Hearing held Feb. 25.  AM 284 added.

LB 672 (Murman): Exempts certain agricultural equipment from sales and use tax. Referred to the Revenue Committee. Hearing held Feb. 24.

LB 507 (Bostelman): This bill’s content is very brief, and the new section may be quoted in full: “The use of treated seed corn in the production of agricultural ethyl alcohol shall be prohibited if such use results in the generation of a byproduct that is deemed unsafe for livestock consumption or land application.” Hearing held on Feb. 3. AM 256, AM 323, AM 365, AM 567, AM 859 added. The bill passed Select File 41-3.

Resources for engaging with the Legislature

We encourage you to be involved in the legislative process by communicating with your representatives about issues that are important to you. During our live “Rural Rapport,” we offered some tips for engaging with your legislators and also recorded a quick tutorial on how to navigate the state’s legislative website. You can find those videos below. 

How to be a rural advocate
Engaging with the Nebraska Legislature
Find your senator