Nebraska Legislative Update - Feb. 22, 2022

Environment
Farm and Food
Rural Health
Small Business
Small Towns

Tomorrow will be Day 30 of the Nebraska legislative session, which marks the halfway point. Committee hearings will continue in the afternoon until March 3. Starting on March 8 the Legislature will move to all-day debate with late-evening business expected to start sometime in mid-March.

Today, Feb. 22, is the last day for senators and committees to designate a priority bill. So far, 48 of the expected 81 bills have been designated. See all priority bills here. Speaker Mike Hilgers will announce his 25 priority bills tomorrow morning.

Since our last update, Legislative Bill (LB) 755, the bill to fund the Independent Processor Assistance Program, along with LB 759 and LB 1090, bills designed to improve and expand Business Innovation Act programs, were heard by the Appropriations Committee. We extend our sincere thanks to the business owners, processors, and producers who contributed their voices to supporting these bills in written or verbal testimony. These contributions make a real impact on the success of legislation.

LB 925, introduced and prioritized by Sen. Tim Gragert, is a Center supported bill that is expected to see floor debate this week. The bill creates the Resilient Soils and Water Quality Act, which seeks to accelerate the use of best practices for healthy soil management, improve water quality, and protect public health while also protecting agricultural production and profitability. Read more about the bill here

We value your input as we engage with the legislative process. If you would like to share your support, concerns, insights or opposition by providing testimony in-person, via letter or by visiting with your senator, please do not hesitate to contact me at timm@cfra.org, 402.687.2100 ext. 1032, or 402.870.2681.

Food and agriculture

LB 755 (Brandt)—Support: This Center for Rural Affairs legislation, introduced by Sen. Tom Brandt, would provide $10 million for the Independent Processor Assistance Program, which was established last year with the unanimous passage of LB 324. Funding would come from State Recovery Funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. This bill would help local processors secure additional space, equipment, and staffing to keep up with the demand created by changing consumer preference and work interruptions at regional packing plants. That is especially important to livestock producers, who continue to have a difficult time scheduling locker dates.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ ARPA spending plan includes $10 million for small- to medium-sized meat processors which mirror’s LB 755.

This bill received great support in the Feb. 9 hearing with an estimated 12 people testifying in support and no neutral or opposition testimony.

Read: Lawmakers urged to take next step in supporting local meat processors

LB 925 (Gragert)—Support: Creates the Resilient Soils and Water Quality Act, which seeks to accelerate the use of best practices for healthy soil management, improve water quality, and protect public health while also protecting agricultural production and profitability. The Center supports and encourages any effort in pursuit of retaining or restoring soil health and water quality, both of which are crucial to keeping our people and land productive and healthy.

This bill was heard on Jan. 26 by the Natural Resources Committee. The Center submitted a statement in support.

The bill is currently on general file and has been prioritized by Sen. Tim Gragert.

Read: Peer discussions, reliable resources key in adopting soil health practices

Health and safety

LB 697 (Kolterman)—Support: This bill provides for licensure of Rural Emergency Hospitals (REH). In December 2020, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which created a new Medicare provider type called the Rural  Emergency Hospital. The REH will be a new rural hospital type that does not provide inpatient care, rather 24-hour emergency services. The REH comes as a response to an ongoing period of hospital closures in rural communities and to address the concerns about access to emergency services in rural areas. Rural health outcomes are important to the Center and we believe REHs can help fill the gap our communities need when responding to medical emergencies.

This bill was heard by the Health and Human Services Committee on Jan. 20 and was placed on general file on Feb. 1.

LB 905 (Walz)—Support: This bill allows the Board of Medicine and Surgery to craft policies with accredited hospitals and licensed health care professionals to ensure that screening for maternal mental health disorders occur using a validated tool at prenatal and postnatal visits, as well as well-child checkups. Nebraska’s greatest resource is its people. Healthy mothers and babies are critical to the future success of our state, particularly in aging rural communities. Every undiagnosed and untreated case of maternal depression can lead to lasting negative impacts for rural families and communities.

This bill was heard by the Health and Human Services Committee on Jan. 19 and was placed on general file as of Feb. 1.

LB 929 (Wishart)—Support: This bill requires the submission of a Medicaid state plan amendment or waiver to extend postpartum coverage from 60 days to 12 months. Extending postpartum coverage to one year is important to addressing the continuing needs of mothers, as more than half of pregnancy-related deaths happen postpartum and 12% occur after six weeks postpartum. The bill will also increase the financial viability of rural health care services: Medicaid paid for an estimated 50 to 60% of births in rural areas in 2017. Extending coverage for new mothers would ensure the necessary follow-up care and provide a further financial incentive for maintaining obstetric services in rural settings.

Referred to the Health and Human Services Committee. Hearing held Jan. 26.

LB 1091 (Dorn)—Support: This bill creates the Nebraska Nursing Incentive Act, which seeks to alleviate the nursing shortage in Nebraska. This program would provide $5 million toward scholarships to Nebraska residents who agree to work in the state as licensed practical nurses or nurse aides for a period of two years. Rural residents face access to care challenges that are worsened by the current health care workforce crisis. This bill would help curb the current nurse shortage that is expected to grow to 5,000 by the year 2025.

This bill was heard by the Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 11. The Center submitted a letter of support to the committee.

LB 1201 (DeBoer)—Support: This bill would allocate $20 million in funding to nonprofits who focus on food distribution and $20 million to food security innovation grants that will decrease Nebraska's reliance on national supply chains. The COVID-19 pandemic has made food insecurity a real problem for many Nebraska residents. This bill will alleviate immediate need and provide resources that strengthen the state’s future food security. If funded, this money would represent 4% of the total state ARPA budget and would likely be the only money allocated toward direct food assistance and projects intended to reduce food insecurity.

This bill will be heard by the Appropriations Committee on March 2.

Education

LB 721 (Hilkemann)—Support: Appropriates $60 million in State Recovery Funds for the University of Nebraska Medical Center Rural Health Complex. This new facility will be located on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney and will focus on educating healthcare professionals who will work in rural hospitals and clinics. The Center supports this bill because we believe it will help in the recruitment and retention of rural healthcare professionals.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ recommendations include $10 million for a rural health complex.

This bill was heard by the Appropriations Committee on Feb. 17. The Center submitted a letter of support.

LB 758 (Brandt)—Support: Amends the Nebraska Farm-to-School Program Act to include early childhood education programs. Created last year under LB 396, this statewide program is administered by the Nebraska Department of Education. It promotes connections between local farmers and schools to procure fresh, locally grown food for school meals. In the interest of providing students with fresh, healthy food and opening a new market to local producers, the Center supports this bill.

Hearing was held Jan. 18, by the Education Committee. No testimony was provided in opposition to the bill. This bill was placed on general file on Jan. 27.

This bill has been placed on final reading as of Feb. 16.

Economic development

LB 759 (Dorn)—Support: This Center for Rural Affairs legislation, introduced by Sen. Myron Dorn, would increase the maximum amount of a microloan under the Business Innovation Act (BIA) to $150,000. Our work during the 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions helped solidify funding for BIA programs. Allocations to the Microenterprise Assistance Program, a BIA initiative focused on the state’s small businesses, have increased to $1 million annually. Current statute limits the size of loans made with Microenterprise Assistance Program funding to $100,000 or less. Last updated in 2015, this limitation often requires lending organizations to find secondary sources of funding in order to complete a business loan.

This bill was heard by the Appropriations Committee on Feb. 8. The Center provided in-person testimony as a proponent of the bill. Two Latino business owners—both clients of the Center for Rural Affairs and past microloan recipients—also testified in support. The business owners used translators during their testimony to explain how microloans from the BIA helped grow their businesses.

Read: Center staff testify in favor of changes to Microenterprise Assistance Program

LB 1090 (Dorn)—Support: This bill would increase the amount of money eligible for allocation to the Microenterprise Assistance Program from $2 million to $3 million. The Microenterprise Assistance Program is one of five Business Innovation Act subprograms. Together, these subprograms have accelerated business development across the state. The legislature has recognized this success and substantially increased appropriations to BIA programming during the 2021 legislative session. Because state statute places a cap on the amount of money these subprograms can receive, legislation is needed to fully utilize new appropriations.

This bill was heard by the Appropriations Committee on Feb. 8. The Center supported this bill with in-person testimony.

Read: Lawmakers have a chance to unburden small businesses

LB 914 (Bostleman)—Support: This bill requires the Public Service Commission (PSC) to create and maintain a broadband map and data repository of the state no later than July 1, 2024. Data provided by such a map is an important tool used to determine where broadband access is sufficient and where it can be improved. This information will be used by the PSC and local entities to identify where public resources should be invested. It can also be used to ensure accountability once those investments have been made. Much of rural Nebraska is in need of broadband infrastructure investments and accurate data will be needed to make progress.

This bill was heard by the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee on Feb. 8. The Center submitted a letter of support to the committee. As of Feb. 9, Sen. DeBoer has added her name to the bill.

LB 935 (Bostar)—Support: This bill creates the County Minimum Wage Act, which allows individual counties to set the minimum wage above the state minimum wage. The state minimum wage is currently set at $9.00 per hour. This bill includes provisions for employees that do work in multiple counties. Cost of living differences exist across Nebraska and local governments may be better positioned to decide where minimum wage should be set. 

This bill was heard by the Business and Labor Committee on Feb. 14. The Center provided in-person testimony in support of the bill.

Energy and environment

LB 1046 (Bostleman)—Oppose: This bill would change the selection of the board of directors of public power districts by allowing the governor to appoint five members. The Center believes locally elected citizens should lead Nebraska’s public power districts. Local people have the right perspective and insights when it comes to the energy their community uses. This bill would remove power from Nebraskans and instead consolidate more power in the state’s executive branch.

A hearing was held on Jan. 27 with the Natural Resources Committee. The Center submitted a statement in opposition.

Action Alert: Ask your senator to keep public power in the hands of Nebraskans

LB 1102 (Bostelman)—Support: This bill creates the Nebraska Environmental Response Act, which would allow the Department of Environment and Energy to establish procedures to protect the environment. The bill would grant additional powers to the department, such as the ability to issue orders to undertake a cleanup of a hazardous materials release, assess the costs of cleanup, pursue cost recovery and assess administrative penalties. Regulatory measures have failed to protect Nebraska communities, particularly in the case of the recent environmental pollution event at the AltEn ethanol plant in Mead. The Center believes regulations should be in place to hold companies accountable and keep our communities safe.

This bill was heard in the Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 3. The Center submitted a letter of support.

Tax policy

LB 1264 (McDonnell)—Neutral: This bill offers a comprehensive tax plan and incentives meant to help grow our economy. The tax changes include broadening our sales tax base, lowering and streamlining income tax rates for individuals and corporations and eliminating the inheritance tax. Incentives for growth include doubling tax credits associated with research and development work along with creating student loan repayment programs for qualifying degrees in science, technology, engineering, mathematics or trade programs.

This bill will be heard by the Revenue Committee on Feb. 23.

Other bills we are monitoring

LB 710 (McCollister): Changes provisions relating to federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility by removing the asset limit, which currently is set at $25,000. Referred to the Health and Human Services Committee. Hearing scheduled for Feb. 23.

LB 760 (Dorn): Appropriates federal funds to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services for grants to licensed emergency medical services programs. Referred to the Health and Human Services Committee. Hearing scheduled for Feb. 23.

LB 890 (Walz): Changes the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act (TEEOSA). The changes would provide school districts with money for each student, boost the share of income tax going to school districts and lower property tax levies. Referred to the Education Committee. Hearing held on Jan. 25. Designated an Education Committee priority bill. Place on General File with AM1756 on Feb. 3. Bill sponsors have asked Speaker Hilgers to hold this bill while negotiations continue.

LB 891 (Lindstrom): Change the distribution of sales tax revenue, school levy limitations, and other tax and school provisions. Referred to the Revenue Committee. Hearing held Jan. 26.

LB 1218 (McDonnell): Changes provisions relating to certification of school employees and student loan forgiveness. Referred to the Education Committee. Hearing held Jan. 31. Education Committee priority bill.

LB 940 (Hansen, M.) LB 1069 LB 1070 & LB 1071 (Williams): These bills appropriate money for state workforce housing programs to include rural workforce housing. All four bills have been heard in committee and LB 1069 has been prioritized by Sen. Williams.