By Nathan Beacom, former staff member
The Watchful Citizen
“The salvation of the state is in the watchfulness of the citizen.” —Hartley Burr Alexander
Last week, the first session of the 107th Legislature of the State of Nebraska came to an early conclusion. The rural priority bills supported by the Center this year saw tremendous success.
Legislative Bill 324, developed in partnership with Sen. Tom Brandt, passed unanimously. Starting in August, the law will make it easier for customers to purchase meat directly from a farmer, and will provide funding assistance to small meat processors through the Independent Processors Assistance Program.
LB 366, developed with Sen. Tom Briese, passed with only one “no” vote. In August, it will double the size of the Microenterprise Tax Credit, remove barriers to applying, and extend the program for 10 years. This is the only state incentive program targeted toward our smallest businesses, which make up a significant portion of the rural economy.
LB 396, a bill to create a state Farm to School Network passed unanimously. The bill funds a new position with the department of education to coordinate the growth of programs in the state, as well as establishing new markets for local farmers and giving school children access to healthy, fresh foods and education on where their food comes from.
LB 388 passed unanimously and dedicated $20 million over the next few years to bring high speed internet access to more businesses and homes in the state. The bill relies on the Broadband Data Improvement Program, developed by the Center in conjunction with Sen. Tom Brandt, as a method of determining where scarce resources should be spent.
LB 507, a bill to ban the use of treated seed corn in ethanol production in the wake of the disaster in Mead, also passed unanimously.
Two goals supported by the Center—an extension of the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit and the standardization of plumbing codes in the state—were passed as amendments to other bills. The first continues a Center program that supports generational farm transfer, the second ensures that schoolchildren will have easy access to fresh drinking water throughout the day.
Finally, two Center-supported bills overcame vetoes from the governor. LB 108, which addressed the “cliff effect” problem in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, passed with 30 votes, enough to override a veto. This change will help thousands of working families in Nebraska feed their families without disincentivizing workplace advancement. Another bill, LB 306, has a similar effect for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, while also dedicating funds to weatherizing houses to make them more efficient. This bill also passed the threshold for a veto override, and will help rural Nebraskans who may live in older, harder to heat, homes.
All in all, it was a successful session for a number of rural priorities. The bills passed this year will help small rural businesses and farmers, and working rural families. We look forward to ensuring these bills are implemented well.
A special thanks goes out to Sens. Tom Brandt, Tom Briese, and John McCollister for their work on LB 324, 366, and 108, respectively. If you’d like to send a note of thanks, you can find their information here.
Thanks to you all for your support. As residents of Nebraska, you constitute the proverbial second house of our Legislature, and your involvement is important and necessary.
Please do not hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402.687.2100 if you have questions about these bills.
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.
This bill became law on May 26.
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.
This bill became law May 26.
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.
This bill became law May 24.
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’s provisions were incorporated into LB 432.
LB 83 (Flood)—Support: Updates the Open Meetings Act to provide for new virtual conferencing technologies and to increase the availability of such technologies during emergencies. In a typical year, half of the public meetings of a given public body may be held virtually. Under an emergency declaration, this bill removes that limitation.
The Center testified in favor of this bill, recommending that teleconference participation be required at public meetings.
On Feb. 9, the bill was amended (AM 127) to clarify that decisions made at public meetings held during the period in which the governor waived certain requirements of the Open Meetings Act would not be invalidated. The amendment added further political subdivisions as included in the act and required that one member of the entity holding a meeting must be present at the physical location of that meeting.
This bill became law on April 21.
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.
AM 1082 was added, which set a hard sunset on the bill of Sept.30, 2023 and expressed the intent of the Legislature to fund any administrative costs involved with monies from the American Rescue Plan was added, along with AM 1196, which requires SNAP beneficiaries affected by this bill to be referred to the Department of Labor’s SNAP Next Step Program for enrollment, if that program is available in their county.
The last provision was later amended AM 1421 to say that SNAP beneficiaries would merely be encouraged to enroll in the Next Step program, in order to avoid implicating additional money from the state’s General Fund.
This bill passed notwithstanding the objections of the governor on May 26.
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 became law May 25.
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.
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.
The bill was moved to Select File 37-5, with the promise of further compromise to make the Legislature a more active part of the commission and to ensure representation of non-educator members.
This bill stalled out at the end of session.
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 passed unanimously with AM 197, which states that the Legislature recognizes the findings and recommendations of the Task Force.
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. The bill was signed by the governor on May 24.
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. This bill passed on May 26, notwithstanding the objections of the governor.
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. AM 110, AM 845, and AM 977 were added. The bill was signed by the governor on May 5.
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.” AM 256, AM 323, AM 365, AM 567, AM 859 added. The bill was signed by the governor on May 5.