Nebraska Legislative Update - May 18, 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

The legislative session in Nebraska is working its way toward its conclusion, likely in early June. Two priority bills from the Center saw significant developments since our last  update.

The first, Legislative Bill 132, a bill to create a school financing review commission was the subject of much debate, with some legislators unwilling to cede the work of solving school financing issues in the state to a non-legislative body, and others worried that educators were overrepresented  compared to taxpayers and landowners. Amendments from the Education Committee and the bill’s introducer, Sen. Wendy DeBoer, added six members to the commission, including four legislators, as a means of dealing with these objections. These amendments were not adopted however, because Sen. Deboer and Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the revenue committee, have committed to working out these concerns before the next round of debate. This agreement was satisfactory to legislators, and the bill advanced to Select File 37-5.

The other priority bill that saw substantial movement was LB 108, a bill to change the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to temporarily raise the income eligibility threshold for beneficiaries. This change is intended to solve a problem with the program that disincentivizes wage advancement by causing SNAP users to lose their benefits before they make enough money to replace them. 

An amendment to the bill requiring affected SNAP beneficiaries to be referred to the SNAP Next Step program, a job training program through the Department of Labor, was discovered to be ineligible for COVID-19-related funds from the U.S. Congress, and would therefore cost the state an estimated $3.4 million. Sen. John McCollister, the bill’s sponsor, added AM 1421 which clarifies that no state money will be used, and beneficiaries will be encouraged to enroll in the Next Step program, but not automatically enrolled. This amendment was adopted and the bill is expected to be heard on Final Reading this week.

Finally, LB 131, a broad Urban Affairs bill introduced by Sen. Megan Hunt, was amended to include a provision from Sen. Justin Wayne to put in place a change that the Center recommended in a study in 2020, namely, adopting the 2018 Uniform Plumbing Code as the state’s default code to ensure standardization of the availability of fresh drinking water, especially in public schools.

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 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. The bill was advanced to Final Reading on a voice vote.

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 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 was advanced to final reading on a voice vote.

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 awaits a 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.

Governance

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.

Hearing held Jan. 27 by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. 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 passed unopposed on final reading, and has been signed into law by the governor.

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 Select File on a voice vote, with the addition of AM 1083, 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, and 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. The bill was sent back to Select File, and then re-advanced to Final Reading 27-6, with 16 senators not voting.

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.

The bill has advanced to Final Reading without opposition.

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.

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.

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. This bill moved to Final Reading without opposition.

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.. This bill has moved to the second round of Enrollment and Review on a voice vote.

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. AM 110, AM 845, and AM 977 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.