By Nathan Beacom, former staff member
Mid-February saw a continued flurry of hearings to complement our snowstorms and cold weather. The Center has been following the progress of those bills that relate to rural life. Staff testified in four hearings over this period–in support of rural broadband, food assistance for working families, a better tax structure for agricultural land within city limits, and a more effective income tax credit for property tax relief. Below, you will find summaries of the bills we are following and engaged with in the Legislature at this time.
A bill the Center advocated against, Legislative Bill 74, which would have eliminated the Microenterprise Tax Credit, was indefinitely postponed after a Feb. 4 hearing before the Revenue Committee. At that hearing, Center staff testified about the credit’s value for rural Nebraska. The Center also testified to this effect during an earlier hearing on LB 366, which seeks improvements to the program.
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LB 526 (Wishart)—Support: Increases the funding appropriated to the Business Innovation Act, which is 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 will be increased 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.
A hearing will be held this Friday, 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.
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.
This week, the bill 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 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 5 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.
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. Proponents, including the Center, meat processors, and livestock producers, argued that this bill would be critical for helping farmers and butchers deal with the current livestock bottleneck, and to support strong development in the Nebraska meat sector in the long term.
If you are interested in supporting this bill, please contact Nathan Beacom, policy associate, via email at firstname.lastname@example.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.
Hearing held Feb. 4 by the Revenue Committee. Proponents, including the Center, argued that 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.
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 so rural people with poor internet access have a guaranteed means of participation.
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.
LB 108 (McCollister)—Support: This bill addresses what is known as the SNAP “cliff effect.” The cliff effect occurs when a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) beneficiary reaches 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 in these difficult times that this cliff effect be addressed by raising the gross income threshold on SNAP eligibility.
A hearing was held on 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.
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.
A hearing will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 23.
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.
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.
Hearing held by the Agriculture Committee on Feb. 2.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 scheduled for Feb. 25.
LB 672 (Murman): Exempts certain agricultural equipment from sales and use tax.
Referred to the Revenue Committee. Hearing scheduled for Feb. 26.
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.