Legislative Rundown

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Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2014 12:00 am

Getting off to a fast start

This year is a short session of the Legislature, which lasts 60 legislative days and is scheduled to end in April 17. New bills can be introduced through today, Wednesday. Despite the shorter length, the session is expected to have more bills to consider, including bills carried over from last year, as 17 of the 49 state senators face the end of their terms in office.

Turn-back tax could be adjusted

State Sen. Steve Lathrop offered a change to the Sports Arena Facility Financing Assistance Act with LB 783 that would allow cities receiving state funding for arenas, such as Ralston for the Ralston Arena, or similar venues to get sales tax revenue quarterly instead of annually.

Common levy target of reform push

Papillion Sen. Jim Smith is targeting the common levy as part of this session’s effort to reform the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

LB 865 would eliminate the pooling and redistribution of property tax dollars. Instead, taxpayers would pay property taxes to their own school district, which is how property tax dollars were collected before the Learning Community and still are collected across the rest of Nebraska.

The bill, introduced Jan. 13, was referred to the Education Committee.

Lathrop wants higher wage with tips

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha introduced LB 947, which would raise the minimum wage for workers who get tips to 70 percent of other workers’ rates.

The state’s current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, so Lathrop’s proposal calls for a $5.43 wage. But another senator’s proposal would see the minimum wage climb to $9 an hour, setting Lathrop’s rate for workers receiving gratuities at $6.30 per hour.

Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha introduced LB 943 to increase the minimum wage over the next three years. The proposal is part of a legislative package to help working families that include increasing the state earned income tax credit, requiring paid sick leave for workers and creating a paid family medical leave program.

LB 943 would not raise the Nebraska minimum wage as much as the federal increase being proposed by congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama. They are proposing to go to $10.10 an hour, to be implemented in three steps over two years.

The federal minimum wage applies to businesses with gross incomes of more than $500,000 a year, those that do business across state lines, hospitals, schools and some others. The state minimum applies to those with four or more employees.

Nebraska’s minimum wage was last increased in 2009, at the same time the federal minimum went up. Legislation on both levels bumped the minimum up from $5.15 an hour in three steps over three years.

Patrols request use of amber lights

Sen. Steve Lathrop, who represents Ralston in the Legislature, took issue with a bill to allow public safety volunteers to use rotating or flashing amber lights on motor vehicles.

LB 399, introduced by Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, would allow the lights with authorization from a county attorney. The bill was advanced Jan. 17 following a two-day, eight-hour filibuster by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers

Flashing amber lights are currently allowed for specific purposes such as military, public utility maintenance, towing, vehicle maintenance and storm spotting. Lathrop said the lights are “a symbol of authority” and could mislead people when used by volunteer groups outside an official function.

“When you give people the appearance of authority, but without proper training, you are inviting problems,” he said.

The bill was introduced for the Omaha Coalition of Citizen Patrols, which represents about 30 neighborhood patrols including one around Karen Western Elementary School, according to the group’s website.

Lautenbaugh moved to invoke cloture, or cease debate, which won a 36-7 decision. The bill was advanced to select file on a 25-20 vote.

Bill would loosen juror restrictions

Legislative Bill 784, offered by state Sen. Steve Lathrop, would allow those convicted of crimes punishable by a stay in state prison to qualify as jurors provided they do not have a felony conviction.

Officers include firefighters, others

State Sen. Steve Lathrop introduced LB 752 to expand the state’s higher penalties for those who assault an officer performing his or her duties.

The bill would clarify when emergency responders, state correctional employees, health care professionals and employees of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services would trigger the crime. State statute breaks the offense into three degrees and another provision for the use of a motor vehicle in the offense.

Concussions also impact academics

When a young athlete suffers a concussion today, parents and coaches tend to focus on when the child is ready to return to the field.

But although a concussion is a brain injury, there’s often scant attention paid to whether the child is ready to “return to learn’’ — or get back to the classroom. Brain-injured students often receive no special accommodations in school, forcing them to tax and strain already-injured brains and perhaps prolonging their recovery.

A bill introduced in the Legislature on Friday would address this overlooked concussion issue. Legislative Bill 782, introduced by state Sen. Steve Lathrop, would require schools to adopt return-to-learn protocols aimed at easing brain-injured students back into the classroom.

Youth who suffer concussions often struggle with symptoms that can seriously impair their schoolwork, including headaches, blurred vision and an inability to concentrate or stay on task.

The Nebraska Department of Education over the past year has been working on a model return-to-learn protocol for brain-injured students. The plan seeks to ease students back into the classroom through simple steps like taking breaks during the day, breaking tests into parts or reducing the workload — emphasizing essential material and quality over quantity.

Lathrop’s bill essentially would give teeth to the state’s plan, requiring schools to adopt some type of protocol. The bill amends the Lathrop’s Youth Concussion Act, which required schools and youth leagues to give coaches access to education on the seriousness of concussions.

Lathrop twice challenges governor

As part of the state’s review of prison practices in the wake of four slayings for which Nikko Jenkins faces trial in Omaha, Gov. Dave Heineman took issue with a report by State Ombudsman Marshall Lux that Heineman said was trying to blame the prison system for Jenkin’s alleged rampage.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who represents Ralston, said on the floor of the Legislature on Jan. 14 that the ombudsman investigates serious issues on behalf of the legislative branch.

“That office is not there to engage in politics,” Lathrop said. “They’re there to investigate.”

Lathrop also went after Heineman’s proposed plan to cut taxes. He said the plan did nothing to help urban homeowners who have complained about high property taxes and would do little to help farmers because rural taxing entities would just raise tax levies to finance local schools and county governments.

“We’re taxing more than we’re spending, which suggests there’s some room for tax cuts after we take care of responsibly funding government,” Lathrop said. “But people in Omaha need to know this (property tax plan) will do absolutely nothing for them.”

Bill would increase hospital liability

A proposal by Sen. Steve Lathrop would increase the maximum recoverable amount under the Nebraska Hospital-Medical Liability Act to $2.5 million for any occurrence taking place after Dec. 31, 2014. LB 862 would raise that cap from its current $1.75 million for any occurrence after Dec. 31, 2003.

Privatization of MUD proposed

A state senator has proposed eliminating the Metropolitan Utilities District effective Jan. 1, 2015. LB 823 does not call for selling the utility, but its sponsor, Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, has said that is his aim. MUD offers water service in Ralston.

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