The World-Herald’s Statehouse reporters round up news highlights from the Legislature and state government into the Capitol Digest — a daily briefing for the political newshound with a busy schedule.
Internet sales tax. Nebraska could start collecting sales taxes from out-of-state Internet retailers as early as April 1 under a bill given final approval by the State Legislature on Friday.
Legislative Bill 284 was approved on final reading by a 43-0 vote and now awaits the signature of Gov. Pete Ricketts to become law.
The bill addresses long-running complaints by brick-and-mortar retailers in Nebraska that firms like Amazon and eBay enjoyed an unfair advantage because they, unlike businesses based here, did not collect state sales taxes on purchases Nebraskans made on the Internet. Nebraskans were supposed to self-report and pay the sales taxes on any Internet purchase, but almost none did.
That all changed last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a 25-year-old ruling, opening the way for states to begin collecting the tax.
The governor, who had expressed misgivings about taxing Internet sales before the Supreme Court ruling, is expected to sign the bill. He included the expected $30 million to $40 million a year in new revenue in his budget. He said he would use the new money to increase the state property tax credits that are given to farmers, ranchers and homeowners.
LB 284 was the priority bill of State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, whose wife ran a small retail shop.
The bill requires online retailers to collect sales taxes once they have $100,000 worth of sales or at least 200 transactions in Nebraska. It also would require Internet marketplaces, such as Amazon Marketplace, Etsy and eBay, that offer goods from several vendors to remit taxes once they reach those thresholds.
Frustration over prison overcrowding. A state senator who’s studied Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons expressed frustration Friday that solutions to the problem aren’t being suggested by criminal justice officials.
The State Attorney General’s Office, the Nebraska Association of County Attorneys and the Omaha Police Officers Association on Friday testified against two sentencing reform bills that are designed to reduce the overcrowding, saying they would jeopardize public safety.
But State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who led a special legislative investigation into problems within the state prison system, said the real threat to public safety is not doing enough to head off a looming “prison overcrowding emergency” in July 2020.
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By state law, if the state prison system’s population isn’t reduced to 140 percent of capacity by then, the State Parole Board would have to begin releasing inmates until the population hits 125 percent of capacity. Right now, the state’s prisons are at 160 percent of capacity, or about 700 inmates above the 140 percent mark.
“We need to do something,” Lathrop said, adding that the AG’s Office and others are testifying against proposed solutions.
When pressed Friday, Corey O’Brien of the Attorney General’s Office told Lathrop and the Judiciary Committee that Nebraska should do what Texas has done to relieve crowding and shutter prisons: increase lower-cost options such as drug courts and community corrections.
Aaron Hanson of the Omaha Police Officers Association said the solution wasn’t letting inmates out of prison earlier but better preparing them to lead law-abiding lives. Deputy Douglas County Attorney Mike Jensen suggested more specialty courts and better mental health care.
After hearing that, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said she hoped that those officials would come Monday to support her bill to increase funding for prison rehabilitation programs by $5.8 million — extra spending that prison officials have mostly opposed in the past.
Licensing fees. Young Nebraskans, low-income people and military families would get a break when starting health careers under a bill passed 37-0 on Friday.
LB 112, introduced by Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, would waive licensing fees needed to be licensed as a health care professional for a person’s initial licensing year.
Under the bill, waivers would be available for young adults ages 18 through 25; low-income people, including those on public assistance programs, such as Medicaid or food stamps, or whose income is less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level; and military families, including active-duty service members, veterans and their spouses.
Military support. Nebraska colleges and universities could be designated as “veteran and active duty supportive” if they meet certain requirements under a bill passed 41-0 on Friday.
LB 486, sponsored by Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, would require the State Department of Education to administer the process.
Among the requirements are: having personnel specifically trained and assigned to work with military and veteran students, giving college credit for certain types of military training, having a military leave-of-absence policy, and having counseling and advising services for military and veteran students.
Military recruitment. School districts would have to provide student names, addresses and phone numbers to military recruiters under a bill passed 40-1 on Friday.
LB 575 was introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon. Under the bill, school districts would be required to give parents the ability to opt out of having information about their children released. Students could decide to opt out once they turn 18.