LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature is set to end its 2017 session on Tuesday with a few final votes and a farewell speech from the governor.
The session started with 17 newly elected senators and bitter partisan battles over leadership posts.
An extended rules fight and the scandal surrounding State Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion, who used a state laptop for cybersex, dominated the first part of the session. Kintner ultimately resigned, while the rules were left unchanged.
Growing budget woes overshadowed the latter part of the session, along with extended debates over taxes and other contentious issues.
Now lawmakers are wrapping up the session with greater camaraderie and a sizable list of accomplishments.
Lawmakers passed more than 170 bills, including most of those designated as priorities. There were plenty of matters that fell by the wayside, though.
Among the session’s highs and lows:
Lawmakers closed a budget shortfall that had topped $1 billion. They passed $137 million worth of midyear budget cuts in February, then followed up this month with an $8.9 billion, two-year budget for the period ending June 30, 2019. The budget cuts some state spending, slows other spending growth, taps cash funds and draws $173 million money from the state’s “rainy day” cash reserve. It avoids tax increases, fully funds state property tax credits, boosts spending on K-12 schools and the troubled Corrections Department and pays for a $75 million prison expansion.
State taxes will not change. Two major tax reform proposals were stopped by disputes over whether property taxes or income taxes should be the main focus, over winners and losers, and over the wisdom of cutting taxes during a budget shortfall. One proposal would have redistributed the state’s property tax credits, largely benefiting rural landowners. The other would have cut the top income tax bracket, made other income tax changes and altered how agricultural land is valued for property tax purposes. The state will not require companies to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases.
Guns and drugs
People who call for help about drug overdoses will be shielded from being charged with drug possession. However, Nebraska gun laws will not change, after a proposal to wipe out most local gun ordinances in favor of state law stalled. Medical marijuana will continue to be illegal.
Crime and punishment
People who buy sex from victims of human trafficking will face the same potential penalties as the traffickers under a bill passed last week. The penalty for soliciting or trafficking a child victim could now be life in prison. Felons now will be able to own archery equipment and hunting and fishing knives, but a veto by the governor means they will still have to wait two years before they can register to vote. The types and sources of drugs to be used for lethal injections will remain public record.
Schools and teachers
Many school districts will get less state aid because of budget-cutting changes made in the school aid formula. Schools will have to accommodate breast-feeding students and develop policies to support pregnant and parenting students. Newly hired teachers will have to work longer before they can retire. Schools will not, however, have to hold back students who cannot read by third grade. Teachers will not be given more leeway on using force to deal with unruly students.
Government and voting
The State Departments of Roads and Aeronautics will merge to form the Nebraska Department of Transportation. The State Department of Veterans’ Affairs will take over the veterans homes from the Department of Health and Human Services. Nebraska will not start requiring government-issued photo identification to vote. The state will not join the call for a Convention of the States to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Health and family
A special task force will examine problems created by and contributing to rampant alcohol abuse in Whiteclay, a village across the state line from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Until recently, four stores in the village sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer each year, largely to reservation residents. The state will post information online about perinatal hospice programs that can help women carrying babies that are expected to die at or shortly after birth. Licensure requirements for several health professions will remain the same, as will income eligibility levels for people getting federal “food stamp” benefits.
Jobs and development
Additional grant money will be available to build housing in rural areas that could attract more workers, but tax increment financing will not expand to encourage rural housing development. Towns and cities along rivers will be able to use a new financing mechanism to pay for development along the riverfront. Job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity will not be banned.
Vehicles and travel
Nebraska drivers will have another license plate option with the approval of new “Choose Life” plates that use a slogan identified with opposition to abortion. Motorcyclists will have to continue wearing helmets.