LINCOLN — If you were measuring the success of the 2019 session of the Nebraska Legislature, more than one senator suggested this grade: “incomplete.”
Senators adjourned sine die on Friday — six days early from the 90-day session — without passing a comprehensive bill to provide property tax relief and without updating the state’s main business tax incentive program, two of the biggest issues facing the one-house Legislature this year.
There was even a last-second symbolic move — albeit one that got only seven votes — to continue the session so that senators could keep working on the tax issues.
Compromises were struck on some touchy issues, like expansion of the state’s Right to Farm Act and an effort to derail private wind farms, but a middle ground could not be found on the tax issues, or on bills dealing with medical marijuana and the boundaries of school discipline.
There are always some winners and losers at the State Capitol. Here’s our list for 2019:
State Sen. John Stinner and the Appropriations Committee
The state’s two-year, $9.3 billion budget passed without any budget vetoes and kept spending increases at a low, 2.9% annual average.
It also contained some of the biggest accomplishments of the session. It included two steps to address prison overcrowding: a new, 384-bed prison expansion to handle the state’s most troublesome inmates and a boost in funding for so-called “problem-solving courts.” There was also an increase in payment rates for providers of health care, child welfare and behavioral health services.
Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne
Wayne said he wore out his Dodge pickup crisscrossing the state over the past two years to help his colleagues understand the problems of his north Omaha district.
It paid off in 2019 as he was the main sponsor of bills that gave special incentives for business development in “extremely blighted” areas that have high unemployment and that seek to provide better access to jobs via the formation of a regional mass transit authority in the Omaha metropolitan area.
He also won passage of a bill that allows farmers to grow hemp — defined in the bill as strains of the cannabis plant with less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical that produces the marijuana high — for products like clothing and cosmetics. Wayne said he hoped north Omaha could land some of the processing businesses that will follow.
There were 12 brand-new senators in 2019, and let’s just say, as a group, they weren’t wallflowers.
Peru Sen. Julie Slama won passage of a bill boosting the teaching of civics in K-12 schools and was a consistent, conservative voice during debate.
Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams overcame a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts to pass a bill allowing Gage County to impose a countywide sales tax to pay off a $28 million Beatrice Six court judgment facing the county due to the wrongful prosecution and conviction of six people in the 1985 slaying of a Beatrice woman.
Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh shepherded through a bill requiring courts to hold hearings before dismissing applications for domestic abuse or sexual assault protection orders, a measure prompted in part by an Omaha woman who was severely burned by her husband after a protection order application.
She and fellow Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt were consistent progressive contributors to floor debate.
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Property tax relief plans
Seems like we’ve written this line before, but proposals to provide significant property tax relief failed to advance this year.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Sens. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn and Mike Groene of North Platte first floated a comprehensive plan that aimed to tax a whole slew of new items, such as junk food and home repairs, and raise the state’s sales tax rate from 5.5 cents to 6 cents, as well as revamping the distribution of $500 million in state aid to K-12 schools.
It was a big, complicated gulp to swallow at the end of the session, and the state’s largest school districts, Omaha, Lincoln and Millard included, gagged. Ricketts also campaigned against the plan, calling almost weekly press conferences with groups that hated the plan.
A “plan B” that included mostly only the revenue portion of Linehan/Groene also failed to advance, leaving rural senators fuming.
The consensus seemed to be that the Linehan/Groene plan had merit, but was way too complex to digest at the end of a fairly exhaustive session. Big ideas take time to sell, and require more buy-in from more groups. Even the Revenue Committee wasn’t fully invested in the plan.
Linehan said she plans to meet with the Revenue Committee, which she chairs, before July 1, in hopes of forming a united front before the 2020 session.
Chamber of Commerce
It seems like we’ve never written this before, but the chambers of commerce that represent the state, Omaha and Lincoln were unsuccessful in passing their top priority.
The chamber hired a posse of lobbyists to get the ImagiNE Act — its revamp of the Advantage Act — passed, but fell short. It was a rare loss for the state’s business community, which sees tax incentives as absolutely essential for economic growth.
The ImagiNE Act stalled not because it was a bad bill, but because a coalition of mostly rural senators held firm to their conviction that if the Legislature didn’t deliver significant property tax relief (a top priority of farmers and ranchers) then they wouldn’t support tax incentives for businesses (a priority seen as mostly for urban and business interests).
As long as the coalition holds, property tax relief and the ImagiNE Act are an inseparable package, with both issues either headed for passage or defeat next year.
One change in 2020 — the Advantage Act will sunset at the end of the year, so there will be more pressure on business interests to cut a deal with the aggies.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who was known for his ability to mediate difficult issues during his stint in the Legislature from 2007 to 2015, said there seem to be more senators now at each extreme of the political spectrum, both conservative and liberal. That, he said, makes it harder to reach a compromise on major issues.
“It is disappointing that we have a significant number of people who are just against everything except their own stuff,” Lathrop said. “I didn’t get what I wanted, so you don’t get what you wanted.”
Lawmakers were able to reach compromise on issues like the right to farm and eminent domain for wind farms, but could not come together to reach a consensus on top-shelf issues like property tax relief.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.
Meet the Nebraska state senators
Here are the 49 state senators of Nebraska's 106th Legislature. You can click here to find your state senator.