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.
Testimony of devastation
Nebraska lawmakers got a glimpse Wednesday of the heartbreak and devastation caused by last year’s historic floods along the Missouri River.
Brett Adam, a farmer near Peru, Nebraska, talked of farmland that has yet to completely dry out after months underwater and of losing his parents’ house and his grain bins.
Amber Holle, with the Falls City Area Chamber of Commerce, told of the local car dealer whose business dropped 20% because customers couldn’t get across the river. She also told of families forced to split up, mom on one side of the river for work, children on the other to attend school, because there were no bridges open for hundreds of miles.
Dan Hanson, Peru State College president and a leader with local recovery efforts, detailed the multimillion-dollar price tags that the village faces for repairing its water and sewer systems, let alone the cost of removing destroyed homes and repairing roads.
“The residents of the state of Nebraska cannot continue to bear costs of this kind,” Hanson told members of the Natural Resources Committee.
All three testified in favor of Legislative Resolution 288, which would put the Legislature on record calling for Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make flood control the top priority in Missouri River management.
State Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, who introduced the measure, expressed frustration that, since 2004, the corps has balanced flood control with other factors, including protection of endangeredfish and wildlife.
“2019 was a record year for Nebraska in the worst way possible,” she said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts and the governors of Iowa, Missouri and Kansas have been pushing to get more say in managing the Missouri River, after all four states suffered damage from last year’s flooding.
Legislative expansion stalled
Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk vowed to spend the weekend seeking support for a proposed constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to add members after the proposal stalled.
Under a practice Scheer instituted, legislative measures are pulled from the agenda after three hours of debate. Sponsors must prove they have 33 votes for a filibuster-ending cloture motion to bring a measure back for continued debate and a vote.
Debate on Legislative Resolution 279CA hit the three-hour mark midmorning in the face of opposition from State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha and other urban lawmakers.
If passed by voters, the constitutional amendment would allow for as many as 55 state senators, up from the current limit of 50. Lawmakers would have to act later to actually add members.
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But Chambers questioned whether the measure could pass, noting the disdain that many people have for politicians.
“Do you all think the people of Nebraska are going to vote to increase the size of the Legislature? Put more people here?” he asked.
Scheer argued that the proposal could help keep western Nebraska legislative districts from growing geographically. It also could prevent the rural areas from losing senators. He tried to separate the question of putting the constitutional amendment on the ballot from the issue of redrawing legislative maps.
Opponents said it would not change the population trends that have led to fewer rural senators. The majority of potential new senators would go to Nebraska’s urban areas, they said.
Unemployment insurance tax rates drop
Ricketts announced Wednesday that Nebraska employers will save $11.4 million on unemployment insurance taxes this year, compared to last year.
The average unemployment tax rate dropped to 0.55% for 2020, down from 0.62% last year and less than half of the 1.17% average rate in 2015.
Ricketts said that $6.2 million of the savings resulted from state Labor Commissioner John Albin reducing the tax collection goal. By law, the commissioner can make that decision when the amount available for paying unemployment benefits reaches a designated level.
A continued decline in unemployment claims and benefits paid accounted for the rest of the savings.
The amount paid declined from $76 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, to just over $67.5 million in the following fiscal year. While the total paid out declined, the maximum weekly benefit increased from $414 in 2018 to $426 in 2019.