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.
Monday marked the first day of floor debate in the 2020 session, and senators used the opportunity to talk about bills dealing with school discipline, a tax break for military retirees and whether the Game and Parks Commission was responsive to landowners.
But several proposals, including the major property tax relief bill and two measures to allow casinos and betting on sporting events, were also introduced:
After a couple of tweaks, the property tax relief bill crafted mainly by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn was introduced Monday.
Legislative Bill 974 would use excess state tax revenue to increase state aid to K-12 schools, as well as gradually lower the tax valuation of property for paying school taxes. “Foundation aid” would be sent to each school district in the state, beginning with $695 per student in the first year and increasing to $2,265 per student by the third year.
The goal, Linehan said, is to not reduce revenue for running local schools, but provide a dollar-for-dollar reduction in property taxes for every dollar of new state aid provided. In the end, property taxes used for schools should drop 15% on average, she said.
“This isn’t about more or less money for our schools; this is about property tax relief,” the senator said.
The 59-page bill was co-sponsored by five other members of the Revenue Committee, which Linehan chairs. The two other committee members, Sens. John McCollister of Omaha and Sue Crawford of Bellevue, did not sign on to the bill.
One tweak in LB 974 would provide transitional state aid to districts that are near the $1.05 levy limit, which includes the Omaha and Millard schools. Those districts have opposed the plan. Whether the tweak changes their stance remains to be seen. A press conference on the bill, a top issue this session, is scheduled for Tuesday.
Saying it’s time to stop the flow of money to Iowa for betting on sporting events and casino games, State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha is planning to introduce three measures to expand gambling in Nebraska. Two came in Monday.
One, Legislative Resolution 295CA, would allow Nebraska voters in November to change the Nebraska Constitution to allow casinos and sports betting; the other, Legislative Bill 971, would redefine the term “lottery” to include bets on sporting events.
“If we’re serious about long-term tax relief, we have to look at new revenue sources,” Wayne said.
Currently, he said, a large percentage of the sports bets placed in Iowa (where it was recently legalized) come from Nebraska, and Nebraska gets none of the revenue, only the social ills.
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Proposals to expand gambling have typically failed in the Legislature and at the voting booth. Currently, there is a petition drive to allow voters in November to expand gambling at Nebraska horse-racing tracks.
Wayne said he also plans to introduce a bill that would declare that sports betting, poker and fantasy sports are legal games of skill, not illegal games of chance.
The overall state sales tax rate would drop from 5.5 cents to 4 cents or lower, and all services, including those used by businesses, would be taxed under a proposal by State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion.
LB 946, Briese said, is an attempt to modernize the state’s sales tax to match today’s economy, which is about two-thirds based on spending on services, like plumbing, construction and roofing.
“This bill would have the potential to give Nebraskans the lowest sales tax rate in the country, among states with a sales tax,” the senator said.
Last year, Briese introduced a bill to tax several services, but it failed to advance in the face of opposition from groups like barbers, grocers and others who would be facing new taxes.
Mammograms and insulin
A trio of health insurance bills were offered Monday in response to rising health care costs.
LB 948, introduced by Crawford, would require insurance companies to cover specialized breast cancer screenings for women at higher risk of breast cancer because of previous cancers, genetic testing or family history.
The bill expands the current mandate for companies to cover screening mammograms without charging deductibles, copayments or coinsurance. Companies have been denying coverage for the more specialized tests.
LB 949, introduced by Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, and LB 970, introduced by Wayne, would bar insurance companies from requiring patients to pay more than $100 per month in out-of-pocket costs for insulin. The bills address the rising costs of a critical medication.
Pay to play
Student-athletes would be allowed to earn money from their name, image and likeness under LB 962, introduced by Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha and 12 co-sponsors.
The Fair Pay to Play Act was patterned after a recent California law and would allow college athletes to contract with agents and earn money without losing their athletic scholarships or amateur status. If passed, the law would take effect on July 1, 2023.
Meet the Nebraska state senators
Nebraska's state senators
Patty Pansing Brooks
Lou Ann Linehan
Andrew La Grone
— Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard