By: Brooke Wrage, Celena Shepherd and Madeleine Grant
LINCOLN–The first week of floor debates kicked off the second week in March. Senators debated and advanced a handful of bills in the Nebraska Legislature. Read through to get a recap of the week.
LB255: Provide compensation to families of deceased first responders
Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln introduced LB255, which would establish the In-Line of Duty Compensation Act to provide a one-time death benefit for a family member of a first responder who dies while in the line of duty.
“I believe it is time for Nebraska to join our neighbors and making sure that those first responders know we value their work, their service and their lives,” he said.
The bill would include any volunteer firefighters, emergency medical service, ambulance squad members and law enforcement. Each employee would have the opportunity to designate a beneficiary who would receive $50,000.
Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said that while the bill was well-intentioned because it honors first responders, it duplicated benefits that first responders in Nebraska already receive.
“I have no objection to us doing this, but we have to remember that there are departments out there who do provide very adequate benefits on life insurance policies and things like that,” he said. “So, we are really duplicating, in some cases, what they might be receiving.”
The Legislature won first round approval on a vote of 37-1 on March 10.
LB 274: Expand alcohol sales
Sen. John Lowe of Kearney faced a long debate on March 9th over his bill about liquor laws before being advanced to general file.
His bill would allow farm wineries, craft breweries and micro-distilleries to have a special license for selling alcoholic beverages at farmers markets under the Nebraska Liquor Control Act. The license would allow the alcoholic manufacturers to sell at a farmers market for one year subject to its approval.
Bill 72, introduced by Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, would allow to-go cocktails to be sold from holders of a Class C liquor license. Tamper-proof seals would be required of those selling the drinks to prevent issues with drinking and driving.
Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha introduced bill 578, which would lower the excise tax on alcoholic beverages that contain 5-6% alcohol from $3.75 to 95 cents per gallon.
Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha was in opposition to Vargas’s bill to lower the tax on alcoholic beverages.
“I think about our young people who get caught up with this alcohol. The binge drinking, I think about all the DUI’s, I think about all the families that have been destroyed by alcohol,” he said.
Lowe’s bill advanced with a 33-0 vote.
LB322: Adopt school safety and security reporting system
Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg presented LB322 on March 11. His bill advanced out of the first round of floor debates with a 33-5 vote, but questions were raised about funding and privacy.
LB322 creates a state-wide anonymous security reporting system in public and private K-12 schools. Williams said the intent of this program is to reduce or prevent incidents of violence, including harm to self, others and property.
“When it comes to keeping kids safe there’s no such thing as having too many helpful resources and this pilot program has been a life-saving partnership,” Williams said.
Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard was concerned about the source of funding for the nearly $900,00 price-tag of the bill. Groene didn’t want reports to follow students into the future.
Former Millard School District school administrator Sen. Rich Pahls of Omaha supported the bill because of the important services it offers to students.
“If the dollar sign is going to hold you up… after several years we’re going to see how many calls are there, and that will sell it,” Pahls said.
The Legislature also adopted an Education Committee amendment with technical changes by a 34-5 vote.
LB 387: Change military retirement tax
LB387, introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, would allow Nebraskans to exclude their entire military retirement benefit pay from state income tax. The bill, which was requested by Gov. Pete Ricketts, would aid military retirees.
“We have been in a process, literally, for almost four decades to try and get this done; to save retirees from leaving Nebraska,” Brewer said. “This bill will help us achieve that.”
The Legislature approved a previous exclusion in 2020. This new addition to the bill would allow Nebraskans to exclude 100% military retirement benefit income instead of the previous 50%. Other surrounding states, such as Iowa and South Dakota, have similar legislation and do not tax military retirees.
Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton spoke in support of the bill, citing the opportunity to attract military retirees from surrounding states.
“Not only will LB387 retain more veterans in Nebraska, it will also attract veterans to Nebraska when they retire from their military career and ready to start their next career,” he said.
Lawmakers voted 45-0 to advance LB387 on March 10.
LB 400: Telehealth expansion
On March 9, Sen. John Arch of LaVista presented his priority bill about the expansion of telehealth services to the floor debates.
Arch said that Nebraska health plans have seen the use of telehealth services skyrocket by 2,000- 7,000% since the onset of the pandemic.
“Telehealth is not going to completely replace healthcare as we traditionally know it, but it is here to stay as a part of our healthcare system, and it does provide greater access to vital services,” Arch said.
Expanding telehealth would allow all areas of Nebraska to continue to have access to behavioral health care services beyond the pandemic. Under LB 400, audio-only behavioral health services would be allowed for established patients in rural areas, regardless of broadband level.
The bill would also stop commercial insurers from excluding telehealth coverage from certain areas, and ensure services to a patient in any location.
The bill would enable individuals to receive telehealth services with verbal approval, rather than written consent prior to the telehealth services like the current law. However, written approval must be received within 10 days of the patients’ verbal consent.
The bill won the first round of approval on a vote of 46-0.
LB44: Change adoptions of affordable housing action plans
His bill updates LB866, a law enacted last year that incentivized building affordable housing and required cities to create action plans. Hansen’s bill adds one sentence to increase flexibility in how cities adopt action plans.
A motion for an amendment on LB44 was filed by Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte. Typically, amendments are not proposed by individual senators at this step.
“Senator Groene is amending all three components to LB866 from last year,” Hansen said. “He’s proposing a substantive change for (my) bill that was meant to be a technical clean-up.”
Groene’s amendment would exempt cities with a population of less than 50,000 from adopting an affordable action housing plan.
“Smaller cities don’t need this (bill)…it’s added cost,” Groene said. “We’re a stagnant city trying to survive.”
Following the debate, Groene’s amendment failed with a close 21-21 vote.
Several other senators weighed in on the debate, before Hansen’s bill passed with a 40-5 vote.