The Nebraska State Capitol at sunset on Feb. 17, 2022. The image has
Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS.

March 28-April 1: Budget adjustments, furries and prison reform debate

Legislature approves budget adjustments, Ricketts will take five days to review

State senators gave final approval March 29 to multiple adjustments for the state budget. According to Gov. Pete Ricketts, there is enough money in the budget for the proposed 7-mile lake between Omaha and Lincoln as well as money to complete the proposed Perkins County Canal. There are also funds for workforce housing, construction of the Offutt Air Force Base innovation hub and a new companion U.S. Department of Agriculture facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Innovation Campus. Ricketts has announced he will use all five days allowed to review the budget and approve or deny senators’ contributions. If he vetoes specific items in the budget, the Appropriations Committee must report on the monetary impact of the vetoes and could override the veto with 30 votes.

Legislator expresses concern over alleged litter boxes in schools 

Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard called for an investigation into rumors of “furries” being catered to in schools, a conspiracy theory spread on social media. “School children dress up as animals — cats or dogs — during the school day; they meow, and they bark,” Bostelman said March 28. “And now schools are wanting to put litter boxes in the schools for these children to use. How is this sanitary?” Bostelman claimed a student defecated on the floor after their school refused to provide a litter box for them to use. Mere hours after the debate, Bostelman and Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, chair of the Education Committee, reached out to school districts across the state and were assured that none of these rumors were true. School districts across the country have also denied these claims following similar accusations. Bostelman issued an apology from the floor that afternoon.

South Platte River canal project advances to final reading

A proposal to build a canal that would divert water from Colorado’s South Platte River to Nebraska progressed to the final round of debate March 29. A 1923 interstate compact entitles Nebraska to 120 cubic feet of water per second during the summer and 500 cubic feet of water per second during the non-irrigation system if the water is diverted from Colorado to a Nebraska reservoir system. Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln’s LB1015 would authorize the construction, management and operation of the canal by the state Department of Natural Resources under the terms of the compact. Two amendments were introduced before the bill progressed. One amendment, introduced by Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, would prohibit the department’s director and employees or those related to them from having a financial interest in any party relating to the project, titled the Perkins County Canal Project. The second, also proposed by Cavanaugh, extends the conflict of interest provisions to members of the Legislature and elected officials in the state’s executive branch and would apply to these individuals during their terms and for two years after. Both amendments were passed 44-0.

Lake development, water recreation projects advance to final reading

Legislators gave second-round approval to multiple water recreation projects across the state March 29. LB1023, introduced by Speaker Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, would authorize the State Game and Parks Commission to oversee the construction of marinas at Lake McConaughey and Lewis and Clark Lake. The bill would also provide an event center and lodge at Niobrara State Park. Hilgers amended the bill to ensure the proposed new lake is completely open to the public, which means no private entity could designate any portion of the lake for exclusively private use. Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha also introduced an amendment to prohibit conflicts of interest with the projects. As amended, the director of the state Department of Natural Resources and its employees cannot have a financial interest in the projects. The bill advanced on a 29-4 vote. 

Funding for rural housing program advances 

A bill updating an existing grant program to increase provisions for rural workforce housing advanced March 28. The existing program, the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Act, was passed in 2017 and provides funding for workforce housing construction projects in counties with less than 100,000 people. It was set to expire at the end of this fiscal year. LB1069, introduced by Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, would extend the program through the 2026-27 fiscal year. It would also increase the maximum construction cost of a housing unit from $275,000 to $325,000 and from $200,000 to $250,000 for rental units. Additionally, while local communities are currently required to match the grant on a one-to-one scale, this bill would lower this requirement to a 50% match. According to Williams, the workforce housing program has offered a 15-to-1 return on investment for the state and resulted in the construction of hundreds of houses across Nebraska. “Over the past several years, Nebraska has been battling the issue of workforce shortages,” Williams said. “It is estimated that there are over 50,000 unfilled jobs and only approximately 20,000 [individuals] seeking employment. In addition to a worker shortage, we also have a significant shortage of available workforce housing.”

North Omaha recovery efforts advance, expand to include Lincoln

Senators broadened and advanced to final reading a bill that would provide recovery funds to North Omaha. LB1024 from Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha would have appropriated $450 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to help just North Omaha, but it has since been amended to include only $250 million of those funds. Through multiple amendments, Wayne added $55 million in cash reserve funds to support projects. These funds and $80 million ARPA funds would be placed into the Economic Recovery Contingency Fund, which Wayne said would be held in reserve for projects brought over the next two years. Up to $10 million of these funds would be available to Lincoln, and $10 million would be available to areas outside Lincoln and Omaha.

Senators continue prison reform debate in Nebraska Legislature 

A bill aiming to reform the criminal justice system to help address overcrowding and under-staffing in Nebraska prisons continues to be debated in the Capitol. LB920, introduced by Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, chair of the Judiciary Committee, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent felons; penalties for drug possession, theft and burglaries; and streamline the parole process for eligible inmates. According to Lathrop, prison overcrowding can’t be solved by new prison construction. Gov. Pete Ricketts and Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln spoke in opposition to the bill, claiming it jeopardizes public safety. Debate will continue. 

Career scholarship proposal clears first round

A proposal to create the Nebraska Career Scholarship has made it past the first round. LB902, introduced by Sen. Raymond Aguilar of Grand Island, would award the scholarship to students who achieve a minimum score on a standard college admission test and enroll in an eligible program of study at the University of Nebraska, Nebraska state colleges or Nebraska community colleges. According to Aguilar, the scholarships are intended to address the demand for skilled workers in Nebraska’s larger cities without 4-year institutions. Scholarship values would vary from $5,000 to $25,000 annually and would renew automatically if the student remains in good academic standing. To qualify, students need to be first-time freshmen or transfer students and could use the award for tuition, fees, equipment or room and board. Each institution would be required to submit an annual report on their scholarship recipients and their eligible programs of study to the Legislature and each recipient would need to document a Nebraska-based internship or similar experience before graduation. According to Aguilar, the program would give Grand Island a fighting chance  to attract talented college students who would earn academic credit while working at local businesses. Senators voted 36-0 to advance LB902. 

Proposal advances to end unfunded mandates 

A proposal that would require the state to pay the full cost of new programs or increased levels of service on an existing program advanced. LR263CA, introduced by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, will be placed on the 2022 general election ballot if approved by lawmakers. According to Blood, unfunded mandates on political subdivisions have increased in recent years and this proposal would help reduce property taxes by supplying the necessary funding through general fund appropriations or an increase in state funds for the affected political subdivisions.  Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams supported the proposal, saying that state laws often create a burden for counties. Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson opposed the resolution, saying it was too broad and would result in future problems when lawmakers encountered unanswered questions. Several lawmakers support the intent but are concerned about implementation.

Lawmakers give first-round approval to tax cut package 

Lawmakers advanced a proposal that would cut income tax rates, speed up the phaseout of state taxes on Social Security income and provide tax rebates to offset property taxes. Last week, supporters failed twice to advance the package. After eight hours of debate, Friesen filed a successful motion to invoke cloture, which ends debate and forces a vote on the bill and any pending amendments. The bill, LB873, advanced 44-0.

Contributors: Lauren Penington, Zach Wendling

Source: The Unicameral Update

Lauren Penington is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln majoring in journalism and political science. In addition to writing at the Nebraska News Service, Lauren has worked as a Reporting Intern for Circuit Media in Denver covering courts and politics, a News Intern for the Lincoln Journal Star covering features and breaking news, a General News intern at channel 8 KLKN TV in Lincoln, and more. She has been published in a variety of Nebraska newspapers, including: The Lincoln Journal Star, The Summerland Advocate-Messenger, The Reader, The Sidney Sun-Telegraph, The North Platte Bulletin, and more. Lauren has experience working with the majority of Adobe Suit programs. Although she has more experience with print and web journalism, she has also worked with photo and video to tell stories in unique ways.