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2010 Legislative Session Roundup: Nebraska

Ending its session on April 14, the Nebraska legislature made great gains in the areas of renewable energy production, job creation and education; however, it will now be notoriously known as the state to implement the most restrictions on reproductive health.

Budget and Job Creation:  While legislators were able to balance the immediate budget using the state’s cash reserve fund and federal stimulus dollars, a projected future budget gap of roughly $680 million during the next session means that the 2011 legislature will face formidable budget challenges.  Budgets for most state agencies and aid programs were cut 7 percent across the board, and others sustained targeted cuts.

Nebraskan legislators passed several bills to encourage the creation and retention of jobs in the state:

  • LB961 makes important changes to Nebraska’s Job Training Fund.  The bill will help provide a way for the fund to focus on training employees of small businesses, residents in rural areas, and residents of areas of high poverty.
  • The Teleworker Job Creation Act, LB1081, was enacted to utilize existing job training funds to help train and employ over thousands of workers to do jobs from their own homes.
  • With support of labor unions and businesses, LB1020 provides job training for Nebraskans who collect unemployment and uses $43.6 million in federal funds from the Recovery Act to help reduce the need to raise unemployment insurance rates.

Education:  Public education had some modest successes this session:

  • LB1071 was signed to provide tuition reimbursement for teachers in graduate degree granting programs.
  • LB1014 earmarks wind and solar energy lease revenue for locally-negotiated performance pay.
  • LB1106 moves the kindergarten eligibility date from October 15 to July 31.  The bill would take effect for the school year 2012-13.

A relatively radical charter school bill, LB1028, was defeated, which would have permitted three or more residents or a Nebraska non-profit organization to seek approval by the State Board of Education to charter a Pre-K-8 school.

Clean Energy:  Nebraska made significant strides in building a greener future for its residents:

  • Wind Energy:  Nebraska ranks third among states in wind energy potential, but it is only 22nd in actual wind-energy production.  In order to capitalize on this resource and create new jobs, LB1048 was enacted to attract wind-energy production by allowing the Nebraska Power Review Board to approve private renewable energy projects that export most of their energy out-of-state.  The bill also exempts wind turbines from personal property tax and institutes a nameplate capacity tax, the revenues from which will be directed to local taxing entities that previously levied personal property taxes on the turbines.  And it requires private companies to pay the extensive costs of building transmission lines to export the power.  Officials said that this requirement will protect the state’s cheap electric rates from rising.  Effective July 15, LB1048’s goal is to have Nebraska among the 10th top states for wind-power generation.   The Nebraska Sierra Club placed this law on the top of its legislative priorities for 2010, and was quite involved as it moved through the legislature.
  • Energy Efficiency: Two energy efficiency bills, sponsored by Sen. Heath Mello, were signed by the Governor.  The first, LB978, provides requirements relating to energy star certified appliances in the state's competitive bidding process.  LB997, requires Nebraska’s cities and counties to include energy efficiency and usage in their comprehensive plans.  Unfortunately, two additional important bills were postponed.  LB977 would have required new state buildings and renovations to comply with energy efficiency standards and LB1099 would have amended the state’s Solid Waste Management Act to allow metropolitan class cities to establish a voluntary, fee-for-service recycling program.

Reproductive Rights:  One of the most devastating blows to women’s reproductive freedom in the country occurred with the enactment of Nebraska’s LB1103, which bans abortions 20 weeks after conception on the theory that a fetus, by that stage in pregnancy, has the alleged capacity to feel pain.  Exceptions to this law only occur in the event of a medical emergency, the pregnant woman’s imminent death, or a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, a provision experts interpreted as an effort to exclude an exception based on a woman’s mental health.  Nebraska’s law is the first in the nation to restrict abortions on the basis of fetal pain.  National organizations such as the Center for Reproductive Rights have vociferously expressed their opposition to the Nebraska law, which will set off a challenge before the United States Supreme Court.

If LB1103 did not cause enough harm to women’s health, another law, LB 594, requires health care providers to screen women for at least one hour for possible physical or mental risk before they get an abortion.  Also a first of its kind, LB 594  will further restrict a woman’s constitutional right to get an abortion before viability.  The Center for Reproductive Rights also opposes this law. 

Health Care:  LB507 was enacted to increase the penalty for domestic assault and extend pre-natal care for low-income women.  While a partial gain, the deliberate exclusion of undocumented immigrant women would prevent us to call it a complete victory for women’s health care.  Voices for Children in Nebraska gathered signatures from 1,300 Nebraskans to urge lawmakers to restore the care, regardless of women’s immigration status.

LB1106 was enacted to allow school-based health centers to provide medical, behavioral, mental, and preventive and oral health care to Medicaid-eligible children in schools.  Thanks to this new law, school children will avoid trips to the emergency room, will remain and school, and increase their academic engagement.  LB1106 also ensures that the school-based health centers reflect community values by encouraging parents, school administrators, and community members, including Native American tribes, to be involved in the establishment and implementation of the school-based health centers.  LB1106 will also save the state’s taxpayers over $1 million each year by capturing available federal funds.

The legislature approved LB420, which would have given a sales tax exemption for non-profit health clinics, but Governor Dave Heineman refused to sign the bill, a decision that will cost thousands of Nebraskans from receiving the health care they need.  One other progressive bill defeated, LB1017, would have prohibited insurance companies from creating specialty drug tiers for biologics prescription drugs by requiring payment of a percentage of their costs and the bill would have limited out-of-pocket expenses for consumers.

Workers' Rights:  The legislature passed LB563, making it illegal for employers to improperly classify workers as independent contractors and assessing penalties, including $500 per employee for the first offense and $5,000 per employee for each subsequent violation

Voter Protection:  Newly enacted LB951 brings Nebraska intro compliance with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE).  This means that Nebraska would have to make ballots and other election materials available via facsimile or electronic mail to members of the armed forces, oversea citizens and persons residing outside the country.

An unsuccessful effort to encourage voting, LB850 would have required the University of Nebraska, state colleges and community colleges to provide information on early voting prior to each statewide primary and general election.  Another setback took place by failing to enact LB635, which would have required political committees that conduct independent expenditure activity to abide by the same reporting requirements under the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Act as independent committees that are not affiliated with a political party or candidate.

Promoting "States Rights":  Resolution 539, passed by the legislature, evokes the Ninth and Tenth Amendment in a vague assertion of states rights and a demand for the federal government to "adhere to the principles of federalism."  The resolution was condemned by one Nebraska Senator who remarked, “’states’ rights’ has a murky history, used by Southern states to defend their right to allow slavery."

Criminal Justice:  Nebraska finally enacted LB190 to test the blood samples of persons convicted of any felony, ending its status as one of the only four states that to take this basic step for justice.  LB190 will apply retroactively to those currently imprisoned for felonies who do not have a DNA sample on file.  The ACLU of Nebraska expressed some misgivings that the law also requires the collection of samples from those convicted of certain misdemeanors such as stalking, sexual abuse of a vulnerable person and violations of the sex offender registry.

LB800 will allow some nonviolent juvenile offenders to continue attending school rather than going to detention, sealing the court records from potential employers and others for juveniles who successfully complete court-ordered programs.  The law will also give schools a bigger stake in handling truants and give judges the power to order families to get counseling to address a child's problems.  Representatives of the Nebraska State Bar Association were supportive but raised several concerns that the law shifts the burden of decision-making in a juvenile's case from judges to police and probation officers.

Defeated was LB1105, requiring a study on the costs of capital punishment in the state.  Not long ago, a Kansas study found the costs of life in prison far less expensive than the death penalty.

Workers’ Compensation:  LB780 was enacted to give post-traumatic stress treatment benefits to Nebraska’s first responders.  The bill will provide workers’ compensation coverage for post-traumatic stress for police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians, both volunteer and paid.

Resources:
Nebraska Legislature — Unicameral Update
Nebraska State Education Association — Legislative Updates
Nebraska Sierra Club — 2010 Legislative Update # 10
The Center for Reproductive Rights - The Center Responds to Nebraska’s Extreme Anti-Abortion Laws
Journal Star - Nebraska Lawmakers Pass Wind-Energy Measure
Journal Star - After Heated Debate, Worker Compensation Bill on to Final Reading
Omaha World Herald - Midlands Voices: Protection of Prenatal Care Urgent Policy for Nebraska
Center for Rural Affairs - Nebraska Wind Energy Poll
Nebraska Watchdog - Death Penalty Study Dead
The Maui News - Governor Signs Landmark Abortion Bills
New York Times - Nebraska Law Sets Limits on Abortion
Omaha World Herald - Prenatal Backers Get Small Win
Journal StarStrict New Abortion Law Faces Long Legal Road
Omaha World Herald - Wind Energy Bill Signed
WOWT.com - Collecting DNA Samples from Convicted Felons
Omaha World Herald - Juvenile Justice Reform Backed