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PSN on May 8, 2008 - 9:32am
In the last legislative session before term limits are implemented and many veteran legislators are pushed into retirement, the Nebraska legislature made solid, if relatively small progress, in a number of areas.
On the Budget,the state faced a tightening belt but made important budget reforms for road funding and school aid.
- Roads funding: With record-high gas prices, raising gas taxes to pay for roads was controversial, but lawmakers overrode Gov. Dave Heineman's veto of a bill to raise the tax by about a penny a gallon to keep up with inflation. However, they backed off a plan that would have increased the tax by 3 more cents a gallon. They also added $15 million from the state's reserve over three years to assure that Nebraska will qualify for millions of federal roads dollars.
- Schools funding: Responding to a lawsuit by Omaha Public Schools over inequity in school aid funding formulas and shortfalls in school budgets, state lawmakers enacted LB 988 to change the state's school funding formula to direct funds to schools with the most costly children and increased overall school funding by about 9 percent next year -- unfortunately still less than the 17 percent hike that schools were expecting.
On Election Reform,the state focused on procedural measures to rein in potential abuses by paid campaign staffs:
Passed over the governor's veto, LB 39 requires those paid to circulate statewide petitions be paid by the hour rather than by the signature and require that they live in Nebraska.
LB 720 requires that automatically dialed calls be made only between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. and that all calls state who is paying for the call and for whom it is being made, along with the contact information of the person making the call.
On Health Care,the state made some small progress in areas while restricting stem cell research at public facilities:
Prescription Drugs: LB 830, the Medicaid Prescription Drug Act, establishes a preferred drug list and allows the state to negotiate directly with insurance companies, contract with pharmacy benefit managers or join multistate purchasing pools to lower drug costs.
Smoking Ban: LB 395 enacts a statewide smoking ban in all bars and restaurants across the state.
Stem Cells: LB 606 was a compromise bill that avoided a proposed ban on all stem cell research in favor of a bill that just restricts use of state dollars to destroy a human embryo for cloning and research. However, the University of Nebraska Medical Center can continue to use cell lines in existence before 2001 from other sources for research. The bill also establishes a Stem Cell Advisory Council, with $500,000 of matching funds for non-embryonic stem cell research.
The legislature made some solid reforms in a number of other areas:
Energy Efficiency: LB 1001 creates a grant program for utility companies to help low-income homeowners make their homes more energy efficient.
Contractor Reform: LB 204 requires all contractors doing $5,000 in business a year to register with the Department of Labor.
Economic Incentives: A new Nebraska Super Advantage tax incentive, LB 895, focused on attracting higher-paying jobs in the state by targeting a 15 percent investment tax credit and a 10 percent wage credit to businesses paying at least 150 percent of the state average wage or 200 percent of the average wage in the county where the business is located, whichever is greatest. To qualify, companies will need to create 75 new jobs and make a $10 million capital investment, or create at least 50 new jobs and make a $100 million investment in capital.
- Anti-Bullying: LB 205 requires schools to adopt an anti-bullying policy.
- Criminal Justice Reform: LB 179 requires the electronic recording of all confessions and statements by those in custody.
Nebraska Foreclosure Protection Act: LB 123 strengthens the consumer rights of mortgage borrowers to be fully informed and allows courts to void mortgage contracts that are deemed one-sided and unconscionable.
On immigration,the good news was that Governor Dave Heineman's bill, LB 963, to take state benefits away from undocumented immigrants and their children was buried by the Legislature's Judiciary committee in late February, partly because a proposal to revoke in-state tuition proved to be too controversial.