Legislature advances bill to let hemp be grown in Nebraska again

Legislature advances bill to let hemp be grown in Nebraska again
Hemp is one step closer to being grown, harvested, processed and marketed in Nebraska. REBECCA S. GRATZ/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Industrial hemp could be on its way back to Nebraska fields after almost 80 years.

State lawmakers took a major step Monday toward allowing marijuana’s practical cousin to be grown, harvested, processed and marketed in the state.

Despite warnings from some senators, the Legislature gave 37-4 first-round approval to a bill that would legalize industrial hemp and its products, including cannabidiol, or CBD, products.

Legislative Bill 657, introduced by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, provides for licensing and regulation of the new crop. The bill follows the regulation steps spelled out in last year’s federal farm bill. It also creates a Nebraska Hemp Commission to promote hemp and its products.

Wayne said he introduced the measure because he wanted to find a way to create jobs in Nebraska. In particular, he has said he hopes to land hemp processing facilities in his north Omaha district.

“What we’re trying to do is create a Nebraska plan for Nebraska growers,” he said.

He made clear that the bill deals only with strains of the cannabis plant with less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in other cannabis strains that produces intoxicating effects.

LB 657 has been developed in cooperation with Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration, particularly the State Department of Agriculture and the Nebraska State Patrol. Both agencies opposed previous hemp proposals.

Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage explained the change, saying: “The farm bill legalized hemp nationally, and the state is pursuing a regulatory framework in response to federal action.”

But Sen. John Lowe of Kearney warned that the bill would put youths at risk and make it more difficult to hold the line on legalizing marijuana, hemp’s intoxicating cousin.

“This is our state going down a slippery slope,” he said. “We’re jumping into the waters without knowing the depth.”

Lowe also argued that industrial hemp is an untried alternative crop. He urged colleagues to study the experiences of other states for another year or two.

Others responded that Nebraska needs to move more quickly to keep up with neighboring states. Hemp supporters have raised concerns about the time it took to launch hemp research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after a 2014 law allowed it.

LB 657 would expand that research by allowing the university to partner with growers and processors during the 2019 growing season. Results of that research could help shape the regulatory plan that the bill calls for the Agriculture Department to develop.

Wayne said that industrial hemp offers growth potential as an alternative crop and that the federal farm bill opened a way to take advantage of that potential.

He cited figures showing that the global market for hemp products, which range from fiber to medicine to food, was about $820 million last year. By 2025, it is expected to reach $10.6 billion.

Wayne also pointed to Nebraska’s hemp-growing past. The federal government allowed hemp production in the 1940s, during World War II. At the time, Nebraska was the top-producing state. The cannabis plants that pop up as weeds around the state are remnants of those days.

Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, a farmer who named LB 657 his priority for the session, took on the opponents who tried to link hemp to marijuana. He said that position made as much sense as banning corn because it could be used to make whiskey or potatoes because they could be used to make vodka.

Nebraska lawmakers advance bill to create license plate funding job efforts for vets

Support for military: Nebraska drivers could show their support for the troops — and fund employment efforts for veterans — with a new license plate option advanced by lawmakers Monday.

State lawmakers gave first-round approval to Legislative Bill 138, introduced by State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, which makes a number of changes in military-related license plates.

The measure provides for new “Support Our Troops” plates and directs proceeds to a new fund aimed at recruiting and keeping military veterans in the state. Personalized message plates would cost $70, of which $52.50 would go to the new fund. Plates with standard number-letter combinations would cost $5, which would all go to the fund.

Blood said the proposed plates are a creative way to pay for veteran employment services, given the state’s tight budget situation. She said efforts to recruit and keep veterans in Nebraska would benefit both the veterans and employers in desperate need of workers.

As advanced, LB 138 would also add to the license plate options for active-duty military and veterans and make some military-related plates free.

The new options would include separate designs for the Army and Air National Guard, plus designs honoring people who have been awarded medals for serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Southwest Asia, the war on terror and Vietnam.

License plate fees would be eliminated, starting in 2021, for drivers who qualify for Pearl Harbor Survivor, Ex-POW, Purple Heart, Disabled American Veteran and Gold Star Family plates.

Regulation of “skill games.” Amusement games described by some as illegal “video slot machines” would be required to undergo a more rigorous state inspection before they could go public under LB 538.

More than 2,300 such games, with names like “Skill Touch,” are in use across the state at bars, convenience stores and VFW clubs, but the Nebraska State Patrol has been frustrated in its efforts to determine whether they are legal games of skill or illegal games of chance.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said the measure would better vet the games by requiring an inspection — before they are allowed to be installed — by the Nebraska Department of Revenue to determine whether they are legal. The inspection would cost $500, with an approval stamp for each approved machine increasing from $35 a year to $250 a year.

LB 538 is backed by some keno firms, which see the skill games as unfair competition, but opposed by some distributors of the games as unneeded regulation. One anti-gambling senator, Joni Albrecht of Thurston, said that the bill didn’t go far enough and that limits should be placed on the number of such games and the age of the players.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said the bill unfairly requires distributors to prove that their games are legal. He also said it could turn churches, bar owners and VFW club officials, who use the games for fundraising, into criminals.

Lathrop said he would work to resolve such concerns before second-round debate. The bill cleared the first round of debate on a 34-0 vote.

Governor campaigns against legislative plan. Gov. Pete Ricketts attended another press conference Monday — his fourth in recent weeks — to rail against the Legislature’s preliminary proposal to reduce property taxes.

This time, he joined veterinarians in opposing a proposal (that was recently dropped from the Legislature’s tentative plan) to impose sales taxes on pet grooming and veterinary services.

“Keep your paws off” these services, Ricketts said.

The Revenue Committee’s tentative property tax relief proposalnow calls for new taxes on plumbing and moving services, pop and junk food, as well as a ½-cent overall hike in the state sales tax. The revenue generated would reduce property taxes by paying for K-12 education. The initial plan had called for several other new taxes on beer, home repairs and ride shares.

Ricketts maintains that it’s wrong to raise some taxes to lower others; some lawmakers say that’s the only way to significantly reduce property taxes.