Legislators end session with property taxes, business tax incentives still unresolved

Legislators end session with property taxes, business tax incentives still unresolved
The Associated Press

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers headed home Friday from a session marked by relatively easy passage of a $9.3 billion state budget but major disappointments over property taxes and business incentives.

“There was a general consensus that there were things left undone,” said State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha.

The final day saw the Legislature pass a few bills, override the veto of a bill creating an Omaha-area transit authority and listen to some last words from Gov. Pete Ricketts.

In his speech, Ricketts touted the record amount in the state’s Property Tax Credit Fund. The state budget increased the fund by 23%, which boosted the total to $275 million a year. The credits offset a portion of each property owner’s tax bill.

“We have continued to make good progress,” Ricketts said, noting that the credit fund total has nearly doubled since he took office.

But many lawmakers, especially rural ones, had pushed for bigger reductions in property taxes. As in past years, they came up empty in their search for a solution that could win majority support.

The governor fought the two major property tax proposals, both of which would have increased sales and other taxes and used the revenue to cut property taxes. The proposals also faced opposition from groups that would have been affected by the increases. One drew additional concerns over its complex revamp of the state school aid formula.

In frustration over the property tax proposals, rural senators joined with some progressives to sink a new business tax incentive program pushed by state business groups. Nebraska’s current incentive program expires at the end of next year.

Some rural lawmakers also voted against the motion to adjourn for the year to emphasize the issues left unresolved.

But the session saw lawmakers pass 262 bills and two proposed constitutional amendments, despite being cut short six days. They debated all but five of the measures named as priorities.

Lawmakers took steps against prison overcrowding by approving the construction of more prison beds and the expansion of problem-solving courts. They put money into health and human services provider rates.

They legalized industrial hemp and revamped state requirements for civics education. Legislators raised the age to buy cigarettes and vaping products and required that women getting medication abortions be told they may be able to change their minds partway through.

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk praised colleagues for a long list of accomplishments. “The citizens of Nebraska were well served,” he said.

But Scheer said the session had not been “all blue skies” and there were “too many personal attacks and vilification.” He admonished his colleagues to spend the months before the next session learning to trust and work with each other.

Here is a summary of what the Legislature did — and didn’t do — during the 2019 session:

Taxes and spending

  • $9.3 billion budget will pay for new maximum security prison beds, payment increases for health and human services providers, and the launch of voter-approved Medicaid expansion.
  • Property taxpayers will share $275 million worth of tax credits in each of the next two years, up $51 million from this year. But they won’t see major changes in their property tax bills or a constitutional curb on local property tax increases.
  • State law will make clear that only large online retailers have to collect sales taxes from Nebraska customers.
  • tax credit for angel investors will end, and the money will be used to expand a more successful program for startup ventures.
  • Nebraska will operate for one last year with its current business tax incentive program, with the future uncertain.
  • Military veterans will get no new tax exemptions on their military retirement benefits.

Health and welfare

  • Women getting medication abortions will have to be told about their options if they change their mind halfway through the abortion.
  • Nebraskans will have to be 19 years old to buy and use tobacco or vaping products as of next year.
  • Health insurance plans will have to cover the cost of children’s hearing aids, with some exceptions.
  • Medical marijuana will remain illegal but cannabidiol (CBD) products with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) will be allowed.
  • People convicted of drug felonies will continue to be barred from or limited in getting food stamp benefits.
  • Conversion therapy, aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, will continue to be legal.

Government and elections

  • Nebraska voters will be asked at the 2020 general election about removing a provision from the State Constitution that allows slavery as punishment for a crime.
  • The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District will have five more years to use bonds to pay for flood control projects in the Omaha area.
  • Gage County will be able to impose a county sales tax to help pay off a $28 million federal judgment owed to six people wrongly convicted of a 1985 murder.
  • Better notification will be required for delinquent property taxpayers who are at risk of losing their property because of unpaid taxes.
  • The state has money to buy new ballot counting equipment, as well as ballot marking machines for disabled voters.
  • Lawmakers will put off deciding what process to use in drawing new election districts after the 2020 census.

Crime and punishment

  • Revenge porn — threatening or harassing someone by distributing sexual photos and videos of them — will be illegal and could be the basis for a lawsuit.
  • Courts will have to hold hearings before dismissing applications for domestic violence or sexual assault protection orders.
  • Farmers would get some additional protection against lawsuitsover dust, noise, odors and other nuisances created by their operations.
  • Drug courts and other problem-solving courts will expand and judges will be allowed to defer sentences where no such courts exist.
  • Nebraska’s death penalty will remain in place.
  • The courts will not be able to take away guns from people who pose an imminent threat, and schools will not be allowed to arm teachers and administrators.

Education

  • Nebraska students will have to meet new requirements for civics education under a revamp of the state’s Americanism law.
  • College savings plans will be opened for every Nebraska baby, and private donors will get tax benefits for boosting the college savings plans of low-income children.
  • State retirement officials will look at the cost and process needed for the state to take over the troubled Omaha Public Schools pension system.
  • No new tax benefits will be offered for donating to a scholarship fund for students at private K-12 schools.
  • Laws about disciplining students in public schools will remain unchanged.
  • The state school aid formula will remain as is while lawmakers work on a revamp for the future.

Making money

  • Fees for initial health care professional licensing will be waived for young Nebraskans, low-income people and military families.
  • Employers will have to give job applicants a chance to explain their criminal history and make a case for being hired, despite previous convictions.
  • New state laws will open markets for home-based bakers and mobile massage therapy providers.
  • Paid family and medical leave will continue to be offered only at the discretion of employers.
  • Waitresses, waiters and bartenders will not see any change in their state minimum wage.
  • No law will protect people from job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

This and that

  • Growing, harvesting, processing and selling industrial hempand its products will be legal under a system of licensing and regulation.
  • Using fake telephone numbers to fool people into answering scam calls will be against the law.
  • Landlords will have to return security deposits to former renters without being asked.
  • Rules for the approval and installation of so-called “small cell” antennas will apply statewide instead of community by community. The antennas can be used for 5G, or fifth generation, wireless Internet.
  • New license plates will support military troops, promote prostate cancer awareness or feature sandhill cranes, bighorn sheep and ornate box turtles.
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