LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers ended a historic session Thursday marked by major tax cuts, a grant program to expand high-speed internet service and regulations to clear the way for the state’s new casino industry.
But they left major work unfinished, most notably the once-a-decade ritual of redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative districts, which will force them to return to the Capitol later this year. The session was also shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and bitter disputes over how to use excess money in the state budget.
“This has indeed been an historic session of the Legislature, but there is still more work to do,” Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts said in his traditional end-of-session speech to lawmakers.
Lawmakers this year lowered the state's top corporate income tax rate, a change sought by business groups but fervently opposed by some lawmakers, who questioned whether it would actually help Nebraska attract and retain businesses.
Nebraska will also phase out taxes on Social Security income and provide a full tax exemption on military retirement pay to try to keep retirees from leaving the state. Combined with existing and new property tax initiatives, Ricketts said the state will spend more than $1.8 billion on tax-reduction measures over the next two years.
Lawmakers and Ricketts created a $20 million-a-year grant program as well to encourage internet providers to extend high-speed service to underserved areas, particularly those in rural areas.
Nebraska also has new regulations for the state’s fledgling casino industry, which voters legalized this year. The casino law will allow sports betting, except on University of Nebraska and Creighton University teams when they play in-state games.
Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers said lawmakers faced numerous challenges throughout the session, including the prospect that they’d be forced to abruptly pause the session because of the coronavirus pandemic. That never happened, however, and lawmakers continued working with social distancing restrictions that made it more difficult to interact with one another and the public.
Hilgers, of Lincoln, praised lawmakers for passing a balanced budget with a relatively small 2% spending growth and for passing innovative new laws, including a measure to let banks offer cryptocurrency services. Nebraska is only the second state to do so, behind Wyoming.
He also praised the tax measures as “the most consequential series of tax cuts this Legislature has passed” in decades.
“All of these things make Nebraska more competitive and more affordable,” he said.
The session saw major coronavirus legislation pass with sweeping legal protections for businesses, schools and other organizations against pandemic-related lawsuits. Another new law will allow residents to order carry-out alcohol from restaurants and buy and shoot off larger fireworks.
Lawmakers are expected to return to the Capitol in September to approve new legislative and congressional districts, among others. The process has always been partisan even in Nebraska’s ostensibly nonpartisan Legislature, where Republicans outnumber Democrats but more moderate lawmakers often break ranks.