Taxes, water, prisons to be high on 2014 legislative agenda


January 8th, 2014

Omaha, NE – The Nebraska Legislature convenes its 2014 session Wednesday, with issues affecting taxpayers, natural resources, and crime and punishment likely to top the agenda.

There will be plenty of proposals  – about 500 bills are expected to be introduced, beyond those left over from last year. But according to Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton, several are likely to stand out.  “The big issues will be taxes, water, prison reform, and then anything the other 49 senators want to talk about as their big issue,” Dubas said.

Dubas is a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, but Republican Sen. John Nelson of Omaha offered a similar list.

While senators may agree on their predictions, they differ in their prescriptions. Taxes provide one example. Last year lawmakers killed Gov. Dave Heineman’s proposal to abolish state income taxes. A committee then studied the tax system, but recommended no dramatic changes. Heineman, in his final year as governor, says he still wants to cut income and property taxes.

Sen.  Beau McCoy of Omaha, who co-sponsored Heineman’s bill last year, says he’ll introduce new legislation this year. “I fully intend to reduce taxes. I believe that’s important,” McCoy said. “Unfortunately with declining commodity prices (taxes) are really becoming a challenge for Nebraskans to handle and to be competitive as Nebraska families and businesses.”

Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, who, like McCoy, is seeking the Republican nomination to succeed Heineman, says he will also offer a tax cutting plan.

But Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery predicts little appetite for deep cuts. “There are people who think that the (Tax) Modernization Committee should have been looking for large tax cuts. But you still have to pay the bills. If they want to strip the government down to bare bones and very little services, they’re going to need another Legislature to do that,” Avery said.

Another issue likely to generate debate is funding water projects, like dams and canals. A task force created by Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson, another GOP gubernatorial hopeful, listed recommendations including setting aside part of the state’s sales tax. That’s likely to run into objections that it takes away funding needed for other things like schools and health care.

Then there is the question of reforming the state’s overcrowded prison system. Sen. Brad Ashford plans to introduce legislation promoting  prison alternatives, like letting people out earlier but under intensive supervision. “We’re not simply going to send an offender out on the street looking for work. We’re going to have hopefully a laundry list of potential employers within the state who would be willing to hire ex-offenders, that sort of thing. If someone is working, if someone is reuniting with their families, if someone has adequate housing, they’re much less likely to go out and commit another crime,” Ashford said.

At the same time, some senators reacting to crimes committed by people who have been released want to making it tougher for prisoners to get “good time” to reduce the length of time they serve.

One issue left over from last year that will spark renewed debate is whether or not to expand Medicaid to  cover about 50,000 more low-income people. Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, a leader in last year’s unsuccessful effort, said supporters will try again, with a new twist. He promised proposal similar to those moving ahead in Iowa and Arkansas, containing a mix of public and private insurance. “It’s likely we’ll include some form of cost copayment or  cost sharing of some nature…to make sure that everyone has some skin in the game,” Nordquist said.

It’s not clear if that will convince skeptics like Grand Island Sen. Mike Gloor. The former hospital administrator still has doubts about signing people up for a program he said taps into an already overloaded system. “Are we actually giving people a card that, because of problems having enough primary care practitioners still makes it difficult for them to get in, and even then, are we providing a card that doesn’t necessarily improve their health status overall?” Gloor asked.

The session will also see debate over subjects ranging from parks funding and mountain lion hunting to school finance and the death penalty. But on these subjects, like on taxes, it is hard to predict what the outcome will be. Asked what she thinks wii happen, Dubas said “If I haven’t learned anything else in seven years, I have learned never try to predict what the Legislature’s going to do.”

Editor’s note: You can watch live coverage of the Legislature starting Wednesday at 10 a.m. on NET2 World, or online at NET News will also have daily legislative updates throughout the session, at 7:06 Central on Morning Edition and 5:30 Central on All Things Considered.

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