Medical marijuana headed for legislative debate; fracking decision may not be delayed


April 21st, 2015

Medical marijuana headed for legislative debate; fracking decision may not be delayed (Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

Medical marijuana headed for legislative debate; fracking decision may not be delayed (Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

A medical marijuana bill is headed to the floor of the Nebraska Legislature for debate. Seven senators are trying to delay a decision by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on the proposed disposal of fracking water in Sioux County. And a proposal to inform Nebraskans how much it would cost to comply with a federal mandate to reduce carbon emissions is advancing.

The Judiciary Committee voted 7-1 to send Bellevue Sen. Tommy Garrett’s medical marijuana bill to the full Legislature for debate.


Following the vote, Garrett said he was pleased. “At the end of the day we’re excited because we’re getting this to the floor for debate. And we want to get this through and help sick and ailing Nebraskans,” he said.

Garrett said the bill in the form advanced by the committee is patterned on Minnesota’s medical marijuana law. He said one concern with that is the Minnesota law had an estimated cost of nearly $3 million to implement. But he noted that Minnesota has a much larger population than Nebraska, and said he’s working with the Legislature’s fiscal office to get a more appropriate estimate for this state.

On fracking, seven members of the Legislature have written to the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission requesting a delay in any decision over the proposed disposal of fracking water in Sioux County until after the Legislature can study the issue. Sens. Galen Hadley, Heath Mello, Ken Haar, John Kuehn, Kate Sullivan, Al Davis, and John Stinner signed the letter in advance of the Commission’s scheduled meeting on the subject Wednesday. Commission Director Bill Sydow said the commission will respond. But Sydow said Monday afternoon he thinks its rules and regulations require it to make a decision by Thursday.

On the carbon emissions issue, the Legislature advanced a call for an evaluation before any state plan is sent to the federal government. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its “Clean Power Plan” to cut carbon emissions from power plants and combat climate change. The plan is now being challenged in court. But if it survives, it would require Nebraska to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants 26 percent by 2030. The state Department of Environmental Quality is supposed to come up with the plan. But under legislation sponsored by Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, the state Energy Office would first evaluate the plan.

Smith said he’s not trying to put up a roadblock. “I don’t oppose the goal of reducing CO2 emissions. However, it is imperative we know exactly how the one-size-fits-all, the far-reaching approach that the EPA is taking will impact our states and our citizens,” he said.

Smith says the plan required by the EPA could have a big impact on coal-fired generating units at the state’s power plants. “The fact is, like it or not, Nebraska is a coal state. Currently 72 percent of Nebraska’s electricity is generated using coal. The EPA mandate targets 24 electric generating units and 11 plants located in our state,” he said.

Smith’s bill would require the Energy Office to evaluate the state’s plan for complying with the EPA requirement, and report to the Legislature on the impact on electricity rates, the state’s infrastructure, and electric service reliability.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm supported the bill. But Haar said the report ought to include the risks of not making changes. “I hope we will also talk about risks. For example the risk of keeping large coal-fired power plants burning is getting greater and greater. I don’t know when it’s going to happen but eventually there will be some sort of tax on carbon, of putting CO2 into the atmosphere, and coal of course is the greatest polluter when it comes to that,” he said.

Smith said his bill is intended to let people know what could happen. “The point of the bill is to provide the Legislature and the public with information, with the transparency. It is our right to know what effect this federal mandate will have on our state and on the ratepayers in this state,” he said.

And while Smith said renewable sources like wind and solar power are not at a point where they could totally replace coal, Haar said they represent a great opportunity. “The potential benefits of investing in 1,000 megawatts of wind is about $1.7 billion. For Iowa, this has meant the investment of about $11 billion in their wind industry, compared to our $2 billion investment in Nebraska,” he said.

Currently, the deadline for Nebraska to submit its plan for cutting carbon dioxide emissions to the EPA is June 30, 2016. But Smith said he expects that to be extended by one year. He said that would give the Legislature time to consider the impacts as described in the Energy Office evaluation. And he said lawmakers would then have a range of options, ranging from doing nothing, to passing a resolution, to taking legislative action to prevent the state from submitting the plan to the EPA. Senators gave the bill first round approval on a vote of 39-0.

Monday also saw first round approval of a bill, LB72, that Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher said is intended to save money in the Medicaid program. “LB72 deals with the phenomena of folks who have money giving their assets away to their heirs, laying low for five years and then going on nursing home at state expense in the event they run out of the rest of their money,” he said.

Schumacher’s bill tries to do that by requiring trustees of the estate of someone who has died to settle any Medicaid debts with the Department of Health and Human Services before any proceeds are distributed. It also requires DHHS to be notified of any inheritance tax, which indicates there was money in the estate. The bill advanced on a vote of 31-0.

Correction: The audio version of this story contained an incorrect vote tally on Smith’s bill. The correct tally is 39-0.

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