NU search secrecy, property tax relief, medical marijuana discussed in Legislature


March 9th, 2016

Sen. John Murante discusses his bill on NU searches (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Sen. John Murante discusses his bill on NU searches (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

A proposal for added secrecy in searches for University of Nebraska leaders is advancing in the Legislature. Negotiations continue on property tax relief. And medical marijuana legislation is being reworked before going back up for debate.

Currently, the names of finalists for president of the University of Nebraska or chancellor of one of its four campuses become public when the field is narrowed to four.

Under a proposal by Sen. John Murante, they would remain secret until one so-called “priority” candidate is selected. That person would then be subject to scrutiny for a month, during which public meetings would be held on all four campuses giving the public a chance to ask questions.

Supporters of the proposal said it would expand the pool of potential candidates by attracting those who might currently be discouraged by the prospect of their names being made public. Critics, including Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, said the current system is working well.

“Transparency vets the bad ones already – the ones that don’t believe in transparency, that (have) got something to hide,” Groene said. “We don’t want those folks. We want the folks who, when their present employer finds out that they’re looking for another job, beg ‘em to stay.”

Murante, who runs a restaurant in Omaha, called that unrealistic. “I’ve employed a lot of people over the last few years – hundreds of people. And I’ve never once had an instance of an employee coming to me and said ‘Hey boss, just want you to know I’m looking for another job. I don’t have one yet. I want to still work for you. I’m just looking,’” Murante said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers initially tried to derail the bill with a motion to kill it. But after several hours of debate, it came to a vote and senators voted 36-1 to give it first round approval. Murante said later he’s not sure it will have such an easy time at the next stage of debate.

Meanwhile, the Revenue Committee continues to work on a proposal designed to alleviate property taxes. The committee has moved away from Gov. Pete Ricketts proposal to limit agricultural land valuation increases to a statewide average of three percent a year. Instead, it has been talking about extending how many years’ worth of comparable sales to consider in assessing property, to try and smooth out any spikes in valuation increases.

Asked about that at a news conference, Ricketts said “As I’ve said all along, there’s nothing sacred in any of these bills,” adding however “We need to get something done.”

Tuesday, Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk proposed an alternative to sending more money to schools through the existing school aid formula, as the five-year sales proposal would do. Scheer wants to send out a flat, per pupil amount he called foundation aid. “Foundation aid goes to every student in every district in an equal and fair apportionment. So if it’s $1 per student or $1,000 per student, if a school system has 112 students, as some very small one might have, or 50,000 as OPS would have, each one of those students is worth $100 or $1,000, whatever it is, to both districts,” Scheer said.

Scheer’s idea could benefit many rural districts, which have lost state aid because of a rise in value of agricultural land. Sen. Jim Smith said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to the idea. But Smith said he wanted to make sure it was clear that property tax relief would be the result. “I think we owe it to property tax payers – property owners, property tax payers – we owe it to them to make it visible, obvious to them, as to whether or not they are receiving property tax relief,” Smith said.

Discussion continues in the Revenue Committee, which has not yet advanced a plan.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Sen. Sara Howard is putting final touches on an amendment to Sen. Tommy Garrett’s proposal left over from last year to legalize medical marijuana. Howard says the rewrite is comprehensive. “This incorporates both manufacturing entities that are highly regulated with full oversight by the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as compassion centers and dispensaries that would essentially serve as pharmacies for medicinal marijuana. It limits the types of medicinal marijuana that can be manufactured within the state of Nebraska — limits it to oil or vaporized oil so that it’s clear that this is not meant for smoking,” Howard said.

The amendment limits medical marijuana to the treatment of a list of qualifying medical conditions, including cancer, epileptic seizures, cachexia or severe wasting, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, Crohn’s disease, spasms associated with multiple sclerosis, and terminal illness.

Howard pointed out those conditions would have to be certified by a health care practitioner. “The amendment itself reestablishes medical practitioners as the true gatekeeper for any type of pharmaceutical, which I think was a little bit muddy in the last version,” she said.

Garrett’s bill advanced through one of three stages of debate last year, and has a priority. But with only 20 days remaining in this year’s session, and senators moving slowly through legislation, the proposal will have to compete for scare debate time with a host of other bills.

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