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Nebraska lawmakers pick priorities as time starts to run out

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Posted at 2:27 PM, Feb 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-23 15:27:33-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Crunch time is coming for Nebraska lawmakers now that this year’s session is nearly half over, and they’ve winnowed down their bills to a few top priorities.

Lawmakers each get one “priority bill” per session, and committees get two. The designation is critical because priority bills get debated before all others, and with more long debates expected in the 60-day session, they’re the only ones with a chance of passing this year.

Friday, the session’s 28th day, was the deadline for lawmakers and committees to pick their priorities. Here are a few high-profile measures that made the cut:



A proposal to abolish Nebraska’s current taxes and replace them with a statewide consumption tax will get more attention from lawmakers if one senator has his way.

Sen. Steve Erdman, of Bayard, picked the proposed ballot measure as his priority to try to force lawmakers to cut spending and shrink state government.

Erdman said he has received an overwhelmingly positive response, though the measure is still in committee and faces an uphill battle in the Legislature before it could go to voters. Even so, the proposal has nine co-sponsors, including two Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, and it drew strong public support during a recent legislative hearing.

The measure would eliminate the state’s income, sales, property and inheritance taxes and would impose a single-rate tax on all new goods and services purchased. All residents would get “prebate checks” to reduce the impact on low-income people, Erdman said.

Opponents argue that relying on just one source of revenue would destabilize state government because the amount of taxes collected can vary month to month.

“This is an opportunity to fix our taxes,” Erdman said. “People need to stand up and force the Legislature to make a decision.”



Another prioritized bill would ban dilation and evacuation abortions, a common second-trimester procedure that opponents refer to as “dismemberment abortion.”

Sen. Suzanne Geist, of Lincoln, said she introduced the bill after learning about the procedure.

“Regardless of our individual opinions on abortion, I think we can agree that no living creature and certainly no human being should be subject to this barbaric act in the name of women’s health,” she said in testimony Thursday to a legislative committee.

Abortion-rights supporters said the bill would criminalize the medically preferred method of carrying out second-trimester abortions, especially for women with medical complications.

“This egregious bill supplants medical expertise with the opinions of politicians,” said Sarah Traxler, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood North Central States.



A pilot program designed to keep more neglected children with their families would be allowed to continue under a bill prioritized by Sen. Sue Crawford, of Bellevue.

The program gives parents a chance to avoid law enforcement and the courts if they’re deemed a low risk to hurt their children and state officials can take steps to help them.

It’s a major issue because Nebraska has previously taken a more blanket approach to child welfare, treating a mother who neglected to feed her children the same as one who simply couldn’t afford food. Removing children has been shown to cause even more trauma for children.

“One of our issues as a state is trying to find ways to help families stay together,” Crawford said Friday, just before the measure won first-round approval.



Lawmakers are likely to begin debate this week on a bill that would allow college athletes to get paid for endorsement deals.

The measure introduced and prioritized by Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, would allow athletes to seek financial compensation beyond their scholarships and stipends.

Hunt has argued that the athletes are essentially giving free labor to NCAA programs that generate millions of dollars a year, potentially at risk to their own health. The bill advanced out of a legislative committee earlier this month and has at least 17 co-sponsors.



Nebraska lawmakers are struggling to pass major legislation to lower property taxes and upgrade the state’s larger business incentive program, but both have received priority designations.

Supporters said the incentive package is critical because the current program is set to expire at the end of this year, which would leave Nebraska at a significant competitive disadvantage when seeking to attract new companies. However, some rural lawmakers have said they’ll fight the bill if senators don’t first cut property taxes.

Lawmakers are likewise under pressure to lower property taxes because of complaints from farmers and homeowners whose bills have risen sharply. A citizen-led petition drive could force lawmakers’ hand if it qualifies for the November ballot and voters approve it.



One lawmaker whose district was devastated by last year’s Missouri River flooding has a message for federal authorities: Do your job.

Sen. Julie Slama, of Peru, has prioritized a legislative resolution that would formally urge Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to focus on flood mitigation over other priorities, such as protecting wildlife and recreational opportunities. It’s a long-running dispute between downriver states that want more flood protections and upriver states that use the river and its dams for tourism and outdoor activities.

Slama has said she doesn’t think the Corps is doing nearly enough to manage the river and minimize the flooding risk.



Hundreds of other bills that didn’t get prioritized are likely dead for the year, unless lawmakers merge them into other legislation. The list includes bills to protect consumer data, allow lottery winters to remain anonymous and mandatory investigations of drivers who pass a school bus with an extended stop sign. A proposed sales tax on bottled water, candy and soft drinks also failed to get a priority.