Nebraska’s first session of the 107th Legislature concluded in late May. High on the list of policy issues being developed this session were several bills dealing with agriculture and rural residents.
Nebraska Farmer asked Bruce Rieker, Nebraska Farm Bureau vice president of governmental relations, about the takeaways from the Farm Bureau’s standpoint.
Rieker listed several different bills that Farm Bureau considered major victories in the Unicameral in 2021. There was concern that COVID-19’s effect on the economy would dramatically reduce state tax receipts, but that did not happen, Rieker says. In fact, the Legislature passed a two-year budget that provides for 2% spending growth. Also included in the $9.7 billion biennial budget was $1.45 billion designated for property tax relief.
“The mainline appropriations bill, LB380, triggered $358 million annually in refundable income tax credits based on property taxes paid to K-12 schools, which was created by LB1107 last year,” Rieker says. “This means that farmers and ranchers will see triple the relief they had this year when they file their taxes next year. It also appropriated $300 million in year one and $313 million in year two for the Property Tax Credit Fund. Nebraska Farm Bureau marks this as a huge win.”
Also, in the mainline budget was money for AgrAbility that will offer assistive technology to help disabled producers stay and work on the farm and ranch. Rieker says the passage of LB2, which reduced ag land values to 50% of assessed values for the purposes of future school bond issues, also was a win.
“Another big win for agriculture and rural Nebraska was expanding access to high-speed internet through the build-out of broadband infrastructure in rural areas, under LB388,” Rieker says. “The bill changes provisions regarding required broadband speeds and appropriates $40 million over the next two years to expand rural broadband and e-connectivity.”
There is continued funding for the Water Resources Sustainability Fund, which provides money for programs and projects so Nebraska can better manage water across the state. Also included is a $2 million study that will look at a variety of issues along the Platte River, at Lake McConaughy, Lewis and Clark Lake, and Niobrara State Park.
The study will be focused on opportunities for flood control, recreation, tourism and water resource sustainability. Nebraska Farm Bureau policy supports in-depth looks at flood control and water management.
Another win for agriculture is the passage of LB396, which created a "Farm to School" program. Under the bill, the Nebraska Department of Education will operate a program to link elementary and secondary schools to Nebraska farmers and ranchers to help move locally produced food into Nebraska schools.
“Also noteworthy was the passage of LB595, which added needed sales tax exemptions for enzymes used in ethanol production, as well as for ag equipment like seed tenders, header trailers, fans and curtains used in livestock barns,” Rieker says.
As with the end of any session, there is still work that needs to be done next year, Rieker says. Nebraska Farm Bureau was disappointed that LB454 did not advance. The bill would have provided a stabilization payment to schools that overly rely on property taxes for funding.
“We were extremely disappointed in the Legislature’s failure to advance LB454,” he says. “When fully phased in, it would have provided an additional $167 million in stabilization payments to 207 school districts. This action is a missed opportunity for the Legislature to start down the path of reforming how we fund schools in Nebraska. There’s a clear inequity in our current funding system when 159 of the 243 school districts in our state receive no state equalization aid, and most of those districts are rural.”
“The fact that Nebraska takes on the bulk of responsibility for funding education for some students, while doing little to nothing to support others is a failure of our state,” he adds. “This bill could have served as the foundation for a scalable approach to doing more to fulfill the state’s obligation to fund K-12 education to the benefit of all Nebraska students and taxpayers.
"This issue isn’t going away. We will continue to work with the Legislature to find senators who are willing to take on one of our state’s most pressing issues.”
Another disappointment was the failure of LB408, a bill that would have placed a modest limitation on annual property tax increases to 3%, plus real growth.
“Nebraska Farm Bureau supported the bill as part of continued efforts to pass comprehensive tax reform that adequately funds education and reduces the state’s overreliance on property taxes,” Rieker says.
Turnover in Legislature
One more item of concern is the fact that 12 senators will be serving their eighth and final year in the Legislature. “Many of these senators have agricultural backgrounds and losing that institutional knowledge is always concerning,” Rieker says. “Nebraska Farm Bureau continues to help elect senators who support agriculture in the state. We also continue to work on developing opportunities to grow livestock production in the state.”
Although the Legislature is adjourned for now, Farm Bureau will work with state lawmakers throughout the summer in anticipation of a September special session, when legislators are expected to return to the Capitol to tackle redistricting and approve new legislative and congressional districts.
Overall, Rieker says this session was good for Nebraska agriculture. “We will continue to work on priority issues to make sure our rural voice is heard in Lincoln,” he says.
Learn more online at nefb.org.