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Big priorities fall by wayside as Nebraska session nears end

May 26, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers will end their session this week with a new state budget and dozens of laws passed, but many priorities fell by the wayside and sent senators back to the drawing board.

A few of those measures could end up before voters in the 2020 general election, but in most cases, lawmakers will work over the summer and fall to tweak their bills in hopes of winning more support in next year’s session.

Here are a few high-profile measures that didn’t make the cut:

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PROPERTY TAXES

Several attempts to lower property taxes imploded even though many senators identified it as the session’s most pressing issue, but lawmakers aren’t giving up.

“We will keep working all summer on the property tax issue,” said Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chairwoman of the Revenue Committee.

The biggest hang-up: many proposals sought to lower property taxes by raising other taxes, a non-starter for business groups and conservatives, including Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Other measures that wouldn’t have raised taxes were criticized as too small to make much of a difference. The state budget does include a $51 million boost for the state’s property tax credit fund, but critics say it isn’t enough. Activists are already gathering signatures to put a massive property tax measure on the ballot that could cost the state about $1 billion a year.

Sen. Tom Briese, an Albion farmer who crafted several of the bills, said he plans to throw his support behind the petition drive. The Legislature’s inability last week to pass a last-minute bill “sent a clear signal to Nebraskans that the ballot measure may be their only option,” he said.

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MEDICAL MARIJUANA

Voters could also get the chance to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes after lawmakers refused to pass a narrow, tightly regulated program.

Lawmakers who championed the measure for years are now turning their attention to a petition drive that would place the issue on next year’s general election ballot. Sen. Anna Wishart, of Lincoln, said she’s confident voters will endorse the measure, opening the door to much looser rules.

The bill would have limited the amount of marijuana users can possess, maintained the state’s ban on smoking the drug and limited its potency. The ballot measure contains no such restrictions.

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LAND BANKS

Nebraska cities that want to create municipal land banks to clean up dilapidated and vacant homes for redevelopment will have to wait at least another year.

A bill that would have allowed cities to create or join land banks stalled amid opposition from senators who saw it as government overreach. The bill by Sen. Dan Quick, of Grand Island, appeared to have enough support to overcome a legislative filibuster, but several key senators were absent the day it came up for a vote and it narrowly lost.

Quick said he plans to continue working on the bill after the session ends and expects to bring it back next year. Under current state law, Omaha is the only city allowed to establish a land bank.

“I don’t think it’s going away,” he said. “There are so many communities that need this, even smaller communities.”

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FOOD STAMPS FOR FELONS

Nebraska residents with certain felony drug convictions will remain ineligible for federal food assistance, despite arguments that the benefit could help keep them from reoffending.

Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, introduced a bill that would have allowed more offenders to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Supporters fell five votes short of the 33 needed to overcome a filibuster, but the bill is likely to come back in the future.

Opponents say drug users shouldn’t get government handouts.

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PAID FAMILY LEAVE

A bill that would have required Nebraska employers to offer paid family and medical leave failed, but supporters plan to continue pushing the issue.

The perennial measure advanced out of a legislative committee for the first time this year but failed to reach a vote after three hours of debate. Bringing it to a vote would have required supporters to show the legislative speaker that they had at least 33 “yes” votes to overcome a filibuster.

Sen. Sue Crawford, of Bellevue, the lead sponsor, argued during debate that the bill would help strengthen Nebraska’s workforce and attract new employees. Opponents criticized it as a tax increase and a mandate on businesses that only a few liberal states have adopted.

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PRIVATE SCHOOL SCHOLARSHIPS

Nebraska won’t give special tax breaks to donors who help pay for scholarships to private schools.

A bill that would have allowed donors to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit stalled in the Legislature, as it has several times in past years. If it had passed, donors could have reduced their income tax liability by as much as half by giving money to nonprofits that award scholarships to help low-income students attend private schools.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill would allow more students to afford a private school that fits them. Opponents countered that Nebraska should focus on funding for public schools and noted that the tax credit’s cost could balloon over time.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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