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POLICY WATCH

Property Valuations, Precision Ag, and Water Rights Highlight Week at Capitol

The roadmap at the Capitol is beginning to take shape as priority designations are, and will be, on the top of our minds for the next two weeks. Each senator may designate one bill as a priority, each of the fourteen standing committees may designate two, and the speaker may designate up to twenty-five. As a matter of practice, priority bills are considered ahead of all other bills at each stage of debate. The deadline for senators and committees to designate a priority is March 14. The speaker will announce his priorities on March 15.

This week, Nebraska Farm Bureau (NEFB) testified in support of LB 699 (Murman), which would change the valuation of certain real property for purposes of taxes levied by school districts. LB 699 creates a special class of property for commercial property and reduces commercial property and agricultural lands to zero percent for the purposes of taxes levied by a school district. In its testimony, NEFB said LB 699 and the companion LR 30 CA will go a long way to address the inequity of the way our state funds K-12 education. Limiting local funding for K-12 education as provided in LB 699 to residential real property would be a more fair and equitable approach. This would ensure that the funding for these services would serve a direct benefit to the property taxed.

Farm Bureau also showed its support for LB 361 (Dorn), a bill to appropriate $2 million annually for the Precision Agriculture Infrastructure Grant Program. Last year the Legislature adopted LB 761 which created the Precision Agriculture Infrastructure Grant Program. The program incents the adoption of precision agriculture connectivity, sustainability, traceability, and autonomy. Funding was supposed to be through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD); however, after passage of the bill, the Public Service Commission determined it did not have the authority to use BEAD funds for this program. LB 361 seeks to clarify where the money comes from to fund this program and appropriates two million dollars for each of fiscal years 2023-24 and 2024-25 to conduct the Precision Agriculture Infrastructure Grant Program. NEFB told the committee that LB 361 would continue to advance the usage of various precision agriculture innovations through grants, thus increasing our efficiency and reducing our environmental footprint.

Dawson County Farm Bureau member Don Batie testified on behalf of NEFB this week in opposition to LB 396 (Erdman). Each Natural Resources District (NRD) has the power and authority to adopt and develop augmentation projects. Proponents of LB 396 contend that once an augmentation project is complete, the need to continue owning the land above the groundwater goes away and the NRD should be able to sell the land and retain the rights to the groundwater beneath it. NEFB contends the passage of LB 396 would set a dangerous precedent, contrary to a June 2018 opinion the Nebraska Supreme Court where it ruled “The right to use the groundwater does not float in a vacuum of abstraction but exists only in reference to and results from ownership of the overlying land.” Also “[I]t is clear that the right to use ground water is an attribute of owning fee simple title to land overlying a source of ground water and is inseparable from the land to which it applies.”

In his testimony, Batie told senators that many of these types of projects have multiple purposes and forcing the NRDs to sell the overlying ground would negate many options they might have. Farm Bureau believes the language of LB 396 is overly broad by including all NRD augmentation projects. While this looks like it is aimed at the N-CORPE project in Lincoln County, it would affect many stream augmentation projects operated by NRDs. These augmentation projects are essential to keeping Nebraska in compliance with interstate compacts, decrees, and agreements. Batie reminded senators that over the last 30-plus years of water discussions, Nebraskans have always held to the principle that the beneficial use of groundwater must be tied to the ownership of the overlying land.

Floor debate and public hearings continue next week. NEFB will weigh in on more bills while monitoring other proposals. As always, please reach out if you have questions, advice, and/or would like more information about bills important to you. 

AFBF President Outlines Challenges and Opportunities to House Agriculture Committee

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall spent four and a half hours before the House Agriculture Committee Tuesday outlining the challenges facing America’s farmers and ranchers. Duvall joined five other agriculture industry leaders in testifying and taking questions from lawmakers during the hearing titled “Uncertainty, Inflation, Regulations: Challenges for American Agriculture.”

“There are certainly plenty of challenges for American agriculture,” Duvall told the committee during his opening comments. “From losses experienced in the trade war with China, to pandemic lockdowns, and supply chain disruptions. Add to it the record-high supply costs, and you see how farmers and ranchers have faced unprecedented volatility in recent years.”

“USDA’s most recent Farm Sector Income Forecast sees a decrease in net farm income in 2023, down 15.9 percent. Adjusted for inflation, that’s an 18 percent drop. The same report estimates farm and ranch production expenses will continue to increase – by $18 billion. This follows a record increase of $70 billion in 2022.”

President Duvall also highlighted regulatory hardships facing farmers, including restricted access to pesticides, the new Waters of the United States rule, a proposed Securities and Exchange Commission emissions reporting rule, and shortcomings in the H-2A labor program.

He also shared opportunities to strengthen farms through voluntary climate-smart programs, increased meat processing competition, and the passage of a unified farm bill.

“It is important that we understand how important the safety net is for agriculture so that we will have the food to be able to use in the safety net for the people that are not as fortunate as others during…periods of their lives,” Duvall said when Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) asked him about keeping nutrition programs in the food bill. “So, I think they go together well. It gives us a true picture of the food, where it’s produced, and where a lot of it’s consumed and making sure that those people have access to good quality food.”

On a question from Rep. Mary Miller (R-Ill.) on the importance of trade, President Duvall replied, “Anytime the field in the arena of trade is leveled and we have access to those markets it helps our farmers and ranchers tremendously. We’re always working to encourage trade across the world, and we just think there are some great opportunities, especially in the Asia Pacific areas.”

Watch the full hearing here.

Read President Duvall’s opening remarks here.

Read the AFBF written testimony here.

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