When COVID-19 brought the 2020 legislative session to a screeching halt in March, debates about tax relief, business incentives, and other high-profile legislative issues were swept to the side as uncertainties surrounding the dangers and threat of the pandemic quickly took center stage. As Nebraskans became familiar with words like “social distancing”, disruptions in agriculture supply chains, slowdowns and shutdowns of meatpacking facilities and ethanol plants, and diminished markets became the immediate threats to the viability of farm and ranch families. Amid the chaos, the prospects of the Legislature returning to finish the session were as hazy as a humid summer morning.
Flash forward five months.
Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson stands next to Governor Pete Ricketts on the steps of the Nebraska Capitol taking part in a signing ceremony for LB 1107, a compromise bill directing significant amounts of state money for property tax relief. The bill passed with 41 “yes” votes, far exceeding the 33 needed to break a filibuster, the barrier preventing passage of substantive property tax relief bills in previous years.
“The fact the Legislature found the right combination of compromise to provide significant and meaningful property tax relief in the final days of a split session, during a pandemic, is somewhat surreal. After years of stalemates in the body, the persistence and work of our members and our organization in advocating for tax relief has yielded meaningful results,” said Steve Nelson, Nebraska Farm Bureau president.
LB 1107 contains the largest amount of state money put aside for targeted property tax relief since 2007 when the Legislature originally established and dedicated annual funding to the Property Tax Credit Fund.
“At a minimum, farmers and ranchers can expect to see a 15 percent reduction in property taxes paid to schools when LB 1107 is fully implemented. That level of relief could come sooner, should state revenues exceed targets outlined in the bill. In year six and thereafter, relief will continue to grow as valuations grow,” said Bruce Rieker, Nebraska Farm Bureau vice president of governmental relations.
“There’s more work to be done on the property tax issue and we’ll continue to look for long-term solutions to alleviate pressure on property taxes. With that in mind, LB 1107 is positive progress in delivering meaningful tax relief that we’ve been seeking,” said Nelson.
Outside of property tax relief, the Legislature passed several other bills in areas of high priority to Nebraska Farm Bureau, including ones highlighted by the challenges of the pandemic.
“At a time when it’s never been more important to connect with others digitally, the Legislature passed a pair of bills to improve statewide broadband service,” said Ansley Fellers, former director of NEFB-PAC and state governmental relations.
Among the bills passed was LB 992 which implemented several recommendations from the state’s Rural Broadband Task Force. One of the key components of the bill was eliminating a requirement that state agencies or political subdivisions remit 50 percent of the profit from a dark fiber lease agreement to the Nebraska Universal Service Fund (NUSF) in places lacking access to 25/3-speed broadband. Elimination of this requirement could make these lease agreements more cost-effective in rural, unserved areas.
Lawmakers also passed LB 996 which includes provisions to improve data collection to ensure greater accuracy of Nebraska’s broadband service map. The map is a critical part of broadband expansion in Nebraska as it is used to determine where federal assistance dollars are targeted to helping improve access.
“Map accuracy is critical. We’ve been concerned Nebraska’s map has overstated Nebraska’s broadband coverage, failing to accurately reflect the lack of quality broadband service as reported by our members. LB 996 is an important step to make improvements in this area and bring greater resources to bare in broadband expansion,” said Fellers.
Nebraska farmers will also benefit from a Nebraska Farm Bureau supported legislative change to clarify the state’s overweight harvest permit requirements. The passage of LB 931 clarifies that the existing 15 percent overweight permit exemption applies to seasonally harvested products going not only from field to storage or market, but also from farm storage to market.
“The Legislature’s passage of bills directing dollars to help repair the irrigation canal collapse in western Nebraska, ensuring Nebraska’s laws governing industrial hemp production are compliant with federal regulations, and creating a checkoff for dry peas, lentils, and other pulse crops, are just a few more examples of positive steps forward for agriculture,” said Rieker. “When you look at the uncertainties of the session when things closed down in March to the progress made on key issues when the Legislature returned in July, there’s no question this was a very successful legislative session for agriculture and our state’s farm and ranch families.”