Legislature OKs amendment that would give tax break to those whose homes were destroyed by flooding

Legislature OKs amendment that would give tax break to those whose homes were destroyed by flooding
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — The Legislature worked Tuesday to help victims of Nebraska’s epic flooding, adopting an amendment to provide a tax break for people whose homes were destroyed and laying plans to divert $4 million to replenish an emergency fund.

Under an amendment introduced by State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, people whose homes were destroyed by flooding, fire or natural disaster would be excused from paying property taxes on the home until it is repaired.

“This just makes common sense,” Erdman said. Homeowners should not be assessed property taxes on property that no longer can be used, he said.

The senator said there’s more work to be done on his amendment, including defining exactly what “destroyed” means and how to deal with communities that are totally wiped out by a tornado, flood or other disaster. For instance, Erdman said, a home that just needs drywall or a furnace replaced would not be considered destroyed.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha cautioned that the Legislature shouldn’t cripple a small community’s ability to rebuild by excusing taxes on the bulk of the homes in a town, thus wiping out its tax base. He mentioned Hallam and Pilger, two small towns devastated by tornadoes in recent years, as examples.

Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who sponsored the bill that now includes the Erdman amendment, said that she’ll work on a plan for such small towns before Legislative Bill 512 comes up for second-round debate. The bill has an emergency clause, meaning that if it’s passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, it would become law immediately.

Linehan also proposed Tuesday that the $4 million the state is saving by eliminating the angel investment tax credit program be directed toward emergency flood relief and not toward enhancing the state’s Business Innovation Act.

That act, which one lawmaker described as a “rock star” for helping new, high-tech businesses and turning inventions into jobs, would have grown from about $6.3 million a year to $10.3 million under LB 334, introduced by Sen. John Stinner of Gering.

Linehan said that while the Business Innovation Act is a worthy program, the higher priority of the state right now is to replenish the governor’s disaster response fund, which has dwindled from $5 million to about $400,000 due to expenditures caused by the recent flooding. She also said it was unclear if the state’s slim budget situation allowed the money to be used to enhance the economic incentive program.

In a compromise, Linehan and Stinner said they would amend LB 334 during second-round debate to allow the $4 million to be diverted into the emergency fund in 2019-20, and then, a year later, be used for the business innovation program.

But later in the day, the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee was told that the $4 million from the angel investing program wouldn’t be available for flood relief until 2020-21.

The committee, which is headed by Stinner, then voted to put $6 million in general funds into the emergency fund in 2019-20 and then use the $4 million — along with an additional $1 million in general funds — to replenish the emergency fund in 2020-21.

Linehan said Tuesday evening that she would have to visit with Stinner to see where that left their compromise.

Flood control bonds: The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District could continue using bonds to speed up flood-control work under a bill advanced Monday by the Nebraska Legislature.

State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said historic flooding across Nebraska last month highlighted the importance of the measure. The NRD has issued $70 million in bonds over the past decade for six projects; an additional eight projects are in the queue.

NRD-built reservoirs and levees were critical in keeping floods at bay along Papillion Creek while the Western Sarpy Clear Creek Levee project along the Platte River helped contain the flooding around Omaha well fields.

The Papio-Missouri River NRD is the only one in the state with bonding authority. State lawmakers originally granted that authority for a 10-year period, starting in 2009. That authority is set to expire at the end of this year.

Lindstrom’s original version of Legislative Bill 177 would have extended the authority another 10 years. A Natural Resources Committee amendment, adopted by lawmakers, extended the authority for five years, until 2024.

Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, the committee chairman, said the five years should allow the NRD to accomplish all of its planned projects. He said the property tax levy needed to pay off the bonds would have to fit within the state-mandated 4.5-cent levy limit for NRDs.

“It’s not about giving them more spending ability,” he said.

But opponents said defeating the measure would give property taxpayers a bit of relief. Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard argued that the NRD should save up money until it had enough to do a project, rather than financing it through bonds.

“I think they can build these dams and they can do it the right way,” he said.

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said he believes that the projects were being proposed to benefit developers and recreational interests.

Opioid abuse: Nebraska lawmakers are moving ahead with additional steps designed to protect the state from the national opioid drug epidemic.

Lawmakers gave first-round approval Monday to LB 556, which would add new requirements for the state’s prescription drug monitoring program.

The changes are intended to help health officials better track what prescriptions patients have received and prevent them from getting multiple prescriptions from multiple providers for highly addictive drugs.

Nebraska hasn’t been hit as hard by the opioid abuse epidemic as other states, and lawmakers say they want to remain proactive to keep the problem from spreading.

Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, whose sister died of a prescription opioid overdose in 2009, sponsored the bill.

License plates. Nebraskans would get four new license plate choices, including Sandhill cranes, bighorn sheep, ornate box turtles and prostate cancer awareness, under a bill advanced by state lawmakers Tuesday.

Legislative Bill 356, introduced by Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk, would direct that part of the fees for Sammy’s Superheroes plates go to the University of Nebraska Medical Center for pediatric cancer research.

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee added other provisions to the bill to turn it into an omnibus measure that makes state license plate laws more consistent. It also incorporated provisions of three proposals for new license plates, which would be available on Jan. 1, 2021.

As amended, the bill calls for creating three new wildlife license plate designs — a Sandhill crane, a bighorn sheep and an ornate box turtle — with proceeds going to the Wildlife Conservation Fund.

The original amendment, offered by State Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, would have made cutthroat trout the third option, rather than the box turtle. The new designs would be in addition to the popular mountain lion license plates.

As amended, LB 356 also would create a prostate cancer awareness plate, with proceeds going to prostate cancer research at UNMC. Nebraska currently has a breast cancer awareness license plate.