LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers are set to kick off a new session Wednesday with proposals to balance a tight state budget, lower property taxes and legalize medical marijuana in the face of a potential ballot measure.
The new, 90-day session will also usher in 13 new state senators who will reshape the officially nonpartisan Legislature in ways not yet known.
Here are some things to watch:
A persistent state revenue shortfall could create budget headaches once again for lawmakers, who have relied on Nebraska's rainy-day fund the last several years.
Nebraska faces a projected $95.1 million revenue shortfall in its upcoming two-year, general fund budget.
It's a tiny fraction of the roughly $9 billion total state budget and smaller than other recent shortfalls, but some lawmakers worry the downturn will continue and they won't have enough money left in the rainy-day fund to cover state expenses. The fund holds about $296 million, down sharply from the $729 million stashed away in 2016.
"I think we may be getting to the point where we can't afford to use any more of that," said Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer, of Norfolk.
In an interview last week, Gov. Pete Ricketts said tapping the cash reserve was appropriate given the downturn in agriculture, the state's largest industry. Ricketts has previously said he'd like to keep about $500 million in the rainy-day fund.
"The reason you have a rainy-day fund is to help cushion against economic downtimes," he said. "In agriculture, it's clearly raining."
Lawmakers will also debate how to pay for a voter-approved measure to expand Medicaid to an estimated 90,000 low-income residents. Ricketts said he will fit that expense into his budget proposal to lawmakers, but it's likely to crowd out other priorities over time.
Lawmakers will try once again to address the complaints of farmers, ranchers and homeowners who have seen sharp increases in their local property tax bills.
The issue rises to the forefront nearly every year, but lawmakers seldom agree on how to pay for property tax cuts and who should receive most of the benefits.
"I'm relatively optimistic we can get something done this year," said Sen. Tom Briese, an Albion farmer who has introduced numerous property-tax proposals. "A lot more folks are realizing the gravity of the situation."
The biggest recipient of property tax dollars are K-12 public schools, particularly in rural districts that no longer qualify for state equalization aid because they contain too much valuable land. Farmers argue that they're paying higher property taxes even though lower commodity prices have reduced their incomes.
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, of Lincoln, said she understands the pressure farmers are facing and wants to help, but she also sees needs in her urban district.
"We have to work together," she said. "The conservative and rural members need to work with the urban senators and the progressives to really get something done."
ELECTING NEW LEADERS, SETTING THE RULES... AND MORE GRIDLOCK?
Lawmakers will choose new committee leaders in a secret-ballot election that's often full of surprises.
During the last elections in 2017, conservative Republicans won nearly all of the Legislature's leadership positions and tried to force through a change that would have made it harder for Democrats to win committee chairmanships in the future. Democrats and even some moderate Republicans blasted the moves as a partisan power grab, and the dispute brought the Legislature to a virtual standstill for 30 days.
The leadership votes were highly unusual in an officially nonpartisan Legislature, where committees are traditionally led by a mix of Republicans and Democrats. The new session will mark the first time lawmakers have formally addressed those issues since 2017.
Pansing Brooks said she's hopeful lawmakers will try to build coalitions more than they have in previous years.
"The original my-way-or-the-highway approach doesn't work," she said. "People are starting to realize it takes coalitions, it takes people working together."
Nebraska lawmakers could face more pressure to legalize medical marijuana in some form, thanks to a group of senators and activists who are promising to put the issue on the 2020 ballot if nothing passes this year.
A newly formed ballot committee, Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, plans to launch a signature-gathering campaign, although organizers said they'd prefer that lawmakers address the issue. Sen. Anna Wishart, of Lincoln, a leading proponent, will introduce a medical marijuana bill this year.
Similar measures won approval last year in Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah, bringing the total to 33 states that have legalized the drug for medicinal purposes. Unlike past efforts in Nebraska that have faltered, the latest campaign is backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that has helped lead five successful marijuana-related ballot measures.
SIDNEY, Neb. (AP) — A Canadian company has made a deal with Bass Pro Shops to buy one of Cabela's corporate buildings in Sidney — a deal that could provide 150 or more local jobs.
The sales price and other financial details about the MMP Enterprises purchase have not been released. MMP is a logistics management company based in Toronto.
Sidney economic development director Melissa Norgard says MMP wants to have the sale wrapped up within 90 days and begin hiring. Norgard also says the number of MMP jobs in Sidney could grow as the company develops the business model for its first expansion outside of Canada.
Cabela's employed more than 2,000 people at its sprawling Sidney headquarters before being purchased by rival Bass Pro Shops.
Wendy Wells has dedicated her life to health care workforce development through early education. The University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing West Nebraska Division instructor and Chadron native, is considered a trusted resource and is a respected community partner and advocate.
For her efforts, Wells, recently received a Community Star award from the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH). NOSORH assists State Offices of Rural Health in their efforts to improve access to, and the quality of, health care for more than 60 million rural Americans.
The award recognizes those who dedicate their life’s work to rural health and make a positive impact on rural lives.
“I am passionate about recruiting and retaining health care providers to rural areas, especially western Nebraska,” said Wells, who teaches population health and coordinates service learning for students. “To be recognized for my efforts by the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health is a great honor.”
“Recipients are extraordinary people whose contributions are deserving of recognition,” said Teryl Eisinger, executive director of NOSORH. “Each is a shining example of their generosity, service, and dedication to the people who call rural America home.”
Wells, a graduate of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, returned to Scottsbluff after graduation where she pursued nursing degrees, including a master’s in community health nursing. She also is an education coordinator for the Nebraska Panhandle Area Health Education Center.
In the role, she teaches population health and coordinates service learning projects for area schools, such as arranging for nursing students to work with local health providers and resources, including student health and diabetic screenings, area soup kitchens, Habitat for Humanity, flu/immunization clinics, and even horse therapy, an increasingly popular activity.
Aside from her outstanding contributions, the nominator also indicated that Wells donates much of her time to advance the organization’s core and mission.
“Whether she’s organizing annual camps that focus on creating interest in nursing careers for high school students or pre-health professions for new college students, or at the head of the class providing didactic and experiential training, Wendy embodies the generosity and spirit of an extraordinary rural health nurse,” according to the nominator.
Wells is featured in a publication released on National Rural Health Day each year, which can be found at.
The National Organization of State Office of Rural Health is the membership association of the nation’s 50 State Offices of Rural Health. State Offices of Rural Health are anchors of information and support for rural communities, health professionals, hospitals and clinics across the nation. They are dedicated to collaboration, education, communication and innovation to improve health in small towns around the country.
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) — Authorities have rescued goats, rabbits, a tortoise, a dog and more than 200 chickens found on a Grand Island property.
The animals were seized Thursday and Friday. An animal control officer said some of the animals were dying as they were being moved. Several carcasses also were found, as well as chicken bones.
Officials say the property owner is being cited for the excessive number of animals on the property, their condition and the lack of shelter, food and water.
FREDERICK, Colo. (AP) — Authorities say a Colorado man has been arrested in connection with the disappearance of his pregnant wife and their two young children.
Police in the town of Frederick said Chris Watts was taken into custody Wednesday. His 34-year-old wife, Shanann Watts, and their two daughters, 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste, were reported missing Monday.
The police said on Twitter early Thursday that Chris Watts will be held at the Weld County Jail. He has not yet been charged. It wasn't immediately known if he had a lawyer.
Chris Watts spoke previously with The Denver Channel and pleaded for his family's safe return.
Authorities did not release any information on the whereabouts or conditions of Shanann or her daughters.
Police say they plan to release more information at a morning news conference.
On June 7th at about 7:30 PM Sergeant Wangler and another Officer responded to the residence located at 3410 16th Street in Columbus regarding an anonymous report that a wanted individual was at that location. In the course of the contact with the Suspect; 24 year old Jorje Robledo, a gunfight ensued. Initially, during the conflict, Robledo was armed with a handgun. As the situation developed, Robledo transitioned to a rifle. Both Wangler and Robledo were shot during the exchange and received multiple gunshot wounds.
Both Wangler and Robledo were initially taken to the Columbus Community Hospital and later to the University of Nebraska Medical Center by medical helicopter. Wangler is currently in stable condition, however he will require additional surgery relating to a wound in his neck. Robledo remains in critical condition.
Sergeant Wangler is a 19 year veteran of the Columbus Police. He is married and has two children.
We would like to extend our thanks to the Nebraska State Patrol, Platte County Sheriff's Department and the Omaha Police Department for the support they have offered in this matter.
The incident is being jointly investigated by the Columbus Police Department and Nebraska State Patrol.