February 12, 2016

Bill calls for change in how assets can be seized by police (AUDIO)

ACLU Nebraska Ex. Dir. Danielle Conrad opens news conference on civil asset forfeitures.

ACLU Nebraska Ex. Dir. Danielle Conrad opens news conference on civil asset forfeitures.

A state senator proposes Nebraska change the rules under which law enforcement can seize assets.

Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue says the civil asset forfeiture laws are being abused, with cash and other property being seized without the owner being convicted of a crime.

“We believe the civil asset forfeiture law is a valuable program for law enforcement. We want to take the assets away from bad guys. But, when it crosses over and starts affecting innocent civilians and innocent civilians are having their cash and their assets seized, that’s where it crosses the line and that’s where it’s out of balance,” Garrett tells reporters during a news conference. “There needs to be a criminal conviction before the state should be able to seize somebody’s assets.”

Garrett sponsors LB 1106. It also would direct law enforcement to obey state law and distribute forfeited assets to the schools and for drug education, rather than going through the federal system which returns 80% of the assets back to law enforcement.

The bill has attracted a wide range of support from divergent groups, such as ACLU Nebraska and the Attorney General’s office, which often clash rather than collaborate.

Transparency of seizure activity would be required under the bill as well. Law enforcement agencies would have to disclose how much they have taken and from whom.

ACLU Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller says the measure seeks to assure assets are only taken from criminals and only when they are connected to criminal activity.

“We won’t be seeing any more property owners having to prove themselves to be innocent rather than having the presumption of innocence that the American system requires,” according to Miller.

Garrett says the proposal would require law enforcement go through the state system, rather than the more lucrative federal system, which returns 80% to the law enforcement agency.

“The State Patrol used some of their civil asset forfeiture money for the new crime lab. And they need that new crime lab, but we in the legislature ought to be allocating funds for that and they ought not to be having to rely on civil asset forfeiture for doing that,” Garrett says.

Current state law divides forfeitures between school funding and drug education. The bill would change the distribution with half going to education and half going to law enforcement.

A report issued by ACLU Nebraska disclosed law enforcement collected $42.6 million between 2004 and 2014 through civil asset forfeitures.

AUDIO:  Civil Asset Forfeiture law news conference. [12 min.]


Questions about Arkansas plan arise during hearing on Medicaid expansion (AUDIO)

Capitol_winterThe latest proposal to expand Medicaid in Nebraska comes before a legislative committee, with plenty of questions of how a similar approach worked in Arkansas.

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha bases LB 1032, at least in part, on the so-called private option adopted by Arkansas. McCollister says his proposal would extend Medicaid to an additional 77,000 working poor Nebraskans who would be required to contribute two percent of their income as a premium. It also includes job training and work referrals in an effort to transition enrollees off the program into jobs that provide health coverage.

The federal government, under the Affordable Care Act, promises to pay 90% of the cost of expansion, which McCollister says would pump $2 billion in federal funds into the Nebraska economy.

Consultant Patty Boozang with Mannatt Health Solutions worked with Arkansas officials with expansion, which included asking the federal government for a waiver to create the program.

Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston questioned Boozang during the Health and Human Services Committee public hearing about the expense of the Arkansas experiment.

“In terms of the private option, the stuff that I’ve read says that the cost to do private options is probably five times as expensive as if one was to expand Medicaid at the cost of Medicaid,” Riepe stated.

Boozang said the jury’s still out.

“I don’t think there is evidence that the private option is, at least in Arkansas, many multiples more than it would have cost to pursue some other model,” Boozang replied.

Boozang testified Arkansas providers, such as hospitals, have benefited from Medicaid expansion with the number on uninsured people accessing their services dropping dramatically.

A state senator from Arkansas, though, testified that Medicaid expansion has fallen short of what supporters promised; both costing more to implement and saving less than projected.

The Health and Human Services Committee will weigh the testimony and decide whether LB 1032 is forwarded to the full Unicameral for debate.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:50]



Report: Medicaid expansion could cost Nebraska nearly $1 Billion

Sen. John McCollister speaks at a Capitol news conference along with Sen. Heath Mello and Sen. Kathy Campbell announcing the Transitional Health Insurance Program Act.

Sen. John McCollister speaks at a Capitol news conference along with Sen. Heath Mello and Sen. Kathy Campbell announcing the Transitional Health Insurance Program Act on Jan. 19.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reports a proposed Medicaid expansion would cost $978 million through 2027.

A private actuarial firm, Optumas, calculated the cost based on proposed legislation (LB1032) that lawmakers are considering now.

Calder Lynch, DHHS Division of Medicaid director, says that’s too costly and could end up being more expensive.

“The state would be on the hook for continuing to finance this program over time and if the federal dollars were to ever diminish, we would have to put up as much as $600 million a year in new state funding to cover the cost at our normal matching rate,” Lynch says.

The proposed Transitional Health Insurance Program sponsored by State Senator John McCollister would allow more uninsured Nebraskans to use state and federal Medicaid dollars to purchase insurance.

“I think we need to look beyond Medicaid,” Lynch says. “I think this is going to take conversations at the national level, across the state, with private sector folks, with government folks, with community stakeholders to find more sustainable ways to address this need for Nebraska and for other states.”

Lynch says he would like to see more flexibility from the federal government on options for helping uninsured Nebraskans get coverage through the Affordable Care Act.




Farmers ask for property tax relief; school officials object to governor’s plan

Capitol(Honors_to_Citizens)Farmers complained property taxes are out-of-control. Public school officials complained a proposal to keep them in check is too burdensome.

Both sides were heard at a legislative hearing before the Education Committee as it considers LB 959, which would limit school districts to two-and-a-half percent revenue growth annually. Districts could exceed the limit by going to a vote of the people.

Martell farmer Rod Hollman told committee members though farm income is down, property taxes keep rising, leaving landowners frustrated and angry.

“We’ve survived drought. We’ve survived blizzards. We’ve survived 40 degree below zero weather while we’re calving and low prices, but this has made them really angry,” Hollman stated.

“I am here to tell you that we are bleeding in agriculture right now,” Dale Gronewold, who farms near Gothenberg, told the committee.

Gronewold said evaluations of farmland keep going up, sometimes dramatically, even as farm income has fallen. Echoing what many farmers and ranchers told the committee, Gronewold said he had talked to county assessors, to school boards, and to other government officials to no avail.

Meanwhile, Gronewold said farmers and ranchers face huge jumps in their property tax bills while farm income falls.

“We are bleeding to death and somebody has to help us,” Gronewold pleaded.

Shane Greczel, a row crop farmer in Knox County, said it is hard to understand how farm income can go down, but taxes keep going up.

“And when my income goes down, I have to reflect accordingly. I have to back off. I cannot expand my operation. I just ask that government would do the same thing when we take a look at it,” Greczel said. “There are times that we have to step back just a little bit, we have to consolidate, and we have to make do with what we have. That’s what business has to do. It’s what farming has to do.”

Public school officials, though, object to the proposal pushed by the governor.

York School Superintendent Mike Lucas said school spending isn’t driving up property taxes.

“I think the big elephant in the room regarding LB 959 and I’ll say this respectfully is school spending is not the problem,” Lucas told the committee.

Lucas spoke for many educators in stating that Nebraska schools keep tight budgets and rarely exceed three percent revenue growth.

Lucas did sympathized with the farmers.

“I love farmers and it’s sad to me to hear the us versus them,” Lucas said.

Yet, Lucas said the proposal would only hurt schools without truly putting a dent in property taxes.

Virgil Harden with the Grand Island Public School District objected to the governor’s proposal.

“There’s nobody in Grand Island Public Schools in our board or in our administration that says let’s go spend more money, because we can,” according to Harden. “We spend the money to meet the needs of our children and two-and-a-half percent does not cut it.”

LB 959 is the second of the governor’s two-pronged approach to cut property taxes (the other is LB 958). Two legislative committees will decide whether the bills will be sent to the full legislature for debate.

Nebraska higher ed seeking nearly $300 million for building projects

Hank Bounds, University of Nebraska president, addresses the Unicameral's Appropriations Committee on capital improvement projects.

Dr. Hank Bounds, University of Nebraska president, addresses the Unicameral’s Appropriations Committee on capital improvement projects.

Nebraska’s state colleges and universities are asking lawmakers for millions of dollars in building projects.

The Nebraska State College System is seeking nearly $50.4 million to renovate three buildings and construct a new facility on its three campuses.

Chancellor Stan Carpenter made the funding request (LB755) to the state Appropriations Committee Tuesday morning.

“We recognize the difficulty that the state faces in its revenue projections, but these are buildings that really need attention,” Carpenter says. “As I said to the Committee, these are buildings that are owned by the state, owned by the people of Nebraska, and they really need to have those issues that we talked about in there addressed.”

The project list includes renovations to the Math Science building at Chadron State, the Theater/Event Center at Peru State and renovating Benthack Hall and a building a new Applied Technology Center at Wayne State.

The University of Nebraska is asking the state for $242 million for building projects (LB858).

President Hank Bounds says that’s over a 12 year period and would be matched dollar-for-dollar by the university through a 1% tuition increase in each of the first four years of the capital plan.

“With tuition and fees, whether we’re talking about UNL and its competitors and its peers, or UNK, or UNO, or UNMC,” Bounds says, “we are in a very competitive position. We are a fraction of the cost.”

The university’s project list includes 17 facilities across the four campuses and only includes academic buildings.

Members of the Appropriations Committee say given the current state budget situation, additional spending likely will not meet the requested amounts.