The Spark
A Weekly Roundup from Catalyst Public Affairs
November 15-19
Coming Up...

December 3, Natural Resources Interim Study Hearing at 9 a.m.
  • LR23 (Erdman) Interim study to examine the progress of natural resources districts in fulfilling their originally intended purpose
December 3, Health and Human Services Committee Interim Study Hearing at 9 a.m.
  • LR239 (Committee) Interim study to examine the effectiveness of Medicaid waivers in Nebraska overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services
December 17, Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission Meeting at Innovation Campus
  • Will vote on proposed rules and regulations for gaming
January 5, Nebraska Legislature Reconvenes for 60-Day Session
State & Legislative News
Senators Reach Top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Safely Descend

After completing their climb to the 19,341-foot summit in Tanzania, Nebraska's five mountain-climbing state senators completed their descent from Mount Kilimanjaro on Thursday.

A close-up view of exotic animals native to Africa, such as elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and buffalo, is one of the groups' next stops on their African itinerary.

Because of its nonpartisan and multicultural nature, the adventure drew some national attention. Republican members of Nebraska's nonpartisan Legislature include Brewer, Ben Hansen of Blair, and Dave Murman of Glenvil. Wishart and Omaha Senator Justin Wayne are both Democrats. One Native American (Brewer), one Black (Wayne), and one female (Wishart) senator made up the group.

The senators were accompanied by a television crew from Educational Media Enterprises, which will provide the film to Nebraska Public Media's statewide network for free, with national distribution through Amazon Prime Video.

Read More at Lincoln Journal Star.
Walz to Introduce New School Funding Bill

Nebraska's education leaders unveiled a plan Thursday to restructure school aid and save taxpayers $715 million annually.

The plan would require a 68 percent increase in state funding for K-12 education. It would have meant $1.762 billion in state school aid for 2021 instead of the current $1.047 billion.

Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, chairwoman of the Legislature's Education Committee, said she would introduce a bill during the next legislative session. The proposal was developed with Superintendent Troy Loeffelholz and Finance Director Chip Kay of Columbus Public Schools. For four months, they have been talking with educators and legislators to refine and support their proposal.

The plan is likely to be among several tax relief proposals introduced in the upcoming legislative session. Historically, lawmakers have sought to reduce property taxes by increasing state aid to schools.

All school districts would receive a set amount of money for each student under Walz's proposal, known as education stabilization base aid. The per-student payments would be equal to the revenue generated by a one-cent sales tax divided by the total number of students in the state. The plan's second part would increase school districts' share of income tax revenue. The first school-aid formula in Nebraska required that 20% of income taxes paid by district residents be returned to the schools. That percentage has dwindled over time. Residents' income tax revenue now goes to the districts in the amount of 2.23%. The new plan returns 20% of resident income taxes.

Property tax levies would be capped at 95 cents, down from $1.05. It would also reduce the amount of property tax revenue that schools would be expected to receive. This would allow more schools to receive state equalization aid, which is meant to bridge the gap between what schools need to educate students and what they receive in property taxes and other sources. Eighty-seven of the state's 244 school districts currently qualify. One hundred forty-eight districts would have qualified in 2021 under the new plan.

Read More at Lincoln Journal Star.
Nebraska in Great Financial Shape, Even With Double-Digit Pay Increases

According to a report released Tuesday, the pay increases negotiated to fill critical state jobs could cost Nebraska $75 million next year. But the state will still be flush with cash, thanks to federal aid.

The Legislative Fiscal Office projects tax revenues will exceed state spending by $412 million over the next two years, ending June 30, 2022. The gap is about $100 million higher than previously estimated, more than enough to cover the pay increases. The report also predicted a record $1.47 billion "rainy day" fund for Nebraska. Moreover, the American Rescue Plan Act will provide the state with approximately $1 billion.

"I've never seen anything like 2021 and, frankly, no one else has either," said fiscal office director Tom Bergquist.

A panel of top lawmakers meets twice a year with the state tax commissioner to discuss state finances. The reviews are required so the panel can spot developing financial issues and take action. Nebraska's strong financial position meant no action was required this year.

The amount of money in state coffers, according to Revenue Committee chairwoman Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, is an argument for more tax cuts. She's been working on proposals for income and property taxes for the 2022 session. 

Read More at Lincoln Journal Star.
Future Nebraska Generations to Inherit Nearly $1 Trillion in Wealth

According to a new study from the Nebraska Community Foundation, generations of Nebraskans will inherit historic wealth in the coming decades. For example, the foundation says leaving a small percentage to your community could have a big impact.

According to the foundation's president and CEO, Jeff Yost, Nebraska families will pass around $100 billion in assets over the next decade. He estimates the amount at over $950 billion over the next 50 years.

The foundation says the wealth can be in real estate, stocks, retirement accounts, and other assets. Yost calls it the state's largest intergenerational wealth transfer. It's part of a nationwide tidal wave caused by baby boomers and their parents' deaths.

Leaving just 5% of their wealth to their hometowns could help them thrive despite the uncertain future, he and others argue. The foundation's Five to Thrive campaign encourages people to leave 5% of their estates to their communities.

In 71 of Nebraska's 93 counties, wealth transfer will peak in the next 25 years.

According to Yost and others, Nebraskans have already shown they can use donations well. The Nebraska Community Foundation has established funds for 271 communities in 83 Nebraska counties.

Read More at Lincoln Journal Star.
OPS, Rest of State Feeling Effects of Teacher Shortage

Nebraska, like the rest of the country, was already experiencing a teacher shortage before the pandemic. Too few people are graduating from teacher education programs, and qualified teachers opt to leave or retire from the classroom.

Sara Skretta, certification officer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Education and Human Sciences, said, "Crisis is the right word." "When we have districts who are looking for elementary teachers in October because they don't have them yet, that's a crisis because you've got children that don't have a teacher," she said.

Many of the teachers who have stayed have been asked to assist in multiple classrooms or take on additional students to compensate for staff shortages at a time when school districts are competing for substitute teachers.

According to records, teacher resignations in OPS, the state's largest district, increased in 2020-21 compared to previous years. Three hundred twenty teachers resigned in 2020-21, compared to 239 in 2019-20 and 289 in 2018-19.

Meanwhile, according to OPS data, retirements remained stable during the same period. Around 85 teachers will retire at the end of the 2020-21 school year. There were 88 retirements the previous year. Eighty-three people retired at the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Read More at Omaha World-Herald.
Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission Releases Draft Casino Rules

Companies interested in opening a casino at a Nebraska horse racetrack will have to pay a license fee of $1 million.

That's one of the conditions of the Nebraska Racing and Gaming Commission's new rules, which were issued last week. The 67-page manual covers everything from licensing applications to financial management to problem gambling and sex trafficking.

A 20-year license would cost $1 million upfront. In addition, casinos would be assessed a yearly fee to help fund the Commission's work. All vendors and key operators will also need to be licensed. Annual fees of up to $2,000 and an initial licensing fee of up to $5,000 are proposed for vendors. A $10,000-$15,000 application fee would be required for key operators.

The Commission will hold a public hearing on the rules on Dec. 17 at Lincoln's Innovation Campus. The rules will then be reviewed by the governor and attorney general. Once signed off by the pair, the Secretary of State will officially recognize the new rules and regulations. 

Read More at Omaha World-Herald.
New University Plan Addressing Racism Met With Criticism From Ricketts, Pillen

Gov. Pete Ricketts accused UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green of misrepresenting Ricketts' position on the Commitment to Action, a document outlining the university's plans to promote diversity and inclusion on campus. An anti-racism group led by six professors met with faculty, staff, and students, eventually summarizing their themes into five categories:

- Advancing diversity and inclusion across the institution.
- Positioning excellence and learning through diversity.
- Promoting community, sense of belonging and mattering.
- Building and sustaining anti-racist infrastructure and accountability.
- Acknowledging the impact of COVID-19 on racial minorities and other under-resourced communities.

UNL said it would also review its hiring practices and retention of racial minorities and hold workshops on inclusive recruitment to increase faculty and staff diversity, including in Husker athletics. It will also conduct a review of the required general education courses on culture diversity to ensure that they meet "a more rigorous and specific definition of diversity" and eliminate any that do not.

Green briefed several people, including Ricketts, on the plan Tuesday before it was made public Wednesday. Other Republicans objected to the plan, which does not require approval from NU central administration or the Board of Regents.

In a statement Thursday evening, Ricketts stated he told Green he disapproved of the plan. He said it would "pit people against each other by conditioning everyone to see others through the lens of race rather than as individuals with unique strengths."

Aside from that, Ricketts said Green has "misrepresented" the governor's position to other university stakeholders.

UNL and university spokeswomen declined to comment on Ricketts' claim.

Regent Jim Pillen of Columbus, who is running for governor in 2022, called the plan "wrong" and "unconstitutional" on Wednesday, referring to Nebraska's ban on affirmative action, which was approved by voters in 2008. "It is unacceptable that the Board of Regents was not informed about this journey plan until after the ink was dried," Pillen said in a statement.

Read More at Lincoln Journal Star.
NioCorp given extension for when to begin construction

The organization NioCorp will have a little more time to get things underway in their search for rare earths and niobium.

The southeast Nebraska town of Elk Creek, about 10 miles from Tecumseh, has a 230 acre area of land in which niobium, scandium, titanium, and rare earths can be found. The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (“NDEE”) is now extending the current construction air permit to April 4, 2022. That means the organization has until that date to initiate construction at the site. 

Election News
Thibodeau Discusses Decision to Leave Herbster Campaign

Theresa Thibodeau, who is running for governor of Nebraska for the first time, explains why she abandoned Charles Herbster's campaign and decided to run independently.

"I left because he is chaotic and disorganized and I didn't feel was getting a good grasp on the issues facing Nebraska," Thibodeau explained.

Thibodeau said she had talks before leaving the Herbster campaign, but she wouldn't say what they were about. She added, "I'm not going to sit here and publicly embarrass anyone and give the nitty-gritty details," "I think Nebraskans want to know who I am and not try to get ahead by embarrassing somebody else."

Former President Donald Trump has endorsed Herbster, and Gov. Pete Ricketts, who is term-limited, has objected, saying he strongly disagrees with Trump's assessment that Herbster is qualified to be Nebraska's next governor.

"He did endorse Charles Herbster and that's OK. They know each other, they are good friends so I understand where that endorsement comes from again I'm bringing it back though to the people of Nebraska," Thibodeau said.

Read More at KETV.
Cass County GOP Hosts Debate for Gubernatorial Candidates

If Saturday night's discussion in Weeping Water is any indication, education, culture, and opposition to mandates will dominate the Republican gubernatorial race in 2022.

At a town hall at the Cass County Fairgrounds, state senator Brett Lindstrom, former state senator Theresa Thibodeau, Michael Connely, and Breland Ridenour attempted to set themselves apart from one another. Charles Herbster and Jim Pillen, two candidates that are currently considered frontrunners, were absent.

Read More at Omaha World-Herald.
Local Government News
Solar Farm Planned for Lancaster County Clears Second Hurdle

On Wednesday, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission approved the second phase of a large solar farm east of Lincoln.

Ranger Power was granted a special permit to install solar panels on approximately 1,430 acres of land between 148th and 190th streets and from O Street to Havelock Avenue. On Oct. 27, the commission approved a special permit for the other half of the proposed 250-megawatt farm on city-zoned land from 120th to 148th streets and from O to Havelock.

Commissioners approved the permit after hearing from Jenifer Holloway, a deputy county attorney, that the application would be held up in the Planning Commission until it got five votes either way. The vote came after adding several amendments, including increased screening requirements to shield the panels from neighboring homes.

However, Planning Commission votes on special permits can be appealed, bringing the matter before the County Board for a public hearing.

On Tuesday, the County Board voted 4-1 to reject anti-solar farm zoning text changes that would have increased required setbacks and lowered sound limits on associated electrical substations.

Read More at Lincoln Journal Star.
York Receives Grant to Continue Downtown Revitalization
The City of York has received $435,000 from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development for the third phase of its downtown revitalization project.

Numerous towns and cities compete for funds to help downtown businesses and property owners restore their façades and structures, increasing historical value.

According to Madonna Mogul, executive director of the York Area Chamber of Commerce, the first two rounds significantly impacted the downtown area.

Previous city grants have resulted in many downtown buildings being restored and renovated in recent years. The first two phases resulted in $1.4 million in improvements.

Read More at Lincoln Journal Star.
Kearney Voters to Consider $34M Sports Complex

Residents of Kearney will vote on whether or not to build a 206,000-square-foot indoor sports complex soon.

State sales tax revenue will cover about half of the facility's cost, which will be redirected to the $34 million project.

Voting will take place from Nov. 23 to Dec. 14. Voters will be asked to approve the issuance of $34 million in bonds to fund the sports complex and the extension of the 1% restaurant tax to cover interest and principal.

The restaurant tax-funded the $8.8 million Patriot Park baseball and softball fields, which opened in 2017. However, thanks to higher-than-expected restaurant tax collections, Patriot Park will be paid for sooner than expected, most likely in 2022. With voter approval, restaurant tax revenues of about $1.1 million per year would be available to help pay for the indoor complex due to the early payoff.

While extending the restaurant tax will require voter approval, the state has already approved one primary funding source. In October, Kearney's application to use state sales tax turnback revenues from a special taxing district was approved by the Sports Arena Facility Financing Assistance Act Board. The Crowne Plaza Hotel and Conference Center and other nearby businesses within 600 feet of the sports complex in south Kearney would be included in the district. The Legislature approved the sales tax turnback for sports complexes, such as the one proposed in Kearney earlier this year.

Read More at Kearney Hub.
Federal News
House Passes Biden's Build Back Better Act, Future in Senate Remains Unclear

Despite Republican efforts to delay the final vote, House Democrats won a significant victory Friday, passing their roughly $1.75 trillion social and climate spending package.

President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better Act" was passed with a vote of 220-213, primarily along party lines.
The social spending bill includes $555 billion for climate and clean energy investments, making it the most significant expansion of the social safety net in 50 years. Included in the BBB Act:

-reduce the cost of some prescription drugs
-extend the child tax credit
-provide universal pre-kindergarten for 3-and 4-year olds
-allow four weeks of paid family and medical leave
-build affordable housing
-expand Medicare coverage
-create "clean energy" jobs

The Senate is expected to amend the proposal in the coming weeks after Thanksgiving recess. In its current form, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin have not expressed support for the bill.

Rep. Jared Golden of Maine was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, expressing his displeasure with a provision that would increase the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes, potentially benefiting high-income homeowners. As a result, Democrats could survive a three-vote loss and still pass the bill. There was not a single Republican who voted for it.

Because Democrats plan to pass the bill through reconciliation, a lengthy budget process that does not require Republican support because Democrats hold a narrow majority in both chambers, the legislation, which has been months in the making, still has a long way to go before it reaches Biden's desk, including a trip back to the House.

Read More at ABC News.
Group of Attorneys General to Investigate Instagram's Marketing to Children
Attorney General Doug Peterson of Nebraska has joined a bipartisan group of attorneys general investigating Instagram's marketing to children and teenagers.

The investigation comes after a whistleblower leaked documents to news outlets and testified before Congress about Instagram and its parent company, Meta Platforms. Meta was formerly known as Facebook until October.

According to Peterson's office, the attorneys general are investigating whether the company violated state consumer protection laws and endangered the public.

The group plans to look into Meta's methods for increasing teen Instagram engagement and the resulting harms.

"When social media platforms treat our children as mere commodities to manipulate for longer screen time engagement and data extraction, it becomes imperative for state attorneys general to engage our investigative authority under our consumer protection laws," Peterson said in the news release.

Attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont are also investigating.