Much was written and spoken about what the Nebraska Legislature did and did not accomplish during the 2019 legislative session, which adjourned May 31.
Tax reform and efforts to substantially lower property taxes are at the top of the “things to do” list next session because efforts by the Legislature to reach agreement came up short this year.
Legislation to enact new business tax incentives — to replace the Nebraska Advantage Act, which expires at the end of 2020 — became entangled with property tax relief. A solution that would satisfy enough senators for either to pass proved elusive.
It’s not my intent to add to the debate about taxes or business incentives. Instead, I’ll discuss a number of bills pertaining to water and natural resources that were passed with little fanfare or, appropriately and thankfully in our opinion, failed to advance.
The bills were not as controversial, but the lack of controversy does not diminish their importance to those who will or won’t be affected.
LB48, introduced by Sen. John Stinner of Scottsbluff, changes provisions related to a finding of sufficient cause for non-use of a water appropriation. The new statute passed 43-0 on final reading and was signed into law by Gov. Ricketts.
It allows contracts under any crop reserve program to be extended to 30 years by providing sufficient cause for non-use of water rights. In other words, acres enrolled in such federal, state or Natural Resources District programs can maintain their water rights without threat of cancellation for non-use.
For example, the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is designed to reduce water consumption from irrigation activity, as well as the introduction of agricultural chemicals and sediment entering the waters of the state from ag lands and transportation corridors. CREP enrollees now are protected from losing their water appropriations for a longer period than was provided under current state law.
LB294 and LB298 were budget bills that contained provisions in the governor’s original proposal the Legislature left intact.
After a few years of seeing reductions in the mainline budget bill, the Water Sustainability Fund contained within LB294 will receive its full allotment of $11 million in the next budget. This will enable the Natural Resources Committee and Department of Natural Resources to continue building on successes they’ve had with various projects intended to enhance the state’s ability to achieve sustainability of our water resources.
And in LB298, the DNR’s ability to receive grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund was continued. That is an important component of DNR’s efforts to fund water projects.
LB302, introduced by Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, proposed to merge the State Energy Office with the Department of Environmental Quality and rename the agency the Department of Environment and Energy.
The bill passed 45-0 on final reading and was signed with an emergency clause — it takes effect immediately — by Gov. Ricketts.
It mostly was intended as an efficiency measure. However, one important aspect of the merger, at least to those involved in water resources, was authorization for the agency to assume responsibility for the “dredge-and-fill” permitting process, pending agreement between the federal government and the state.
This development has the potential to speed the permitting process and allow projects to proceed more quickly without sacrificing environmental quality.
Bills failing to advance from committees included LB368, which would have legislatively eliminated the “over-appropriated” designation of river basins, sub-basins and reaches, and required DNR to manage Nebraska’s dams as flood control structures.
That effectively would have prevented reservoirs from filling past 80 percent before a certain date.
In his opening remarks at the hearing on the bill, Hughes, the Natural Resources Committee chairman, said he introduced the bill to provide the committee with information about why water is managed as it is today and to help members better understand what the fully and over-appropriated designations mean.
He also intended the bill to serve as an opportunity for education, background and context to discussion of water legislation.
Hughes closed his testimony by saying the hearing was a “… good exercise for the committee to understand the challenges that we have in Nebraska, but there’s been a lot of work in this committee before we ever got here. Any changes that (the Legislature) makes in water policy should be taken very slowly, very deliberately, and very cautiously.”
Finally, LB655 was introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne to change provisions of Nebraska’s fencing laws.
The bill, which received little or no support at an Agriculture Committee hearing, would have turned the state’s fencing statutes upside down by eliminating the current practice of sharing financial responsibility for construction and maintenance of division fences.
Jeff Buettner is government and public relations manager for Holdrege-based Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District.