Legislative Update May 2011

Ken Winston

Ken Winston

By Ken Winston, Policy Advocate
The 2011 session has been unusual in a number of ways, marked by unexpected successes and perplexing disappointments. Two bills, LB 229 and LB 283, represent both sides of the coin and Senator Ken Haar played a major role in both bills.

LB 229 is a success story for the conservation community. When it was introduced by Senator Deb Fischer with seven of the eight members of the Natural Resources Committee as co-introducers, it looked like a very difficult, if not impossible battle for those who support conservation and environmental interests. As introduced, LB 229 would have taken $7 million per year for 11 years from the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET). Although the supporters of the bill were talking about using the money for the Platte River Recovery Program, there was no guarantee the funds would be used for this purpose. $7 million per year represented about half of the funds available for distribution through the NET and would have crippled this critical funding source for worthwhile environmental projects.

Worse, it would have set a precedent that would have allowed the Legislature to completely dismantle the Trust. Fortunately, even though LB 229 was heard on the first day of hearings, environmental and conservation organizations got the word out to their members and there were 23 people who testified against the bill, as opposed to only 10 who supported it, most of whom were recruited by the introducers. Often when issues like this come up, people show up at the hearing and then disappear back into the weeds as the process goes on. Instead the groups and individuals opposed to the bill began meeting regularly.

Senator Haar contacted supporters of the trust and convinced them to get involved and  was able to get people and organizations who usually don’t talk to each other to work together. I spent a great deal of time encouraging people to stick together in opposing the bill, because the bills’ supporters kept trying to split us by using threats and trying to convince us that some other group had agreed to some compromise. I also wrote two legal opinions challenging the constitutionality of LB 229. Although there were some rough moments the friends of the Trust stayed together in opposing LB 229.

Finally all the parties were able to work out a compromise that reflected a good deal for all concerned. There are three people who deserve a great deal of credit for the compromise: Senator Haar for his consistent, calm and principled opposition to ideas that would weaken the Trust; Senator Heidemann for proposing that General Funds be increased for water funding; and Senator Langemeier for guiding the parties to a middle ground that all the parties could accept.

The details of the agreement are as follows: First and most important, the environmental trust grant process was protected. Secondly, additional State General Funds will be provided to fund water conservation efforts, particularly the Platte River Recovery Implementation Project. Third, although the Trust will give extra bonus points for water conservation projects, the amount of money subject to the bonus is equivalent to the amount currently being allocated by the NET for water projects. And finally, there will be a study of long-term stable funding sources for water efforts, something conservation organizations like the Nebraska Sierra Club have been seeking for years.

LB 283 represented the other side of the coin. Senator Haar introduced LB 283, which would allow public schools to fund energy efficiency improvements through currently existing authority to levy taxes or issue bonds. LB 283 was unanimously supported at the committee hearing, including support from the School Boards Association, the State Education Association and the School Administrators Association. It was advanced unanimously by the Education Committee, and moved through the legislative process until the Legislature passed it on Final Reading.

However, in spite of all this, Governor Heineman vetoed the bill. If his veto message indicates his thinking, it is clear that he did not understand the bill. LB 283 would not increase taxes, as his veto message indicated. LB 283 merely added energy efficiency projects as a category that could be funded through currently existing authority that school districts have to levy taxes or issue bonds. And energy efficiency saves money, by reducing the amount spent on energy. Because of that, LB 283 would have saved taxpayers money. For example, fossil fuel prices have increased by 20 to 30 % in just the last six months. Electric rates have increased by more than 40 % in the last five years. As energy costs continue to rise the amount of money saved would increase. Hopefully, Senator Haar will re-introduce the bill next year, although perhaps he should engage in a conversation about the benefits of energy efficiency with the Governor beforehand.

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