Heavy lifting awaits Sen. Hughes, colleagues as session begins

Even before the 90-day session of the 106th Legislature begins, 44th District Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango is working with other rural senators on property tax relief. 

That will be just one of the issues requiring some heavy lifting by the Nebraska Legislature. The session officially begins today, Jan. 9.

But for Hughes, it heads the list of his priorities for the session. 

As he begins his second four-year term in the Unicameral, his focus on property tax relief isn’t any different than when he first went to Lincoln. 

Four years later, the situation has grown even more crucial for his constituents and ag land owners across the state.

“We need it now!” he exclaimed emphatically this week. The tax shift on ag property owners has gone on far too long, he added. 

Much of the burden has come from the funding for K-12 education in the state.

Land-rich school districts,  like most in the 44th District, get little, if any, of the school aid their state taxes help provide to other districts. 

People are getting tired of having to bear the cost of K-12 education on behalf of the state, he said. 

Despite fighting the battle for the last four years, Hughes said there may be an opportunity to build a coalition to actually get something done this year. 

Urban homeowners are beginning to feel some pain as they see their property taxes go up as their valuations rise.

The Nebraska Advantage Act, which serves as the primary economic development tool for the state, expires in 2020. 

Hughes said urban centers are the biggest beneficiary of that act and they’re going to want that continued. 

And with the passage of the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative in November, supporters of that program will want to see it implemented as quickly as possible. 

Up to now, rural senators have had little leverage on property tax relief. Now, these issues represent an opportunity for compromise as urban and liberal-minded senators want to protect their own constituents. 

Medicaid expansion costs

Hughes said there’s no way to know how much the state’s 10 percent share of Medicaid expansion will cost until the signup is completed. 

And with a $50-100 million deficit projected in the current budget year ending June 30, Hughes said there’s simply not the money there. 

Plus, the state’s rainy-day fund has been drawn down to around $300 million. 

Lots of options are being looked at to fund property tax relief, Medicaid expansion and a school aid overhaul, Hughes said. 

There are three options, he said: reduce services, cut programs or raise state tax revenue.

He said sales tax exemptions that have been granted over the years are getting an intense look, along with higher tobacco and alcohol taxes. 

Medical marijuana bills

Hughes said the Legislature will see bills to legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska again this session. 

He doesn’t believe the state is ready for full legalization of recreational marijuana but it’s possible medical uses could get support. 

Even if the Legislature doesn’t take action, entities are already seeking to get one or both issues on the 2020 ballot. 

Natural resources chair

Two years ago, Hughes was elected to the chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He plans to seek the seat again this session. So far, he isn’t aware of any opposition for the seat. 

The Legislature will greet more than 10 new senators elected in November, along with two other appointees. 

Hughes said he’s looking forward to getting to know the new senators. 

This will be an interesting session, he concluded. 

The Grant Tribune-Sentinel

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