Hughes completes third session in Unicameral

Having to balance two budgets makes for tough session, senator says

By Russ Pankonin

Imperial Republican

Like every Nebraska legislative session, senators experience highs and lows. That played out again this year for 44th District Senator Dan Hughes of Venango.

Hughes just completed his third session of the Legislature and will finish his first term next year during the 60-day short session. 

Hughes said this week he will seek re-election to the seat he won in 2014. As of now, no challengers have emerged but the election is still nearly a year away. 

Highs and lows

For Hughes, the most encouraging result of the session came in the fact that a comprehensive tax plan made it out of committee and onto the floor for discussion.

Granted, the bill did not advance, which disappointed Hughes. Major legislation like this sometimes never makes it out of committee, he noted.

The mere fact the bill got to the floor for discussion represented a huge accomplishment, the senator said this week. 

“We learned some lessons this year and will come back at it next year,” he said. 

Hughes said one of his goals will be to put more emphasis on property tax relief than income tax relief. 

He’s said often his primary reason in running for the Legislature was to seek property tax relief. 

He plans to continue pursuing that next session as well.

The lows for the session dealt with having to pass two budgets this session—the first to balance the current budget year that ends June 30 and the second to craft a new two-year budget bill. 

Nebraska’s constitution does not allow the Legislature to adopt a negative-balance budget. 

That meant cutting nearly $1 billion from the budget to keep it in balance. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts said over the weekend it’s possible senators could be called back for a special session for more budget cutting if state tax revenues don’t improve. 

Hughes said those circumstances made for a tough legislative session. 

Another downside came from the state raiding nearly every cash fund in state government to come up with money to balance the budget. 

While most government agencies saw cuts to the growth of their budgets, senators approved increases to state aid to schools and prison funding. 

Health and Human Services didn’t get any of the increases they had budgeted for. 

State aid formula broken

Since going to Lincoln, Hughes said the formula to calculate state aid to schools is broken. 

When it was originally developed nearly 30 years ago, Hughes said senators never anticipated the growth of property valuations in a particular class. That particular class just happens to be ag property. 

Statewide, ag valuations increased by more than 200 percent in a short span of three to four years. 

That meant less school state aid for those rural districts with high property valuations. 

Hughes said urban senators  don’t see a problem with the formula because they haven’t seen the kind of valuation increases that occurred in ag land. 

Had those increases occurred in the urban housing market, Hughes held little doubt the formula would have been re-worked. 

When it was first developed, the formula returned 20 percent of the local income tax back to the district from where it was paid. Now that figure is closer to 2 percent, Hughes said. 

When it comes to finding more money for state aid to schools, the “pool for solutions is pretty shallow,” the senator said. 

The governor won’t expand the sales tax base by removing previously-granted exemptions. Hughes said the governor believes that if a taxpayer didn’t pay the tax last year, then it’s a tax increase if it’s added back.

Six bills passed

The senator introduced 10 primary bills, with six of those being passed during the 90-day session that ended May 30, four days early. 

He said one of the most important bills passed significantly cut down the paper work needed to file oil and gas leases at the county level. 

Hughes also got a bill passed to give second-class cities and villages the right to re-assess a special assessment to a property if the initial assessment is invalidated for some reason. 

He said larger classes of cities have that right so the bill evened the playing field for all classes of cities and villages. 

He introduced the bill on behalf of the city of Imperial. 

He got a bill passed to allow the state brand commission to conduct tele-conference meetings. Jerry Kuenning of Imperial serves as the chair of the commission. 

Hughes also got some bills passed for the state auditor to streamline their process. 

Another bill passed changed the way populations are counted for rural water districts when applying for federal grants.

Several other bills remain in the hopper. 

One would change the election of county officials in smaller counties from partisan to non-partisan.

He’s done more work on his bill to require drug testing for individuals who receive Medicaid payments. 

He said they will address concerns expressed during the hearing in an attempt to get it out of committee. 

Other areas he will work on include rural housing and, of course, property tax relief. 

This summer, he will serve on a special oversight committee to look at prison operations in Nebraska. 

The committee will look at what the Legislature can do to address prison over-crowding, staff retention, recidivism and keeping order in the prisons. 

While this committee will take up some time over the summer, he doesn’t expect it to be as busy as last summer. Last year, he said he was in Lincoln nearly every other week to work with other senators on trying to resolve the ag property tax issues. 

For now, Hughes is back home and eager to get back to some farming duties on the family farm south of Brandon. 

With the parade season approaching and next year an election year, Hughes will be making the circuit throughout the district. 

He said six of the 49 senators are term-limited out (after eight years) with one more first-term senator, Roy Baker of Lincoln, considering not running for re-election. 

That means more new faces in the Legislature in 2018. 

The Grant Tribune-Sentinel

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