WATER MANAGEMENT, FUNDING
This session represented a hi-mark for the Legislature’s commitment to investing dollars toward managing Nebraska’s water resources.
It wasn’t but a few short years ago a check-off on corn and grain sorghum was to be the vehicle to pay for the state’s water needs. Things have evolved a lot since then hitting a high point with the 2014 Legislature.
The body put some $32 million toward water research, projects and programs in the near-term during the 2014 session, with the intention of $11 million for water annually moving forward.
“Coming into the session water funding was going to be a big issue and has been a growing issue over the last 10 years after we first approved legislation establishing integrated management of ground and surface water. It’s a big win for agriculture anytime we can get dollars for research, projects and programs to better manage waters to make sure it’s available in the future,” said Jay Rempe, vice president with the Nebraska Farm Bureau and head of governmental relations for the group.
Monies for water weren’t the only thing addressed this session. The structure of how dollars will be administered for water into the future was also revised.
The Legislature modified the state’s Natural Resources Commission, expanding the number of members and giving the group responsibility and oversight for a newly created water sustainability fund. The Commission will be charged with prioritizing water needs and allocating monies from the fund into the future.
“The restructure and the dollars invested will be scrutinized, but it will provide an opportunity to see the benefits derived from these types of investments. This will be a good starting point and gives us a real opportunity to determine what the needs are and how best to invest dollars to manage water into the future,” said Rempe.
Heading into the 2014 session much of the talk around the Legislature centered on the topic of tax reform and tax relief.
Nebraska Farm Bureau was among those looking for big things, specifically in the area of property tax relief in the form of lowered valuations on agricultural land for tax purposes.
While the bigger ideas of major tax reform never materialized, there were some wins for agriculture.
“We did achieve a goal that we’ve had for many years of removing the sales tax on repair parts on agriculture machinery and equipment. No other state around us has that sales tax in place. We’ve argued it’s a competitive issue and it fits under our fundamental philosophy that we shouldn’t tax inputs into a production process like agriculture. That’s a victory for us and would be considered a win no matter what the climate of tax talks might be. That’s worth about $9 million to $10 million in tax reductions for agriculture in the state,” said Rempe.
While property tax relief in the form of reductions on agricultural land never got rolling, Farm Bureau has been a long-term advocate for putting more monies into the state’s property tax credit program, which provides a direct credit against property taxes paid.
“We were able to get more money into the property tax credit program, to the tune of an additional $25 million. It does help at the margin in the sense it is more money to address property taxes and it is recognition that property taxes need to be addressed. We do have the commitment of several leaders in the body that we will sit down and work out something on property taxes for agriculture next year,” said Rempe.
Every year there are issues affecting agriculture in the area of transportation and trucking.
This year was no exception. Lawmakers passed legislation to keep farmers and ranchers competitive with their counterparts in other states.
“In what is a very good win for farmers and ranchers, senators passed a bill that includes new CDL exemptions for drivers of farm covered vehicles. The bill not only brings Nebraska in line with federal law which was changed a couple of years ago, but also with boarder states too. Nebraska farmers were more regulated when it came to trucking regulations than those in our neighboring states,” said Rempe.
The new law not only created exemptions from CDL requirements, but also exemptions from hours of service and medical testing among others. Farm and ranch owners, their family members and their employees can now operate Nebraska farm-plated “covered farm vehicles” with a gross vehicle weight in excess of 26,000 pounds (including semi-trucks) without a CDL, provided they are operating within the state of Nebraska or within 150 air miles of the farm or ranch if crossing state lines.
Drivers of farm covered vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating less than 26,000 pounds are exempt from the CDL requirements regardless of how far the farm vehicle travels.
Furthermore, other requirements traditionally associated with holding a CDL, such as drug and alcohol testing, medical certification, hours of service, and inspection, repair and maintenance will no longer be required for drivers that qualify for the CDL exemption.
Farm Bureau is currently developing an information piece about the changes which will be available soon.
Livestock is a key element of Nebraska’s agriculture economy and, in addition to water, one of the most important to the strength of Nebraska agriculture.
There’s been a greater focus in recent years on identifying ways to help grow the livestock sector at the Capitol and this year was no different.
“We came into the session wanting to do some things in the area of livestock growth. We had a couple bills focused on building livestock capacity. One focused on trying to broaden the scope of who could participate in custom feeding arrangements to allow young or beginning farmers to enter into custom feeding arrangements with processors. That bill didn’t end up advancing.
Another bill was focused on building off of the state’s Livestock Friendly County program to maybe provide some more assistance to counties,” said Rempe.
While the bills didn’t move, they have led to more conversation that could be helpful heading into next year.
“There have been some interim studies introduced and we are now engaged in direct conversations with the counties on how we can work together collectively to grow the livestock sector. Those are a direct result of the bills that were introduced,” said Rempe.
Final Overall Grade: B+
“I would say the session would get a B+ in terms of how agriculture fared. It wasn’t an A because we really wanted to get something done on the issue of agricultural land values and property taxes on agriculture. But on the whole it was a good session for agriculture in that we got some things done in the area of taxes, water and on the regulatory side. On the flip side there was nothing done this session that would hurt agriculture and that’s always important,” said Rempe. ❖