Property taxes, medical cannabis, voter ID disputed in Legislature

Sen. Tom Briese discusses property taxes (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 8, 2018 - 5:18pm

Property taxes, medical cannabis, and voter ID were discussed in the Legislature Thursday. And a state senator apologized after being stopped for driving under the influence.

The Legislature’s Revenue Committee heard testimony on Sen. Tom Briese’s proposal to increase sales, income, and cigarette taxes, eliminate sales tax exemptions, and increase school aid in order to lower property taxes. Dave Welsch, who farms near Milford and is president of the Milford Board of Education, called it a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something about property taxes. Welsch was asked about opposition from Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has opposed any new taxes. “If you take my situation as a property owner and payer of taxes within my school district, from about 2010 to 2015, my taxes increased by $10,000. They nearly doubled. Nobody was crying ‘No new taxes’ for me back then,” Welsch said.

The bill was supported by ag and education groups, and opposed by business organizations. Sen. Paul Schumacher said many of the sales tax exemptions that would be eliminated, such as on home maintenance or haircuts, benefit lower and middle income Nebraskans.  Briese said some of the exemptions, like on car trade-ins, would hit higher-income people more. Schumacher then asked who would benefit most from property tax relief. “We’re talking property tax relief for all Nebraskans here,” Briese replied. “Property tax relief will benefit every Nebraskan. Whether you are a homeowner or whether you are a renter you will benefit from property tax relief.”

“The larger your property holdings, the bigger your check,” Schumacher shot back. Briese acknowledged there was “probably some truth to  that.”

Meanwhile in the Judiciary Committee, another large crowd turned out for a hearing on Sen. Anna Wishart’s proposal to have Nebraskans vote on legalizing medical cannabis.  Supporters testified cannabis provided relief and was a safe alternative to opioids. Autumn Skyburns of Papillion said after she wrote a letter to the editor supporting legalization, and campaigned for city council there, people told her they supported the idea. “They saw me as a safe person to confide in. They asked how they could contact their senators without having their names attached. They were supportive but scared of the thought of being called a pothead or a stoner. But when I was in the comfort of their own living rooms, they spilled all,” she said.
The proposal was opposed by a representative of Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson. And Dr. Thomas Williams, the state’s chief medical officer, said there were too many unanswered questions. “There are many issues surrounding the use medical marijuana. One of the most prominent is the lack of conclusive research. Studies have produced, at best, inconsistent findings,” Williams said. He said a meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association, published in 2015, that concluded “further large, robust, randomized clinical trials are needed to confirm the effects of cannabinoids and to evaluate cannabis itself.”

A proposal before the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, to require photo ID in order to vote, divided two people who are running to be secretary of state, the official who administers election laws.

In an interview before a hearing on the bill, Republican Robert Evnen said the idea makes common sense. “I think the time to address voter fraud is before you have it. And what we’ve seen in one jurisdiction after another is that after elections have been corrupted, after voter fraud has suffused election processes, it’s almost impossible to stop it – to clear it out,” Evnen said.

In a separate interview, Democrat Spencer Danner said the move would disenfranchise poor people – “individuals that cannot afford to go out and get all this identification that they’re looking to do.” Danner said it would also hurt older people. “Elderly individuals are more and more not likely to have personal identification – photo identification,” he said.

The proposal includes a requirement to provide free identification for people who need it, at an estimated first-year cost of nearly $3 million.  

Also Thursday, senators passed more than a dozen bills, including one by Sen. Matt Hansen that allows convictions for infractions, such as possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, to be set aside. Hansen says that’s a legal step short of a pardon to ensure students could still qualify for federal loans.

Another Hansen bill would require law enforcement agencies to purge data collected by automated license plate readers after 180 days, with certain exceptions.

Lawmakers also passed a bill by Sen. John Stinner requiring people who’ve been committed for mental health reasons to show by “clear and convincing evidence” they are not likely to endanger public safety before getting a concealed handgun permit. The bills now go to Gov. Pete Ricketts.

And on the floor of the Legislature Thursday, Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha apologized after being charged with driving under the influence early Thursday morning. “I take full responsibility for my actions and the decisions that I make. But I also need to apologize to this body for making a decision that was more about me than about the people I’m representing in my district and the great state of Nebraska,” McDonnell said. “I apologize to my wife and son, the people of my district, and the members of the Legislature which I’m honored and proud to serve in.”

McDonnell was stopped by the State Patrol for allegedly failing to maintain his lane on Interstate 80 in Sarpy County. Authorities say he refused twice to take a breath test.



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