- Associated Press - Monday, January 5, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - In a story Jan. 4 about Nebraska’s upcoming legislative session, The Associated Press reported erroneously that Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts will push for both property and income tax reductions this year. A spokesman says Ricketts plans to focus on a property tax reduction, and though he’s open to income tax proposals, he doesn’t plan to introduce any income tax cut bills.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Nebraska lawmakers preparing for busy 2015 session

Property taxes and prisons at forefront of ‘big’ 2015 legislative session in Nebraska

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Following the election of a new Republican governor and a deeply conservative group of freshman legislators, the Nebraska Legislature will get started this week with an expected focus on property taxes and prison reform.

The 90-day session that starts Wednesday will usher in 18 new senators - more than one-third of the Legislature - who are replacing term-limited lawmakers and one who resigned.

Gov-elect Pete Ricketts has promised to push for property tax reductions. Lawmakers also must pass a two-year budget, and have pledged to overhaul the state’s scandal-plagued prison system.

“I think this next (session) is going to be a big one for the Legislature, and a big one for our state,” said Sen. Beau McCoy, of Omaha. “There will be a lot of new faces, and a lot of new ideas on how best to lead our state forward.”

McCoy said he expects lawmakers will focus not on whether to cut taxes, but how to do it.

Some senators are working on legislation designed to spur job growth in the rural economy. Lawmakers are likely to see bills on gambling, health care reform, cigar bars and driver’s licenses for young immigrants who qualify for President Barack Obama’s deferred-action program. McCoy said he also anticipates new debates on issues that have gone dormant in the last few years, including abortion and a Republican-backed voter identification bill that was last debated in the full Legislature in 2012.

The new, officially nonpartisan Legislature will have an expanded GOP majority. Republicans will hold 35 seats once the freshman senators are sworn into office and Democrats will have 13, nearly all from Omaha and Lincoln. Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha is an independent.

Despite the GOP gains, several Republican and Democratic senators said the partisanship they initially sensed among incoming lawmakers has softened now that the election has passed.

“Nebraskans elected a very bright, hardworking group,” said Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a Republican who is running for speaker. “I don’t see a strong partisan divide. Some issues will probably fall down on an urban-rural divide, and people are where they are on things like Medicaid expansion. But I think now that the election is over, they all have ideas on how to move the state forward, and they realize they can’t do it alone.”

Ricketts has said property taxes are his top priority, and some lawmakers have started work on measures that would allow local governments to lower them.

Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill said he expects a strong push to lower property taxes beyond what lawmakers have already done in recent years. Larson said the discussion could include cutting expenses elsewhere or the legalization of certain forms of gambling.

“The political will is definitely there,” Larson said.

Prison reform will also receive top billing given the scandal involving miscalculated prison sentences and the case of Nikko Jenkins, who claimed to be mentally ill and killed four people in Omaha after he was released. A legislative report released in December cited prison overcrowding, inmate segregation and a lack of mental health services as major problems that have threatened public safety.

Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, who is running for Judiciary Committee chairman, said he believes lawmakers can enact many of the report’s recommendations within the next two years. Senators may also discuss the elimination of mandatory-minimum prison sentences to ease crowding.

Seiler said the shape of many prison-related bills this year will depend on the makeup of the Judiciary Committee and the money that’s available in the state budget. The committee is losing half of its eight members because of term limits, and others are looking to move to different roles in the Legislature.

Even so, Seiler said lawmakers are under pressure to ease crowding from federal officials and interest groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. At the end of November, Nebraska’s prisons housed more than 5,200 inmates - nearly 160 percent of what the state facilities were designed to hold.

“Prison overcrowding has to take a priority to a certain degree because we have both the feds and the ACLU looking over our shoulder,” Seiler said. “If we slow up our progress, we’ll get hit with a lawsuit.”

Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha said he expects debates over property taxes and K-12 education funding, which is generated through a combination of state, federal and local tax dollars. Some lawmakers have argued a lack of state K-12 education funding has led to higher property taxes, because it forces districts to generate revenue from local home- and landowners.

“We basically tell our schools to go out and levy property taxes to fund their operations,” Nordquist said. “I certainly think that if we put more money into K-12, and make sure every district receives some support, it would result in direct property tax relief.”

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