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Legislature

Senators begin final readings on bills on the final day of the legislative session in 2018 at the Capitol.

The Lincoln Journal Star's Statehouse reporters have rounded up topics they believe will command attention in the 106th Nebraska Legislature session, which begins at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Here are their predictions:

Property tax

Property tax relief once again will be a challenging issue as the Legislature struggles to find a filibuster-proof majority of senators who can agree on some package of tax reform.

Built into that challenge is funding and allocation of state aid to schools which, in turn, has a major impact on the state budget.

Gov. Pete Ricketts is expected to weigh in with his own proposals as he did in 2018.

State aid to schools

Senators on an informal study committee this summer dug deep into the history and rationale behind the state's school funding formula.

They learned over time, the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act, or TEEOSA, gradually shifted the burden to property taxpayers, leaving some school districts without any state aid.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who will seek re-election as chair of the Education Committee, said the Legislature needs to move the needle away from property taxpayers in order to create a more equitable formula, and erect guardrails to prevent future shifts.

Tweaking any part of the state aid formula -- several bills will likely be introduced offering changes to various components -- may add more cost to the state, which is already facing a budget crunch.

Medicaid expansion

Expanded Medicaid coverage approved by Nebraska voters in November is likely to spark sharp legislative division over the terms, and perhaps the timing, of state implementation and funding.

Ricketts already has signaled his intention to fund the state's share of costs for expansion of coverage to an estimated 90,000 Nebraskans, primarily identified as the working poor, out of the current state budget.

Medicaid expansion supporters have pointed to the new revenue that will be flowing into the state from collection of state sales taxes already owed for online purchases as one potential source of funding.

The governor

Ricketts will be fully engaged with issues in what appears likely to be a conservative Legislature that contains perhaps one or two more moderate, or progressive, voices following results from the 2018 election.

Heading into his second and final term, the conservative Republican governor will be working with a nonpartisan Legislature composed of 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats and one registered nonpartisan.

Medical marijuana

Sens. Anna Wishart and Adam Morfeld registered a campaign committee -- Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws -- over the legislative interim that could allow voters to place a medical marijuana legalization measure on the 2020 ballot.

The committee would seek a constitutional amendment to give Nebraskans the right to use marijuana for medical purposes.

Wishart is also going to give the Legislature another chance to pass a medical cannabis law, similar to but not exactly like the one she introduced two sessions ago that did not get to a vote.

Meanwhile, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has issued two memorandums to law enforcement saying it remains illegal to possess, manufacture, distribute or dispense CBD oil.

Prisons problems

The Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee of the Legislature recommended in its 2018 report that the state continue to address crowding in its prisons.

According to Nebraska Inspector General Doug Koebernick, the state has one of the most crowded systems in the country, with a population at 157 percent of design capacity. The percentage has dropped slightly because of an increase of 100 beds at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln and a "very slight" decrease in the number of inmates.

Reform bills passed by the Legislature have not had the effect of lowering the inmate population as senators had hoped they would by this time.

Staffing continues to be a problem, with an increase in staff overtime at the prisons more than doubling in four years, Koebernick said in his 2018 annual report.

The committee said that since nearly all inmates will ultimately re-enter the community, "it is vital that those serving time are given an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and gain valuable skills while incarcerated."

NU funding

The University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved a two-year budget request last August asking for a 3 percent and 3.7 percent increase to the university's state appropriations.

NU President Hank Bounds said the request for $39 million more in state money, if granted, would barely cover the university's rising costs in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

One regent said the $610 million request by 2021 was "deficient compared to (the university's) needs," and one that may lead to tuition increases or further programmatic cuts to balance NU's budget.

NU has made $22 million in cuts toward an existing $46 million budget gap, eliminating 100-plus jobs in the process.

Last year's Legislature approved cutting NU's budget 1 percent -- the third cut to the university's budget in 18 months -- after Ricketts proposed a 4 percent reduction.

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