Despite the dark fiscal clouds over Lincoln’s State Capitol, west central Nebraska senators hope for progress on other personal or regional causes before going home in April.
Their issues include Sandhills residents’ opposition to wind-energy projects, North Platte Sen. Mike Groene’s efforts to restrict tax-increment financing and heartburn over the local impact of public water-transfer projects like NCORPE in Lincoln County.
Partial relief in the latter controversy appears to be on its way.
LB 758, which would authorize “in-lieu-of-tax” payments to local governments by owners of public “water augmentation projects,” advanced on a 47-0 vote last week to the final stage of floor debate. Groene co-sponsors the bill by Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, which made it a committee priority bill.
It addresses one of two major local gripes over the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project, which currently pumps groundwater from 19,500 Lincoln County acres into the Republican River basin to ensure Kansas gets its share of water under a three-state compact.
Dundy County’s Rock Creek Augmentation Project also could make use of LB 758, which would build on the example of in-lieu-of-tax payments by other quasi-governmental agencies like public power districts.
Efforts to return the NCORPE site to private ownership suffered a setback last week when Hughes’ committee killed a Groene bill to let water-transfer projects sell their surface land but retain a site’s water rights.
Both senators cited opponents’ fears that LB 1123, which includes Sens. Tom Brewer of Gordon and Steve Erdman of Bayard as co-sponsors, might hinder Nebraska in meeting its obligations to Kansas.
Groene offered amendments to address them, but committee members decided that trying to quickly fix the bill “isn’t the right way to deal with water law,” Hughes said. “Water law is more complicated than that.”
Groene said he’ll keep working on his proposal, but added that “my bill did not have to be passed” right away. Court decisions, he contended, allow NCORPE to sell the land but retain its water – thus allowing the formerly irrigated grassland to be farmed as dryland.
Hughes hasn’t chosen his personal priority bill. Erdman has already prioritized his school property-tax refund bill (LB 829), but he also hopes for action on his bill to base agland valuations on earning capacity rather than market value. That bill, LB 1100, remains in the Revenue Committee.
Brewer has prioritized LB 1054, his bill to require the Nebraska Power Review Board to hold a public hearing on any proposed wind-turbine project. It had not advanced from the Natural Resources Committee as of Friday.
His 2017 bill to impose a moratorium on Sandhills wind projects (LB 504) remains alive, but its prospects are slight, Brewer said. LB 1054 looks toward future wind projects, and “I want to give people a voice,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg has renewed his priority designation for LB 496, Gering Sen. John Stinner’s bill to add “workforce housing” projects to the list of development projects eligible for tax-increment financing.
LB 496 received 31-8 first-round approval last spring but stalled when Groene successfully halted further consideration – colorfully emphasizing in the process his feud with North Platte business leaders over TIF.
Williams said rural Nebraska still faces a chronic problem in luring young professionals who want modern homes. “The problem is the availability of contractors who will take the (financial) risks to build them,” he said. “You go to the school or the hospital or the co-op, and they can’t hire people because they can’t find a place to live in Gothenburg or North Platte.”
But Williams also joined Thursday’s 33-0 majority that advanced LB 874, an Urban Affairs Committee bill co-sponsored by Groene that would tighten TIF oversight and forbid North Platte’s frequent practice of partly diverting TIF repayments into a city revolving-loan fund.
Groene said LB 874 also removes permissive language that allows TIF to be used for purposes beyond those stated in state law. If LB 496 returns to the floor, he said, he doubts senators will narrow TIF uses in one bill and expand them in another.
But if he and Williams square off again, the two have “agreed to be more cordial this year,” he added.
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