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Rural Panhandle senators set priorities as the session kicks off

LINCOLN – State Sen. Tom Brewer, of Gordon, and State Sen. Steve Erdman, of Bayard, have a lot of legislation they proposed in 2021. Between the two of them, Brewer and Erdman – who represent the Panhandle and northern Nebraska – have introduced 22 pieces of legislation as of Friday.

In a 90-day session with both a budget and a pandemic, the legislation will be even tougher to push through.

For 2021, Brewer said his priorities are split down the middle.

“As the chairman of the government committee, I have government bills that have to be done,” Brewer told the Star-Herald. “Most of those are clarifying different parts of regulations with the government.”

Brewer was reelected as the chair of Government, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee unanimously and without a challenger.

The eight-member committee oversees legislative proposals that concern political subdivisions, election law, departments of state government, the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Act, lobbying, correctional institutions, law enforcement, public meetings and records laws, standards for public buildings, military and veterans affairs, civil defense, apportionment and redistricting.

In that capacity, Brewer said his biggest goal would be modifying state regulations to be “COVID friendly,” as he put it.

“So that would primarily be allowing (public) meetings to be done virtually, and signing of documents to be done virtually,” he said. “In the past, we had to have a notary be face to face while we’re changing all that.”

Brewer pointed out that some of those changes have already occurred on a temporary basis. As a part of the governor’s emergency order enacted during COVID-19, public board meetings, like school boards and city councils, were allowed to meet virtually.

“That doesn’t carry over past the emergency. So we have to do it into formal legislation,” he said.

Otherwise, Brewer said a lot of his legislation focuses on state issues. For example, one bill would provide for an insurance premium deduction from the retirement annuity of certain Nebraska State Patrol employees. Another bill would change provisions relating to the taxation of military retirement benefits, a bill that the governor pushed for in his State of the State address. Brewer’s also got a bill that lets the legislature celebrate the state’s birthday, LB 275.

“That’s just kind of a technical requirement in order to have the celebration and all the things associated with it,” he said.

Brewer also introduced a bill that provides and changes zoning requirements for wind energy generation projects, a major issue in his district.

“That simply establishes certain requirements that every county has to have when it comes to wind energy. It doesn’t restrict it; it just says you have to have decommissioning, you have to have standoff from non-participating landowners, you have to be conscious of so many decibels of sound,” he said.

Brewer added that it didn’t prevent wind farms, but it did force counties with no zoning to create zoning.

“They become this no man’s land where people can come in with the wind farms and do pretty much whatever they want because there are no rules established,” he said.

He’s also introduced a bill proposing postponement on the R Line, a massive Nebraska Public Power Department project to create a 345,000-volt transmission line between two stations.

“We’re trying to force the issue of having an honest review to be sure everything’s being addressed before we go forward with the R-line,” Brewer said. “That’ll be kind of an ugly, bloody battle before it’s over.”

This year, Erdman said he’s got two big priorities – getting the legislature to consider and pass his consumption tax and taking on Nebraska Game and Parks.

“(Nebraska landowners) have been dealing with Game and Parks for well over 20 years for the mismanagement of that organization or agency,” Erdman told the Star-Herald. “And it’s time for that to cease.”

Erdman said that the state needed to start managing wildlife like they care about landowners.

“We’ve got to start managing this wildlife like we actually care about the landowners, and I will get their attention one way or the other,” he said.

Specifically, he said he’s concerned about the damage wildlife causes on land and farms. He said that Game and Parks should be responsible for those damages.

“The Constitution says you can’t take private property for public use without compensation. And I’ve had a series of concerns and complaints over the last four years,” he said.

Erdman’s other big project is a consumption tax.

“I find that the consumption tax proposal has gained recognition and support,” he said, citing the nine co-signers the bill features. “I’m feeling energized that there’s getting to be more understanding what we’re trying to do and more recognition that maybe this is what we need to do to fix our problem once and for all.”

Erdman has been one of the legislature’s most vocal critics of the state’s approach to tax reform. He called last year’s compromise reform bill “a decrease in the increase” and said that more needed to be done.

Despite the gain in support, Erdman said it’ll still be a difficult sell.

“I don’t know if I have 30 votes,” he said.

Erdman also held off running for any leadership positions, unlike his Panhandle colleagues.

“When they have those responsibilities, they sometimes find it difficult to find time for those issues that they’re trying to move forward themselves,” Erdman said. “I found it beneficial to be on the side, instead of in the front, because it’s sometimes easier to get your points across.”