Senators voted to advance an environmental trust bill after a day and a half of contentious debate.The bill (LB57), introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill, would require Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund (NET) board approval for the sale or transfer of land initially purchased with grant money from the fund.
Senators voted 27 to 17 to advance the bill April 3 after more than eight hours of deliberation over the course of two days.
“This bill would require transparency and accountability of the Nebraska Environmental Trust board now and would ensure that the practices are in place in statute for the NET boards to come,” Larson said.
The environmental trust awarded about $190 million in grants between 1994 and 2012, according to its website.
Supporters of the bill are concerned about land purchased with grant money from the environmental trust being transferred to federal agencies -- like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- for the purpose of conservation. They argue that rural counties lose out on much needed property tax revenue when such transfers take place.
Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege said Clay County lost $150,000 in tax revenue when Ducks Unlimited, a wetland and waterfowl conservation group, transferred land -- some of which it had purchased with grant funds -- to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The bill would require the environmental trust board and the grantee to determine a method for replacing the lost tax revenue.
Many senators who opposed the bill expressed concern about putting current board practices into statute.
“Why would you want to have it in statute? It’s already in the contract,” Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said.
Harms added that he thought the bill would allow the Legislature too much control and regulation of a process that does not need to be the body’s business.
Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm said the bill is an example of legislative micromanagement that would remove the flexibility the trust currently has with contracts.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, one of the most vocal opponents of the bill, called its language confusing and contradictory. He said the bill is aimed at weakening the trust rather than making it more transparent and accountable.
Chambers’ motion to return the bill to committee -- essentially killing it -- was rejected by a vote of 33 to 7.
Senators also adopted several amendments to the bill Tuesday that they said would make the bill better public policy.
Larson proposed an amendment (AM844) that would require the board and grant applicant to agree in a contract that there will be no property transaction without approval from the board. It also allows the grantee to break the contract by paying the value of the grant back to the trust if the board refuses the transaction.
The amendment was adopted with a 32-2 vote.
Larson also introduced an amendment that was drafted with members of the City of Lincoln and Ducks Unlimited. This amendment (AM871) would exempte public entities from the requirements of the bill.
It also requires the board to give written approval of a property transaction if the property submits a request 30 days before a board meeting. The transaction will be approved if it matches the purpose of the original grant.
The amendment was adopted with a 34-1 vote.
Haar introduced an amendment (AM876) that would allow environmental trust members to meet by telephone to determine if a transaction of property should be approved.
It also allows the board 45 days to deny a transaction request. If there is no written refusal after that period, the transaction will be approved.
The amendment was adopted with a 30-0 vote.
Following Wednesday’s vote, the bill advances to select file where it is likely to spark more debate.