On Thursday, April 17, the current legislative session will end. It has been a rough and grueling session which many of my colleagues claim is the most difficult of their career.Numerous filibusters took place and the usual decorum in the chamber broke down as frustration set in for the many who did not get their bills moved to final reading.
Despite it all, I remain optimistic about the process and very proud of the non-partisan Nebraska Unicameral, which should be a model for the rest of the nation to emulate. Although you might have formidable foes on the floor of the legislature on any one issue, those same individuals might be working hard to promote your bill an hour later. Senators take each bill as it comes -- and that is a good thing.
Several of my bills made it through the process or were attached to other bills and became law and a number of others are only a few days away from becoming law. By working with other senators, I was able to attach three important bills to legislation which will really benefit our district.
Sen. Mark Christensen agreed to let me place a bill onto his priority bill, LB 390, which prohibits the governor from seizing weapons from the citizenry in the event of a massive catastrophe.
My part of the bill raises the ceiling on expenditures for local aerial fire suppression from $10,000 to $25,000 before the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency becomes involved.
The $10,000 ceiling is nearly 20 years old and rates have increased significantly to hire crop dusters for those jobs.
I believe that early abundant resources should be available to local fire agencies to suppress fire in a timely manner and NEMA admits that it often takes several hours for it to secure the appropriate paperwork to permit higher local expenditures.
Fire fighting II
A second fire suppression bill of mine was heard before the Business and Labor Committee, where it was combined with two other bills and put forward as one of the committee priority bills. This bill (LB 961) authorizes the state of Nebraska to join the Great Plains Fire Compact with Colorado, Wyoming, both Dakotas and New Mexico. When any state calls for mutual aid, the responding state is authorized to participate as needed.
Jim Strain, assistant fire chief of the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire, believes that the compact could have drastically limited the damage done during the 2012 Wellnitz Fire in Sheridan County, when South Dakota firemen watched the fire burn in Nebraska for more than 96 hours before the fire crossed into South Dakota. With Nebraska’s fire crews already dealing with fires in the Chadron area at the time, the addition of South Dakota’s resources at the Wellnitz fire would have made a huge difference in the controlling the blaze and limiting losses.
Water in dams
During the interim last summer, I served on the Water Funding Task Force that held nearly 30 days of meetings to try and develop a water sustainability policy for Nebraska. The Appropriations Committee allocated several million dollars to water sustainability as a result of that task force, and Sen. Tom Carlson prioritized a bill (LB 1098) which developed standards for project evaluation and also reformulated the Natural Resources Commission.
I attached a bill to Carlson’s bill to revise the way in which the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources interprets surface water rules and regulations.
In 2011, the Department of Natural Resources began to instruct the irrigation districts at Mirage Flats (Box Butte Dam) and Ainsworth (Merritt Dam) to release water from the dams if any irrigator was using water above the dams.
I was very concerned about this decision because it does not seem logical to order water releases from dams when the call for water is above them.
I introduced a bill to rectify the situation in the 2013 session but it was held in committee pending a meeting with DNR and the Attorney General. Once those meetings were held, the Natural Resources Commission put the bill to general file but there was no chance that it would pass unless it was attached to another bill.
Passage of this bill should ensure that the reservoirs at Box Butte and Merritt are permitted to fill to capacity, which protects the face of the dam and provides additional water reserves for irrigators if a dry year follows the winter storage period.