There are lots of factors that come into play when it comes to what will or won’t get done when it comes to agriculture issues in the 2017 legislative session. And while we’re months away from the start of the session, what happens in the coming weeks and months will shape the political and policy landscape in 2017. Farm Bureau News visited with Nebraska Farm Bureau’s Vice President of Government Relations, Bruce Rieker to get a lay of the land on where things are headed.
Farm Bureau (FB) – Bruce, let’s start by talking about money, because ultimately that shapes what the state budget looks like and plays a major role in terms of what the legislature does and doesn’t do. Generally speaking, it’s easier for senators to provide tax relief if the state is in a good position financially. How are things looking right now?
Bruce Rieker (BR) – If there’s any doubters about whether the health of Nebraska’s economy is tied to the agriculture economy, you don’t have to look any further than the legislative fiscal office projections. When the legislature adjourned in April they estimated state revenues would fall $234 million short of what had been budgeted for the two-year budget cycle beginning July 1, 2017. The projected shortfall was in large part due to the struggles in the agriculture economy.
Currently, state tax receipts are down $71 million below projections for the fiscal year. If things continue to head in this direction it sets the stage for the legislature to build a budget that doesn’t have much room for growth, so basically every dollar the state is short of projections is a dollar that potentially adds to the cost of tax relief or tax restructuring that would help us address the issue of property taxes.
FB – While financial status is important, what gets done legislatively also depends on who is in the Legislature. We’re set for some major changes in both the make-up of the legislature and in leadership positions, correct?
BR – There are 11 state senators who won’t return in January due to term-limits. Among them is the Speaker of the Legislature who leads the overall agenda for the body, as well as the Chairs of the Appropriations, Education, Health and Human Services, Natural Resources and Revenue Committees. That means there will be new leaders in the majority of the Committees that work on issues of interest to Farm Bureau. It’s important whoever takes over those positions has a good feel for our issues because they will have a strong influence in determining what gets done.
Term-limits have definitely changed the body if you look at the actual on-the-job experience of senators in the Legislature. Depending on how elections go, 34 of the 49 state senators could have two years or less of experience in the legislature when we start the 2017 session. We know for sure there will be only seven senators who have been there for six years or more.
FB – What does all that mean for farmer and ranchers?
BR – It means a number of things for those of us in agriculture. For starters, it puts more responsibility on all of us, particularly our members, to engage with senators to help them understand the importance of agriculture to our state and the issues that directly affect them it such as property taxes, livestock issues, water issues, and so on.
It also means things tend to become less predictable in the body, at least in the short-run. Anytime you put a large number of new people together it takes time for them to get to know one another and how they operate. Last session we saw a record high 24 filibusters on the floor. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but a contributing factor is the transition of people in the legislature. It’s the equivalent of a major league baseball team changing half its roster in the off-season and expecting it to look and perform the same as it did the year prior. That just doesn’t happen.
FB – We can’t talk legislative turnover without talking elections. All but one of Nebraska Farm Bureau’s “Friend of Agriculture” candidates advanced to November’s General Election. What do things look like there?
BR – As you mentioned, all but one of our “Friend of Agriculture” candidates advanced to November’s General Election which is great news.
It was an interesting primary, particularly for some of the incumbents seeking re-election. One of those, Nicole Fox from Omaha, did not advance to the General Election. Five other incumbents finished second in the primary election, including Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis and Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo. Both are “Friend of Agriculture” candidates and have been very good for Farm Bureau on key issues, including work on property taxes. In addition, Sen. Johnson serves as the Agriculture Committee Chair and he was instrumental in working on bills to advance livestock growth opportunities in the state last session as well as working with us on the “Right to Farm” issue. Agriculture needs their continued leadership in the legislature so it’s vital our members support those candidates in particular.
FB – Why is it so important that Farm Bureau members support “Friend of Agriculture” candidates?
When we have people who come into the legislature who understand and support agriculture, it increases the chances that we can successfully implement Farm Bureau policy positions. And sometimes, more importantly, make sure we stop measures that would harm our members. That’s why our “Friend of Agriculture” designation for political candidates is important. We have a better chance getting things done for agriculture if we have senators in the body who get why it’s important to support Nebraska’s farm and ranch families.
With that said, there will be plenty of opportunities this summer and fall with county fairs, parades, festivals and such where members can support and help out our “Friend of Agriculture” candidates. I can’t emphasis enough how vitally important it is for our members to support these candidates. It’s a great way for members to build the relationships with their future senator. While Farm Bureau is at the Capitol everyday working with lawmakers, it’s important senators have Farm Bureau members in their district that they know so they can reach out to them for information and insight so they can personalize these issues for people in their district.