Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Sine Die

Today the 104th Legislature concluded their business and adjourned Sine Die.  Today’s agenda was in place to give the Legislature the opportunity to address any vetoes the Governor may have delivered.  While there were a few technical vetoes in A-bills (appropriations), there were two bills of substance that the governor Vetoed.  One was allowing for qualified individuals that are the children of illegal immigrants, to acquire professional licenses (LB 947) and the other regarding changes to the legislative redistricting process (LB 10).  The body only chose to address one of the vetoes with a motion to override.  Senator Heath Mello filed a motion to override the Governor’s Veto on LB 947.  After a re-hash of the original debate, the Legislature successfully passed the override motion and LB 947 became law notwithstanding the objections of the Governor.

NREA Success

At the end of this session we celebrate the passage of two bills introduced on behalf of NREA, LB 736, Senator Curt Friesen’s bill to allow all Nebraska Utilities the ability to negotiate contracts with a Community-Based Energy Development project and LB 973, Senator Jim Smith’s bill to increase penalties for violations and to and support notification of utilities when oversized loads move across the state.  We were fortunate that both of these bills moved through the system with no objections and were able to be fast-tracked to passage on the Consent Calendar.

Passing a Compromise

LB 824, Senator McCollister’s bill to lessen the regulatory process for the development of privately owned renewable energy generation, also passed this year.  The road to passage of LB 824 was a bumpy one for the supporters of renewable energy.  In my last blog post you may recall that the renewable development language was stripped from the bill since it did not have enough votes to advance.  The language of LB 914, legislation to increase the compensation for the Nebraska Power Review Board member that serves on the Southwest Power Pools Regional State Committee, was amended into LB 824 and became the bill.  This was done so that the Committee priority status could still be used.  Amendments that would have put the compromise language of the original LB 824 were pulled on the first round of debate (General File) and not discussed.  The bill easily advanced because of this. 

When the bill returned to the Agenda on Select File, it was a different story.  The amendment to re-instate the compromise language to lessen the regulatory authority for private wind development came back.  This was a way to pass a bill, that could not advance from committee on its merits and there were a few members of the legislature that were concerned about setting a new precedent for a process to resurrect a bill not fully supported by Committee. The bill and proposed amendment were filibustered by a group of senators for four hours.  The filibuster was led by Senator Curt Friesen, but strongly supported by some members of the Natural Resources Committee, Senators Johnson, Schnoor and Hughes that originally opposed the bill and others. Their opposition was not just because of the process, but also because of the content of the bill.  NREA and the Nebraska Power Association (NPA) maintained a neutral position on the bill because of the compromise on the proposed language of the amendment.  I don’t think any of us were supportive of the process to advance the measure.

The bill did advance and when it was heard on Final Reading, it was once again filibustered for two additional hours. In the end, LB 824 passed and will become law on July 20, 2016.
As will all compromises there are parts we like and parts we don’t like.  We will wait and see if the passage of LB 824 was the key to push renewable energy, particularly wind, forward in Nebraska.

More to talk about

I will be preparing a list of bills of interest that passed and I will also finalize the NREA Bill Tracking Document to illustrate the final disposition of bills for this year. These documents will only be available to NREA members.

If a bill did not pass this year, it is done.  We start with a clean slate and a new Legislature next year. The 105th Legislature, First Session will convene on January 4, 2017.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Ten Days Left!

It was a short week, but probably one of the most productive for issues of importance to NREA.  The Legislature is on recess today and Monday for the Easter Weekend.  When we come back on Tuesday it will be the 50th day.   So much to do with only 11 days left to work.

Consent Calendar Propels NREA Bills

In my last post several bills advanced from General File to Select File on the Consent Calendar.  NREA Bills LB 736 and LB 973 were on that list as well as LB 725, LB 783 and LB 913.  This week the Select file Consent Calendar came up and all of those bills have now advanced to Final Reading.  I expect that next week we will see the Final Reading Consent Calendar and hopefully each will pass easily.

LB 824 Begins its Transformation on the Floor

LB 824, (private wind development) came up on General File yesterday afternoon.  As I discussed in my last post, the Natural Resources Committee advanced the bill after gutting the wind language and replacing it with the language in LB 914, the Power Review Board compensation bill.

The private wind developers were disappointed that their language was stripped out by the Committee and they asked Senator Ken Haar to file an amendment to the bill to bring the compromise private development language back into the bill when the bill was to be discussed on General File.  This is a bit of an unconventional move and was seen by some to circumvent the actions of the Committee that failed to advance the language on a split vote.

NREA remains neutral on the compromise language, but this action did create a bit of a dilemma.  NREA is on record supporting LB 914 and the actions of the Committee transformed LB 824 into that bill. If Senator Haar's amendment could be attached without jeopardizing the new LB 824 we would remain neutral.  If the Haar amendment could cause the bill to be filibustered and potentially create opposition threatening the passage of the bill, we may need to take a different position.

LB 824 came up and following the bill sponsor's  introduction, three of the four senators that opposed advancement of the original language of LB 824, stood up and indicated they would strongly oppose the Haar amendment and would work to kill the entire measure if the amendment were adopted.  This set a tone for a debate that "could have been". The Committee amendment was easily adopted by the legislature and the bill was officially transformed into what was previously LB 914.  The next amendment would have been Senator Ken Haar's, but the Senator pulled the amendment and it was not debated.  LB 824 then advanced to Select File.  If I haven't seriously confused you with all the jockeying on this bill, LB 824 is now in a form that NREA supports!

The wind developers are considering re-filing their amendment when the bill is debated on Select File.

Right to Farm

The right to farm in Nebraska seems like a fundamental issue and one that should easily pass in a state that is primarily an agricultural state. Recent polling in the state showed that a majority of voters in Nebraska would support a Constitutional Amendment preserving the right to farm and ranch if it were on the ballot. These are the same voters who supported a Constitutional Amendment protecting the right to hunt and fish.

On issues as important as agriculture in the state of Nebraska the language and the timing of a proposal are critical.  It is not something you want to get wrong...not even one word.

Senator John Kuehn introduced LR378CA, a Constitutional Amendment to preserve the right to farm in Nebraska. Pressures from groups like the Humane Society of the United States to put an end to animal agriculture motivated Senator Keuhn's laudable efforts.The introduction of LR378CA started an important discussion regarding the value of agriculture and its most significant contribution to the economics to the state.

While there was opposition to the proposed language, most of the opponents stated they supported a Constitutional Amendment, but they wanted to take the time to draft language somewhat differently. Senator Kuehn facilitated productive discussion and then introduced a bracket motion to end the debate for the year so that additional conversations could take place over the interim.

NREA appreciates the efforts of Senator Kuehn to protect agriculture and to support Rural Nebraska. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Quick Post with Good News on Friday

 This has been a long busy week for NREA.  Thank you to everyone that participated in the NREA Legislative Meeting and Reception on Tuesday.  While our attendance was down because of our need to reschedule, I do believe the impact was just as great.

NREA Bills Advance

Both bills that NREA had introduced on our behalf were placed on the Consent Calendar.  It was touch and go for one of the bills (LB 973) because of a small glitch, but for those of you that spoke with Speaker Hadley and Senator Smith we were able to remedy the situation.  We are grateful to speaker Hadley for making sure our bill made the cut.  More than 80 bills were recommended to Consent Calendar and only 55 were included. LB 736- NREA's bill to authorize all utilities in Nebraska the ability to negotiate a contract for a community-based energy development project and LB 973, NREA's bill to increase penalties for violations while moving over-sized loads. were # 25 and # 39 on the list.

Today was Consent Calendar Day and  all of the bills on the Calendar were able to advance. In addition to LB 736 and LB 973, there were a few other bills of interest to NREA  included on the Consent Calendar.

LB 725,  which will eliminate the need to file a Form 521 for utility easements.
LB 913, which will adopt the Facilitating Business Rapid Response to State Declared Disasters Act.
LB 783, authorization for utilities over $40 Million in revenues to centrally license all of their vehicles in the county where they are headquartered.

The bills all advanced from General File to Select File and should easily make it through the process to passage this year.

LB 824 is Transformed

LB 824 was advanced by the Natural Resources Committee, but it is not the same LB 824 that we have discussed in the past.  Even with all of the electric utilities in Nebraska taking a neutral position on the bill with the compromise amendment, the bill advocates could not overcome the remaining opposition to the intent of the bill in the Natural Resources Committee.

Prior to advancing the bill, the Committee proposed to amend the bill by gutting all of the original language and replacing it with the language in LB 914 (AM2611), legislation which would provide additional compensation to the Power Review Board member that represents Nebraska on the Southwest Power Pool Regional State Committee.

At first blush it may seem silly to gut one bill and completely replace it with another.  After all, why not just advance LB 914? The reason for the amendment is that LB 824 was designated as a Committee Priority Bill and is guaranteed to have an opportunity for debate.  LB 914 did not have such a priority and by replacing the language LB 914 will have an opportunity to pass this year.

AM2611 will become the bill.  NREA has a position to support LB 914 and when AM2611 is adopted we will be in support of LB 824.  It has been a crazy winding road on this bill from oppose, to neutral and eventually support. Of course all of this is assuming there are no additional negative amendments adopted.  It certainly is not over until it is over.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Hearings Conclude--The work continues!

The Legislature has completed 37 of the 60 days allowed for the 104th Legislature, 2nd Regular Session.  The total number of bills passed so far is 35, that means there are several hundred bills waiting in the cue to be heard over the next 23 Legislative days. Only bills with a designated priority status are guaranteed to be heard at this stage of the session.  The only exception will be when the speaker schedules a Consent Calendar of non-controversial bills that

Today was the final day for hearings. The only Committee hearing bills today is the Judiciary Committee.  The Judiciary Committee was assigned 110 bills and every bill is entitled to a hearing.  In order to manage the workload, they heard on average six bills a day with some hearings lasting into the night. As I write this post I am listing to the Committee hear testimony on several gun bills.  While the rest of their colleagues have left for a three-day recess weekend, the Judiciary members will have another late night. We really don't pay these people enough!

Just because hearings are completed doesn't mean that the Committee work is done.  Executive sessions will continue to be held to determine the fate of bills held by all of the Committees. While these executive sessions are not open to the public, members of the press are allowed to be present to witness the votes taken.

LB 824 remains in the Natural Resources Committee. It is expected that the bill will be discussed in exec session on Tuesday next week. NREA is maintaining a neutral position on the bill and will not work to support or oppose the bill as long as the agreed upon amendment remains unchanged.

As for the two bills introduced on behalf of NREA, LB 736 and LB 973, we are waiting for the Speaker to schedule the next Consent Calendar.  Both bills have been recommended to be included on the "fast-track" agenda of bills.

Now that the hearing process has concluded we will move to full day debate of bills. This should speed up the process, but don't depend on quick action.  It seems every bill that holds controversy has been subject to a filibuster. A filibuster can tie up a bill for six hours on General File before a vote can be taken.  A total of 33 votes is required to force the end of debate--invoke cloture.  So even though it only takes 25 votes to advance a bill, a bill sponsor may need to have 33 votes in order to advance their controversial bill.  That changes the game for a number of controversial issues.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

NREA Member Engagement at the Unicameral

One to Increase Red Tape and One to Reduce Red Tape

More Red Tape

The Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard LB 1068 yesterday afternoon.  LB 1068 is Senator Ken Haar's bill that puts rate issues for all public power systems under the Nebraska Public Service Commission (PSC). The NREA  and the NPA Oppose LB 1068.

NREA directors and employees from Elkhorn PPD, Stanton County PPD, Cuming County PPD, Cedar Knox PPD, Wheat Belt PPD, Dawson PPD, Burt County PPD, Butler County PPD, Norris PPD, Polk County RPPD and NREA attended the hearing.

Outstanding testimony in opposition to the poorly drafted bill was provided on behalf of their organizations and the NREA by Bernie Fehringer, Wheat Belt PPD and Paul Neil, Dawson PPD.  While good testimony was provided by attorneys and managers of other utilities, it was critically important to have duly elected board members testify to the efforts that take place to undergo cost of service studies and the rate setting process. Thank you Bernie and Paul!

In addition to those in attendance many other NREA members provided written testimony in opposition to LB 1068.  Those letters will be included on the record for the hearing.

The majority of those in opposition to the bill testified to their opposition to the increase in customer charge rates implemented by Omaha Public Power District.(OPPD). OPPD is currently undergoing an incremental (over five years) increase in their fixed charges (customer charge) so that it is more in line with their actual fixed costs.  This is something most utilities in Nebraska are doing or have done in recent years.  Unfortunately for OPPD, they became the lightning rod and Senator Haar's reason for introducing LB 1068.

Credit should be given to the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee members for their patience and attention to the complicated topic.  We will be asking the Committee to Indefinitely Postpone (Kill) LB 1068. 

Senator Haar stated in his opening testimony that he didn't believe the bill could advance this year and that he intends to introduce an Interim Study Resolution to look at the issue. Personally, I think the opposition testimony was clear, it does not make sense to add an additional layer of bureaucracy to a process that already includes consumer input and thorough evaluation of costs and needs to maintain our electric utilities so that we may continue to provide low cost, reliable electric service to our consumers. An interim study seems unnecessary and passage of the bill would be foolish.

Less Red Tape

Today the Revenue Committee heard LB 913, Senator Jim Smith's bill that would  adopt the Facilitating Business Rapid Response to State Declared Disasters Act. Under the Act, an out-of-state business that assists in repairing, renovating, installing or building infrastructure related to a declared state disaster or emergency would not be subject to registration with the Secretary of State or withholding or income tax  registration, filing or remitting requirements.

During times of emergencies such as ice and snow storms, tornados and other such disasters that can damage electric infrastructure, the primary concern is getting service back into operation. When that includes the need to have out-of-state utilities provide assistance, they should not have to be concerned with registering with the Secretary of State or identifying the time spent working in Nebraska so they can go through the added step of filing an income tax form in the state.  The exemption would only apply to those utilities asked to provide assistance and only when there is a state declared disaster. The Nebraska Department of Revenue believes the costs to implement LB 913 would be minimal.  There was no opposition to the bill.  I provided testimony on behalf of NREA in Support of LB 913 at the hearing.


With the rapid increase in unmanned aerial system (drone) technology, there is a need for regulation to catch up to the increased use. The costs of using drone technology has dramatically decreased and the use of the technology is expanding rapidly.  There is a need to find a reasonable approach to allowing the use of the technology for beneficial purposes, while still protecting personal privacy.

Senator John Kuehn has introduced legislation (LB 720) that would require express written consent for the capture of images, video or sound by a drone operating less than 200 feet above a property. Without that consent a person is presumed guilty of invasion of privacy. As drafted, there is concern that the bill may make it difficult or impossible to use drones for monitoring electric utility infrastructure.  This certainly was not the intent of Senator Kuehn. The senator is hoping to use LB 720 as the opening dialogue to determine if and how Nebraska should regulate the use of this technology.

 The bill will be heard by the Judiciary Committee,  Thursday, February 25 at 1:30 PM in room 1113 of the State Capitol.  NREA will be present at the hearing to learn more and to possibly testify in the neutral capacity to draw attention to the beneficial use of drone technology to reduce costs in monitoring utility infrastructure.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Thank Goodness it is Friday!

This has bee n a very Busy Week!

We continue to negotiate language on LB 824 to allow private renewable developers and expedited process for developing generation.  With the changes that are being finalized by legislative bill drafters, the NREA Legislative Committee has changed our position form opposition to neutral.  This means we will no longer actively oppose the bill and will not seek additional amendments beyond the compromise agreed to. It does not mean we support the bill.  The wind developers are also in a position to not seek additional changes.  Even with an agreement between the Wind Group and the NPA and NREA, the bill may still have opponents. I will outline the final compromise when the amendment is officially finalized.

The Natural Resources Committee Chair has designated LB 824 as a Committee Priority.  This ensures that it will have the opportunity to be heard by the entire legislature.  It is not a guarantee of passage.

NREA Bills on the Move

The Natural Resources committee has advanced LB 736, NREA's bill to all all Nebraska utilities the ability to purchase the output of a Community-based energy development (C-BED). The bill has been recommended by the Committee Chair to the Consent Calendar.  Consent Calendar is a special agenda of non-controversial bills that have the opportunity to move through the legislative process quickly. 

On February 8, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee heard LB 973, NREA's bill to increase penalties for failing to notify the electric utility when an over sized load is to be moved through their service territory. The bill also increases fines for manipulating the infrastructure of an electric utility. The bill was well received by the Committee and it is expected to advance next week.  This bill will also be recommended by the Committee Chair to the Consent Calendar.

More Cost and the Loss of Local Control Proposed

Next Tuesday, February 23, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee will hear LB 1068, Senator Ken Haar’s bill that would require Nebraska Utilities to go to the Public Service Commission (PSC)  for approval of electric rate increases of more than two percent or an increases in fees including fixed charges (customer charges) by more than 20 percent.  Any rate increase could require approval of the PSC if more than two percent of the customers petition for a review.  All rates would need to be filed with the PSC annually. All of the cost to review rates would be the responsibility by the electric utility.

LB 1068 adds an unnecessary level of bureaucracy and cost.  Electric co-ops and public power districts have locally elected boards of directors who are charged with the statutory responsibility of providing fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory rates to their customers. Customers have the ability to contact their local boards with concerns and have the opportunity for  input into the rate making process. Directors take this charge very seriously and all of their decisions impact them the same as their constituents.

There is no justification for removing local control and adding an additional layer of bureaucracy and cost for Nebraska's ratepayers.  NREA is strongly OPPOSED to LB 1068.  The Nebraska Power Association (NPA) is also opposed to LB 1068

Friday, February 5, 2016

Snowstorms and Hectic Schedules

Unfortunately the Groundhog Day snowstorm caused the cancellation of the NREA Legislative Conference and put a hitch in the Legislative schedule for the Unicameral. While no business was conducted on Tuesday, they did convene with just enough members to put the 18th Legislative Day on the books.  All hearings that were scheduled for February 2 will now be heard in the morning on February 9.  The hearing schedule is posted on the Unicameral Website.

The big downside of not having a Legislative Conference means not having the opportunity to take positions on bills of interest with the entire NREA Board participating.  The Legislative Committee of NREA will need to meet in a series of conference calls in order to take positions and will act on behalf of the NREA Board in accordance with our by-laws.

Even with bad weather the work must go on. On Thursday, February 4, LB 736 was heard by the Natural Resources Committee. LB 736, will allow all Nebraska Utilities the ability to purchase energy from a Community-Based Energy Development project.  The bill was introduced on behalf of NREA by Senator Curt Friesen of Henderson. Rick Nelson, General Manager of Custer Public Power District provided support testimony on behalf of NREA.  I provided brief testimony as well on behalf of NREA and the Nebraska Power Association (NPA).  The bill had no opposition and it is hoped that it will be considered for Consent Calendar.  Consent Calendar is a "fast track" agenda of bills that are non controversial and have no fiscal impact to the state.  LB 736 fits the bill! We are grateful for Senator Friesen's support on this issue.

It was a quiet day in the Natural Resources Hearing room, mostly because the Governor's Property Tax Relief Package, LB 958 was being heard at the same time by the Revenue Committee across the hall.  While our hearing lasted less than 15 minutes, LB 958 went well into the night.

On Monday, February 8, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee will hear LB 973, NREA's bill dealing with the movement of over-sized loads and the penalties associated with violations for failure to notify and for manipulating the utility infrastructure. (See my 1/15 blog post). Niobrara Valley's manager, John Hoke will provide testimony on behalf of NREA and the NPA.  It is my hope that all of NREA's member-systems weigh in on this important safety issue. Our Bill sponsor, Chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, Jim Smith from Omaha is keenly aware of the safety concerns addressed by LB 973. Senator Smith is a former employee of the Omaha Public Power District. Many thanks to Senator Smith for taking on this issue on our behalf.

I have the duty of serving as the NPA Legislative Subcommittee Chair. This committee coordinates the efforts of all the electric utilities on legislative issues of interest to the electric industry.  We have been working closely with Senator McCollister and representatives of the wind industry to work on language to modify LB 824 (See 1/27 Blog Post). We received a copy of their "compromise"language on Wednesday and were told we should reply by noon Thursday. When you are trying to coordinate multiple organizations to come up with a response on a complex bill such as LB 824, 24 hours is not much time. We were able to extend that deadline until noon today.  After much "cat herding" and four conference calls and multiple drafts later, a response was sent to the bill sponsor and the Committee Chair.  Now we wait for their reaction, as well as the language addressing concerns of the Nebraska Power Review Board. This is not a simple process. When it comes to making fundamental changes to laws regulating electric generation and understanding the impacts it will have on electric customers, it is best to take a thoughtful approach and not try to rush the passage.  Without significant changes as proposed by the members of NPA, the industry would need to oppose the bill.