Session Review: Business and Labor

Business and Labor Committee Chairperson Sen. Joni Albrecht

Lawmakers considered bills this session that were intended to encourage workforce development and adjust workers’ compensation benefits.

Workforce development

A bill intended to encourage housing development in rural areas was approved.

Gothenburg Sen. Matt Williams introduced LB518, passed 49-0, which provides grant funds to rural communities in counties of fewer than 100,000 people to build workforce housing. Workforce housing is defined as an owner-occupied home that costs no more than $275,000 to construct or a rental housing unit that cost no more than $200,000 to construct.

Grants will be available to nonprofit development organizations in eligible communities. The maximum amount awarded may not exceed $1 million to any one organization over a two-year period and no more than $2 million through fiscal year 2020-21. Eligible applicants must provide one-to-one matching funds to be considered for a grant.

Priority will be given to communities that have demonstrated an ongoing need for housing through a housing study, a low unemployment rate, difficulty filling vacancies, a demonstrated commitment to growing their housing markets and potential projects that could be ready for occupancy within two years.

The bill establishes the Rural Workforce Investment Fund, which will be funded by a one-time transfer of $7 million from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

LB639, introduced by Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman, gives preference to active-duty service members when seeking employment with the state or its governmental subdivisions. Military veterans currently are eligible for such a preference.

Spouses of active-duty service members also are preference eligible during the service member’s active-duty term and for the first 180 days immediately following the service member’s discharge or separation from service.

The bill passed on a 48-0 vote.

Workers’ compensation

Senators heard several measures that would make adjustments to the administration of workers’ compensation benefits.

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz introduced LB244, which extends benefits to employees of the state Department of Correctional Services or Department of Health and Human Services who regularly and directly interact with high-risk individuals.

The bill would cover treatment for any mental injury or illness unaccompanied by physical injury, which currently is provided to first responders.

A high-risk individual is defined as someone in state custody with a history of violent or physically intimidating behavior, including a committed offender, regional center patient and a committed juvenile offender.

Provisions of LB244 were amended into LB444, a bill heard by the Judiciary Committee and passed on a 31-8 vote.

An employee filing a workers’ compensation claim currently must submit to a medical exam by a physician chosen by the employer or its insurer. Under LB181, introduced by Grand Island Sen. Dan Quick, an employee who disputes the initial medical findings could seek a second opinion from a physician of the employee’s choice.

The employee would be reimbursed for the associated costs of the second examination by either the employer or its insurer.

Quick filed a motion to bracket the bill by unanimous consent until Jan. 10, 2018. The body obliged.

The bill remains on general file.

State claims

A bill authorizing payment of claims against the state of Nebraska also was passed.

If a person sues the state, he or she files with the state claims board. Approved claims exceeding $50,000 must be reviewed by the Legislature.

LB171, introduced by Business and Labor Committee chairperson Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, approved $2.6 million in tort claims and $395,000 in miscellaneous claims, which cover the statutorily required publishing of legal notices in newspapers across the state regarding the death penalty ballot measure voted on in the 2016 general election.

Among the tort claims included in the bill is a $2.1 million claim from a 2014 accident in Stanton County that left three people dead. The state Department of Roads was replacing and repairing stop signs and had omitted placing a stop sign at an intersection, resulting in the crash.

The bill also includes approximately $937,000 in agency write-offs for FY2016-17. That amount includes $792,000 in uncollectible debts from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The bill was part of the budget package and passed 44-1.

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