Bill would update foreign land ownership restrictions

A measure intended to tighten restrictions on foreign ownership of land in Nebraska was considered Feb. 6 by the Agriculture Committee.

Sen. Barry DeKay
Sen. Barry DeKay

LB1301, introduced by Niobrara Sen. Barry DeKay on behalf of Gov. Jim Pillen, would add a number of conditions to the right of foreign individuals or foreign-owned companies to own land in the state.

DeKay said most of the state’s laws regarding foreign ownership of land haven’t been updated since 1943. While Nebraska is fortunate to have prohibitions already on the books, he said, modernization is needed.

“The times and the current threats to our national security, food supply and agriculture sector [have] changed dramatically in the 81 years since these statutes were last updated,” he said.

LB1301 would ban a “nonresident alien” who is not a U.S. citizen or U.S. national, a foreign corporation or a foreign government, its states or political subdivisions from purchasing, acquiring title to, taking or holding real property or holding a lease for longer than five years.

The bill would allow individuals to report suspected foreign ownership of land, and the state Department of Agriculture would be required to investigate suspected violations and refer them to the state attorney general or retain outside counsel if necessary.

The court could terminate a lease that is in violation of the bill and the state Department of Administrative Services would sell any real estate acquired by the state under the bill’s divestment provisions. Up to 30% of such a sale could be paid to an individual who reported a suspected violation, after any fees and liens have been deducted.

Nonresident aliens would be allowed to purchase, acquire or lease real estate necessary to erect manufacturing or industrial establishments and the bill’s provisions would not apply within the corporate limits of cities and villages or within three miles of those limits.

DeKay said the bill would shift enforcement of Nebraska’s restrictions on foreign ownership from the county attorneys to the state attorney general’s office, which has more time and resources to devote to the issue.

Pillen testified in favor of the proposal. He urged the committee to support LB1301, saying foreign ownership of land was one of the main concerns raised during a series of recent townhall meetings he held across the state.

“We are protecting our ag land from undue foreign influence, particularly from foreign adversaries,” Pillen said. “Nebraska has some of the most productive agricultural land in the country, if not the world.”

Also testifying in support was John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. Hansen said he hears more concerns from Nebraskans about large U.S. corporations, groups and wealthy individuals owning land in the state than about foreign ownership, but said the bill would be a “positive step in the right direction” by providing a reasonable enforcement mechanism for existing law.

“This bill is a good-faith effort to address things that can be addressed,” Hansen said.

Sam Cooper, president-elect of the Nebraska Land Title Association, opposed the measure, but primarily on technical grounds. He said the bill as written likely would create confusion when tracking land ownership because it does not specify how processes such as the selling of divested land would occur, for example.

Cooper said he was confident, however, that interested parties would be able to “get to a workable solution” through ongoing efforts to amend the proposal.

Also in opposition was Dylan Severino of ACLU Nebraska, who said the original law that LB1301 seeks to update was written at the height of anti-Chinese sentiment in the 1880s and anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II.

He urged the committee not to build enforcement mechanisms into the law without also addressing its “racist past,” specifically citing the provision allowing a resident to report suspected foreign ownership.

“Providing a financial incentive to report anyone who looks like an ‘alien’ is deeply problematic,” Severino said, “and will only lead to further discrimination and harassment of Nebraskans based on national origin, alienage and race.”

Bruce Rieker testified in a neutral capacity, representing the Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Pork Producers Association and Nebraska Soybean Association. He said the groups support the bill’s intent, but that association members had not had time to review a proposed amendment from DeKay.

The committee took no immediate action on LB1301.

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