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Unicameral Update

Thursday, August 25, 2011

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Oil pipeline safety analyzed

Safety precautions, soil erosion and the Ogallala Aquifer were concerns discussed at a Dec. 1 Natural Resources Committee hearing on a proposed oil pipeline in Nebraska.

The committee convened as directed by LR435, introduced by Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas. The resolution called for an interim study of issues raised during the consideration of a bill introduced last session that would have regulated interstate pipelines. At the previous hearing, many testifiers shared concerns regarding potential contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer by the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline.

Slated for construction in Nebraska in 2011, the 1,661-mile oil pipeline will connect Canadian crude oil suppliers to Texas refineries. The pipeline will run through Boone, Fillmore, Garfield, Greeley, Hamilton, Holt, Jefferson, Keya Paha, Merrick, Nance, Rock, Saline, Wheeler and York counties.

During the hearing, Robert Jones, vice president of TransCanada, said the project would benefit the state’s economy. The $1.3 billion the company invests in the Nebraska portion of the pipeline will provide $468 million in business activity, he said, as well as $161.3 million in tax revenues.

Installation of the pipeline poses little risk to the state, he said, adding that the company has increased safety measures. Leaks from hazardous liquid pipelines are rare and small, Jones said, while much of the aquifer is protected by confining soil layers.

“Spills that do contact ground water do not migrate great distances,” Jones said. “This is localized. We are talking tens and hundreds of feet, nothing more than that.”

Jim Goeke, a hydrologist in the Conservation and Survey Division of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, said a leak of the Keystone XL pipeline would not affect the majority of the Ogallala Aquifer. He said Nebraska’s aquifer system is not akin to an underground lake, where a spill in one location can contaminate the whole body. Rather, the contaminants would move in the prevailing direction of the aquifer.

“Those who think that a leaking pipeline will destroy the aquifer in Nebraska need to understand that it would be localized,” Goeke said, adding that the damage would probably be confined to a few hundred feet from the pipeline.

The pipeline will have a comprehensive leak detection system able to identify leaks of 1-2 percent, Jones said. Significant leaks will be automatically detected, he said, prompting a shutdown of the oil pumped through the pipe. The company will respond to a leak within six hours, he said.

Dr. John Gates, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at UNL, said a useful tool for modeling a potential spill by the Keystone XL pipeline is a study of an oil spill that contaminated an aquifer near Bemidji, Minn., 30 years ago. Gates said oil reaching the water table tended to stay above the water due to its lower density. In addition, the oil plume in Minnesota moved at half the velocity of groundwater flows, he said, which limited the spill’s capacity for damage. However, if oil were released into groundwater close to surface water, Gates said, remediation would be difficult.

Doug Cobb of Holt County said he was concerned about the abandonment of pipelines. He said no state regulations exist that require companies to decommission unused pipelines. He urged the committee to consider legislation requiring pipeline companies to remove abandoned pipelines with full reclamation and surrender their easements back to landowners, as well bonding requirements for pipeline companies to ensure resources are set aside to do so. Oklahoma has passed such legislation, he said.

Further, he said, current state law offers no liability protection to landowners with pipeline easements. Legislation should be enacted to hold landowners harmless for damage to pipelines, except that which is caused by malice or negligence, he said.

Soil erosion caused by pipeline trenching was a concern voiced by Teri Taylor, a rancher who owns property on the pipeline’s proposed route through Rock, Keya Paha and Holt counties.

“The very thought of this type of soil being laid open to accommodate a 36-inch pipeline … is of great concern to us as landowners,” Taylor said.

Dr. Dave Wedin of the UNL School of Natural Resources observed such erosion during a study to determine the role of grasslands in stabilizing dunes. He said areas in which the soil is disturbed in the Sandhills experience much greater erosion, so any planned digging should include aggressive erosion control measures.

The committee will release a report of its findings at the conclusion of the study.

Progress of youth services reform discussed

The Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony Nov. 30 on the progress of efforts to reform the state’s child welfare and juvenile services system.

LR568, passed during the 2010 regular session, calls for an examination of the state Department of Health and Human Services’ implementation of changes to juvenile services intended to reduce out-of-home care, the effectiveness of public-private partnerships and the impact of recent reforms on the state’s ability to meet various federal guidelines regarding the safety and well-being of juveniles receiving state services.

Kerry Winterer, chief executive officer of DHHS, said the department is learning from experience and acknowledged that the reform process has not been smooth.

“Reform has not gone as we planned,” he said. “But we are serious about doing it right and we believe that we are on the right path.”

Todd Reckling, director of the division of children and family services, agreed.

“We know we can do better,” he said. “We want to do the right thing for kids.”

And the right thing for kids, according to Reckling, is to keep them in their homes if at all possible.

“Kids grow best in their own homes,” he said, noting that Nebraska historically has had one of the highest child removal rates in the country. “On any given day, more than 4,000 Nebraska children are away from their families.”

Reckling said the current focus of reform efforts is to shift case management from DHHS to the state’s two lead contractors, KVC Behavioral HealthCare Nebraska and the Nebraska Families Collaborative. This allows DHHS to concentrate on oversight and intake functions, he said, enabling lead agencies to focus on service provision.

DHHS hopes to complete the case management transition by Jan. 3, 2011, Reckling said.

Calling herself “guardedly optimistic” about reform efforts, Kathy Bigsby Moore, executive director of Voices for Children, questioned the urgency of the case management transition.

She cited a lack of evidence that privatizing case management automatically will lead to improved results for children and families.

Moore said the plan lacks job descriptions for case managers, approval from the state Department of Administrative Services to move case management to the private sector and buy-in from stakeholders.

“Why the compulsion to move quickly?” she said. “I am still concerned that some of those pieces aren’t in place.”

The committee will report its findings to the Legislature by Dec. 31.

Senators examine impact of prenatal care changes

Lawmakers heard testimony Nov. 19 on the impact of a recent change in Nebraska’s Medicaid coverage of prenatal care.

In 2009, the federal government notified Nebraska officials that the state could no longer provide medical services for unborn children under Medicaid. However, the notice indicated that Nebraska could establish a separate state program for prenatal care under the targeted low-income child health option of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell introduced a bill during the 2010 session that would have required the state Department of Health and Human Services to establish such a program solely for the unborn children of mothers who are ineligible for coverage under Medicaid. Campbell requested the bill be bracketed, citing a lack of support, and HHS ceased providing medical services for unborn children under Medicaid on March 1.

LR501, sponsored by Campbell, established a select legislative committee to conduct an interim study on the impact of this change. The committee, composed of three members each of the Health and Human Services and Judiciary committees and three at-large members, heard testimony from health care providers and advocates from across the state.

Rebecca Rayman, executive director of the Good Neighbor Community Health Center in Columbus, testified that the number of low-birth weight babies and stillbirths at the center has increased in the seven months since the change took effect.

There have been four stillbirths among the center’s patients in the last seven months, compared with none in the previous six years, Rayman said. Noting that early access to prenatal care is vital in managing pregnancies, she also cited a decrease in the percentage of women at the center who enter prenatal care in the first trimester – from over 80 percent last year to 32 percent currently.

“The change in Medicaid has had a negative effect on when women first come in for prenatal care,” Rayman said. “This is a problem that keeps getting worse.”

Andrea Skolkin of One World Community Health Center in Omaha said the full impact of the change is yet to be seen.

So far, the center has seen a 12 percent increase in the number of women seeking prenatal care, she said, and two women have given birth at the center because they feared the cost of going to the hospital. One of those children, born to a woman who had received no prenatal care, did not survive, Skolkin said.

Paul Welch, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Columbus, said health care is not the forum for dealing with immigration issues. The children of women who are in the country illegally become citizens upon birth, he said, and the state will bear financial responsibility for any negative outcomes of their lack of prenatal care.

“They are the next generation of Americans,” Welch said, “whether we like it or not.”

Jennifer Carter of Nebraska Appleseed urged the committee to require HHS to amend the state Medicaid plan and reinstate prenatal care for all low-income women. The current policy is taking a fiscal as well as human toll on the state, she said, noting the expense of treating defects caused by inadequate prenatal care.

“We’re already seeing some devastating consequences,” Carter said.

Campbell said the committee will continue data gathering and analysis for a report due to the Legislature by Dec. 31.

Economic forecasting board reduces revenue projections

The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Board met Oct. 29 to revise its forecast for the current fiscal year and adopt projections for the next biennium. The board provides an advisory forecast of General Fund receipts on which the Legislature crafts the state’s budget.

During its February meeting, the board projected that state revenues would amount to $3.422 billion in fiscal year 2010-11. The board reduced this forecast to $3.364 billion, a difference of $58 million. The current forecast assumes 5.8 percent growth from the preceding fiscal year.

The board adopted its first forecast for FY2011-12 and FY2012-13. Net receipts for FY2011-12 were set at $3.435 billion, a 2.6 percent growth from the revised FY2010-11 forecast. The forecast for net receipts in FY2012-13 was $3.59 billion, which is 3.9 percent greater than the FY2011-12 forecast.

The board’s forecast would result in an estimated shortfall of $1.395 billion with projected appropriations.

Possible liquor law changes discussed

The General Affairs Committee heard testimony Oct. 15 on possible changes to the Nebraska Liquor Control Act.

LR528, introduced by Wilber Sen. Russ Karpisek during the 2009 legislative session, calls for a review of area restrictions on the granting of liquor licenses, exploration of ways to reduce the number of special designated licenses on or near campus locations and an examination of the impact of alcohol licensing on the academic environment of the state’s colleges and universities.

Currently, the liquor control act prohibits the sale of liquor for on-site consumption within 300 feet of any college or university campus in Nebraska. It also prohibits granting a liquor license within 150 feet of any church, school, hospital or home for aged and indigent persons or for veterans, their wives or children.

LB906, introduced by Karpisek and passed last year, provides an exception to the prohibition on granting liquor licenses to establishments located within 150 feet of a church. Under the bill, the commission may grant such a license only after providing notice to an affected church and holding a hearing.

Ron Withem, testifying on behalf of the University of Nebraska, suggested a similar exception process to the 300-foot buffer zone around university campuses.

The university does not wish to stand in the way of economic development in the Haymarket and other nearby areas, Withem said, but remains concerned about the impact on students if the buffer zone were repealed entirely.

Under the University’s proposal, the liquor control commission could approve an exception only after considering its potential impact on students, the campus and economic development.

Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas expressed concern that a waiver process might open the door to personal judgments and arbitrary decision-making.

“It makes me wonder, will we maybe solve one problem and create another by giving this amount of leeway,” she said.

Hobert Rupe, executive director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, said the proposal likely would help reduce the number of special designated licenses that are granted each year to establishments located within 300 feet of a campus. Such establishments are prohibited from obtaining liquor licenses, but often are granted special designated licenses for specific events.

Allowing establishments like the Nebraska Champions Club to obtain a waiver and a standard liquor license would result in greater oversight, Rupe said, because a liquor license requires a full background check of the licensee and allows police officers to enter the premises to conduct compliance inspections.

“We’re trying to cut back on what we think is an abuse of the (special designated license) process,” he said. “What we’re looking for here is more control, not less.”

Rupe also said the Legislature should consider updating the liquor control act’s language to specifically include homeless shelters and alcohol and drug abuse treatment centers as entities entitled to the 150-foot buffer zone.

Diane Ribbe of Project Extra Mile encouraged the committee to maintain all of the existing buffer zones in regard to the granting of liquor licenses, saying they should resist the temptation to “chisel away” at the state’s liquor control laws.

Increased outlet density increases binge drinking, drunk driving and other risky behaviors, she said.

“The state has an obligation to provide some protection to special and at-risk populations,” Ribbe said.

The committee will report its findings and recommendations to the Legislature at the conclusion of the interim study.

State standard for honey discussed

The state's honeybee industry was the focus of an Agriculture Committee hearing in Grand Island Aug. 27.

LR426, introduced by Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas during the latest legislative session, directs the committee to conduct an interim study of rules and regulations administered by the state Department of Agriculture relating to the honeybee industry. The resolution also calls for examination of federal and state definitions of honey.

Dubas said a lack of standardization in honey industry has eroded consumers’ understanding of the commodity. Many products represented as honey actually are adulterated honey or use no honey at all, she said.

Keith Nielson of Polk said some of the honey imported into the state contains high fructose corn syrup. He said those selling a tainted product put producers of pure honey at a disadvantage and misrepresent the honey industry.

“It is not fair to our industry to have a product labeled as honey that is not pure honey,” Nielson said.

Dubas said one of the largest honey packers in Michigan was sued for adulterating honey, but the court said there was no definition of honey to which the business had to adhere.

After an effort led by five of the major honey trade groups failed to persuade the federal Food and Drug Administration to adopt an international standard for honey, the American Beekeeping Federation, American Honey Producers Association and producers began a campaign to adopt state standards, Dubas said.

Adopting state standards would help persuade the federal government to take action, she said, while giving producers standing in court to take civil action against those marketing adulterated honey as honey.

Warren Nelson of Lincoln said more than 60 percent of the honey sold in the U.S. is from China, which he said cheapens the price and makes it difficult for honey producers to get a fair return. Much of this product has been tainted with antibiotics that are not approved for use in the U.S., he added.

The committee will release a report of its findings at the conclusion of its study.