Military Recruitment, Online Sales Taxes, Nursing Home Troubles Share Spotlight

Feb. 21, 2019, 5:43 p.m. ·

Niveous Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A proposal to ensure military recruiters access to Nebraska students led to emotional debate in the Legislature Thursday. A bill aimed at collecting more sales taxes from online purchases is advancing. And senators discussed financial troubles that are causing some nursing homes to close.

Sen. Tom Brewer introduced the military recruitment bill. It would require Nebraska high schools to give military recruiters the same access to students that colleges and universities have, as well as providing them students’ names, addresses, and phone numbers.

Brewer, who spent 36 years in the Army, said the military can be an important opportunity for students. “For some that have limited access to resources to go to college, their only opportunity to get out of their situations may very well be the military. And without knowing the opportunities and the different skills that they could access, that inability to talk to recruiters could impact their lives,” he said.

Sen. Rick Kolowski, a retired high school principal, said some families don’t want their children to have anything to do with the military. He asked what safeguards there were for families who, for philosophical or religious reasons, didn’t want their children to be in contact with recruiters.

Brewer said the idea is to allow recruiters to set up a table if, for example, a high school has a career fair, and if students aren’t interested, they can simply ignore the recruiters. “The idea is that they can have access, similar to the universities or colleges, and that they not be restricted. I don’t think it’s to force anyone to have any positive contact or negative contact -- simply have them in a situation where they can provide information, if they so desire to have it,” he said.

The bill also allows parents to request their children’s name, address and phone number not be provided to recruiters.

Sen. Ernie Chambers objected to the bill and criticized the military, citing President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender troops. “What other group will be allowed to come to that school and talk to these children who has an official policy of being against transgender people and have broadcast it?” Chambers asked. Brewer acknowledged the military is not beyond criticism. “Some of the comments made here today, I’m not going to disagree with. But these are national policies. We can’t hate those that wear the uniform just because someone at a national level has made a decision,” he said.

And Brewer, a wounded combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, grew emotional as he reacted to Chambers’ frequent description of the American flag as a “rag,” because of the country’s history of racism.

“For those of us that have brought home those that have been lost, it’s hard to refer to the flag as a rag, because you have to fold it and you have to give it to the parents. That’s awful hard to do,” Brewer said, his voice breaking.

“I would just ask that you remember: all we’re trying to do is fill our ranks and do what we have to do to make sure that those things that keep our country free are able to continue,” he added.

The bill got first-round approval on a vote of 44-2.

Also Thursday, the Revenue Committee unanimously advanced a proposal to require online retailers to collect sales tax on purchases by Nebraskans. Some online retailers, like Amazon, already collect the tax on their own products. But they may not collect it on products other businesses use their platform to sell.

Sen. John McCollister, sponsor of the legislation, said his bill would change that. “The practical effect is particularly for those people that buy products on the internet from so-called third party sellers. The effect is that they’ll now be obligated to pay sales tax through Amazon, and Amazon will then remit the money to Nebraska,” McCollister said.

If it passes, the bill would take effect April 1. Various estimates project the state will collect between $30 million and $50 million a year from taxes paid by online purchasers.

In other debate Thursday, senators discussed the ongoing financial troubles of the state’s nursing homes and assisted living centers. Sen. Kate Bolz said a nursing home in Cambridge, Nebraska is closing, in addition to 16 that have closed since 2015. “The impact of these closures is the displacement and disruption of people who are very vulnerable, and elderly,” Bolz said.

Bolz said part of the reason is Nebraska reimburses nursing homes an average of $38 a day less than the cost to operate them. She said the Appropriations Committee is working on that problem as it crafts a new state budget.

Sen. Curt Friesen urged caution. He cited the financial troubles of 21 nursing homes and 10 assisted living facilities operated by a company called Skyline that the state took over in receivership last year. “When you look at what happened to Skyline, let’s be very careful there because I think there was – there are still allegations that there was a massive fraud that occurred …and there’s more to this story than just ‘We don’t reimburse facilities enough,’” Friesen said.

Spokeswomen for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General could not immediately say whether they were pursuing allegations of fraud.