Senators advance tightened regs on land purchases near missile silos

March 5, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Brian Hardin in debate Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Brian Hardin in debate Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Purchases of land by Chinese and other foreign interests would come under heightened scrutiny in eight western Nebraska counties near missile silos, under a bill advancing in the Legislature. And lawmakers have begun debating cutting back on how long people can receive unemployment benefits.

Sen. Brian Hardin of Gering is the lead sponsor of legislation increasing reporting requirements of foreign-interest purchases of Nebraska land in counties around missile silos. Hardin says 80 nuclear missiles are stationed in Nebraska, including in his district. The Air Force is replacing Minuteman III missiles dating from the 1970s with a new generation of Sentinel missiles. Hardin says the project will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. (For a background story on the missile replacement project, click here).

“A project of that size catches people's attention. Eyes from across the world are looking at the Nebraska panhandle. Our enemies are watching what we do, and they're trying to get an up close look…Out west, we've seen some very interesting and eyebrow-raising things happen over the last 18 months or so. We've seen purchases of land, in very interesting ways, by very interesting people. Some such purchases involve farmland in the country being purchased for two to four times the assessed value, with briefcases full of cash,” Hardin said.

Hardin’s bill, LB1120, would apply to people who buy land in all or part of eight western Nebraska counties: Banner, Cheyenne, Deuel, Garden Kimball, Morrill, Scotts Bluff, and Sioux. Purchasers would be required to sign an affidavit that they are not affiliated with any foreign adversaries. Those adversaries are defined in a list issued by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and currently include China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and allies of the Maduro government in Venezuela.

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said his district also includes some missile silos. He said keeping a closer eye on land purchases makes sense to try and protect the nation’s nuclear deterrent.

“What Senator Hardin is trying to do here is protecting not only us that live in Nebraska, but those who live in the Free World. Because what these foreign agents are trying to do is interfere with what we're trying to do to make us safe,” Erdman said.

Sen. Carol Blood said she shares Hardin’s concerns, but questioned whether the bill would work.

“Offutt Air Force Base is literally in my backyard. And so of course, I am always concerned about things that pertain to the security of our military bases. But sometimes in our rush to wave that flag, we don't always do a good job when it comes to the mechanisms of the bill,” Blood said.

In a public hearing on the bill, the Nebraska Association of County Officials expressed concern that it could require county officials to police land transfers. But Jon Cannon of NACO said Tuesday those concerns have now been addressed. The bill requires county officials to report land purchases and affidavits to the attorney general’s office. It got first-round approval on a vote of 38-0.

Senators also began debating a proposal, LB1170 to shorten the length of time someone can receive unemployment benefits, from 26 to 16 weeks. The state Department of Labor estimates the change would cut benefit payments by about $23 million a year. Sen. Merv Riepe, lead sponsor, said people need to take jobs, even if they’re not ones that match their training or education.

“While it's important to support Nebraskans in finding work that aligns with their experience and provides fair compensation, it's also critical to recognize that at a certain point individuals may need to accept available work opportunities,” Riepe said.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh objected to the idea that people receiving unemployment benefits don’t want to work.

“These are hard-working people, and when they are in the circumstances where they have lost their job for legitimate reasons, we shouldn't be finding ways to penalize them. We should be finding ways to lift them up and help them,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Jana Hughes said 26 weeks of coverage is too much.

“I believe that four months of unemployment benefits are sufficient. We currently offer displaced Nebraska workers with six months of unemployment benefits. That made sense during the upheaval of the pandemic and in hard economic times, like back in 2008. But it is counterproductive when our state unemployment rate is at 2.3%,” Hughes said.

But Sen. Danielle Conrad, opposing the bill, said unemployment statistics mask deeper economic challenges.

“Our state is number one for adults working year round, yet living in poverty. We have historic low unemployment. We consistently have one of the highest rates of both parents working outside the home, one of the highest rates of women working outside of the home. We are number one for adults working full time, yet living in poverty. We should not needlessly eviscerate our safety net,” Conrad said.

Tuesday’s back-and-forth took about three and a half of the eight hours allowed for first-round debate on bills that are being filibustered. Speaker John Arch kept the bill off Wednesday’s agenda, saying he wanted to give the two sides time to work on a compromise.

For a background story