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Nebraska lawmakers seek to update law on foreign land ownership

Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen and State Senator Barry DeKay have introduced a bill that aims to prevent foreign adversaries and sanctioned nationals from owning agricultural land in Nebraska. The bill would also tighten the existing exemptions on industrial use and ownership by foreign adversaries near critical military installations.

Modernizing an old law

The bill, known as Legislative Bill 1301, would make several changes to a law that dates back to 1889 and has not been amended since 1941. The law currently prohibits foreign persons or corporations from acquiring or holding title to agricultural land in Nebraska, except for certain industrial purposes. However, the law does not define who is a foreign person or corporation, nor does it provide any enforcement mechanism or penalty for violations.

DeKay, who introduced the bill at Pillen’s request, said the bill would update the law to reflect the current national security threats and challenges. He said the bill would align Nebraska’s law with the federal definitions of foreign adversaries and sanctioned nationals, as determined by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The bill would also expand the restricted land to cover the entire state, rather than only within 10 miles of military installations.

“What we’re doing is not something that is radically different,” DeKay told the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee on Tuesday. “We’re just modernizing a law that is already on the books.”

Nebraska lawmakers seek to update law on foreign land ownership

Protecting Nebraska’s soil and water

Pillen, who testified in support of the bill, said the bill was a priority for him since he took office in January. He said Nebraska’s soil and water are vital resources for the state’s economy and security, and they should not fall into the hands of foreign adversaries who may have hostile intentions or interests.

“Nebraska will protect its soil and water from foreign adversaries,” Pillen said. “We will not allow them to buy up our land and exploit our natural resources.”

Pillen said the bill was also a matter of national security, as foreign adversaries could use their land ownership to interfere with the operations of the U.S. military or intelligence agencies in Nebraska. He cited the example of China, which he said has been aggressively acquiring land and assets around the world, including in the U.S.

“China is not our friend,” Pillen said. “They are our competitor and our adversary. They have shown that they will stop at nothing to gain an advantage over us, whether it is through cyberattacks, espionage, or economic warfare.”

Facing opposition and criticism

The bill, however, faced opposition and criticism from some groups and individuals who questioned its constitutionality, necessity, and impact. The ACLU of Nebraska, for instance, blasted the bill as a “relic of Nebraska’s old, racist past” and said it would violate the equal protection and due process rights of foreign nationals who may want to buy land in Nebraska.

“The bill is based on fear and xenophobia, not facts and evidence,” said Rose Godinez, legal and policy counsel for the ACLU of Nebraska. “It is a solution in search of a problem. There is no evidence that foreign adversaries are buying up Nebraska’s land or posing any threat to our security or sovereignty.”

Godinez also said the bill would harm Nebraska’s economy and reputation, as it would discourage foreign investment and trade, and send a message that Nebraska is unwelcoming and intolerant of diversity.

Other opponents of the bill included the Nebraska Farm Bureau, the Nebraska Cattlemen, and the Nebraska Realtors Association, who said the bill was unnecessary, overbroad, and burdensome. They said the bill would create more red tape and uncertainty for land transactions, and potentially reduce the value and marketability of Nebraska’s land.

They also said the bill would duplicate the existing federal oversight and regulation of foreign land ownership, such as the Agricultural Foreign Investment Disclosure Act and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

A work in progress

DeKay acknowledged that the bill was not perfect and said he was open to working with the stakeholders and the committee to address their concerns and suggestions. He said he had already drafted an amendment that would clarify some of the definitions and provisions in the bill, and he was committed to finding a balance between protecting Nebraska’s interests and respecting the rights and interests of others.

“I’m not trying to shut the door on foreign investment or trade,” DeKay said. “I’m just trying to make sure that we have some safeguards and checks and balances in place to prevent any potential harm or abuse from foreign adversaries.”

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