Ricketts' handling of budget attacked; convention to amend U.S. Constitution discussed in Legislature

Sen. Bob Krist criticizes proposed budget cuts (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 1, 2017 - 5:38pm

Debate over the state budget in the Legislature Wednesday turned into debate over whether Gov. Pete Ricketts has exceeded his powers. And clashing views were offered about a convention to propose changes to the U.S. Constitution.

As senators resumed debating the state budget Wednesday, Sen. Bob Krist made it clear he doesn’t like the approach recommended by Gov. Pete Ricketts. The slash and burn attitude of the administration has taken us to a point where even JRI, (the) ‘justice reinvestment initiative’ is on the chopping block. Those community centers that are out there, those day centers as they’re called, they are decreasing recidivism in this state exponentially every day. And they became part of the chopping block to do what? To what end? So we could have a pot of money and give tax relief?" Krist asked.

Krist was referring to day reporting centers where people released or diverted from the state’s overcrowded prisons can go for drug testing, counseling, and other services.

When Ricketts proposed cutting an extra $4 million from the budget for the state’s judicial branch, Chief Justice Mike Heavican predicted that reporting centers would be closed. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee has recommended restoring that funding.

Spokesman Taylor Gage defended the governor’s budget proposals as a thoughtful reflection of the state’s priorities, adding "The governor’s tax plans have no impact on the budgets currently under consideration by the Legislature."

Ricketts has proposed income tax cuts that would start taking effect in 2020, six months after the budgets the Legislature is considering this year.

 

Krist and other senators are also broadening their attack on the governor’s proposal. Krist criticized Ricketts for withholding appropriations to state agencies to slow state spending without seeking permission from the Legislature.

Krist argued that oversteps the governor’s constitutional role. And Sen. Paul Schumacher said Ricketts could have handled things differently when revenues began to fall short of projections last year. "The governor could have called us into special session on his own, and asked for permission to take some rather extraordinary actions with regard to holding back funds we had directed to be spent. He didn’t," Schumacher said.

Instead, Schumacher continued, Ricketts "chose not to ask permission, but to act in what some might think is a proper executive fashion, and fill the power vacuum with a request now that is before us for forgiveness," that is to says, retroactive approval of withholding appropriated money from agencies.

Senator John Stinner, chairman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, fought back against criticism of Ricketts. Stinner urged his colleagues to approve the bill containing the proposed budget cuts for this year, LB22. "The idea that what the governor did is unconstitutional up to date, right today, is absolutely false," Stinner said.

However, he acknowledged that without legislative approval, Ricketts’ actions will not stand. "Here’s what happens: If we don’t do LB22, all that money gets to be put back, right back in their (agencies’) budget and guess what: we’ve done nothing to help the state of Nebraska with the long runway, to solve a big, big problem," Stinner said.

Asked if the governor should have called senators into special session last year if he wanted to cut the budget, Gage said "State law allows the governor’s budget office to manage the allotments for state agencies, and that is what they are doing."

"State law is also very clear and only the Legislature has the power of appropriation. And that is why the governor has been working collaboratively with the Legislature in putting budget recommendations in front of them swiftly, at the beginning of session, to bring the budget back into balance," Gage added.

The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on the budget.

Wednesday afternoon, there was a public hearing on another proposal that could affect the federal budget. Sen. Laura Ebke wants Nebraska to add its name to the list of 8 states so far that are calling for a convention to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It would take a total of 34 states to call such a convention, which the constitution allows, but which has never been done.

Supporters say they want consideration of amendments that would limit federal spending and the power of the federal government, and would impose term limits on Congress.

Sen. Tom Brewer talked to Ebke about whether a convention or Congress would be more likely to propose such amendments. "Congress would need to agree to fiscal restraints, agree to limit their own power, and agree to their own term limits, or else it’s going to have to be the states that do it," Brewer mused.

"Right. Who’s more likely?" Ebke replied, provoking laughter and applause.

Among those opposing the idea was Renee Fry of the Open Sky Policy Institute. Fry warned that an amendment requiring a balanced budget could cripple the government’s ability for deficit spending needed to stimulate the economy during a recession. "In practice, it would create huge economic turmoil in the country, she said.

The Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee took no immediate action on the proposal.

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