Budget advances amid warning signs for tax, economic development bills

Speaker Jim Scheer addresses the Legislature Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
March 12, 2020 - 6:11pm

The Nebraska Legislature gave first-round approval to changes in the state budget Thursday, but only after a bruising debate that showed other big proposals affecting taxes and economic development may get stuck down in legislative crossfire.

The budget bill makes changes to the two-year plan approved last year, including allocating about $55 million to repair damage from last year’s flooding. It also devotes $8 million to raises for prison workers and $10 million for additional staff at the Lincoln Regional Center and the Norfolk Sex Offender program.

 Sen. Justin Wayne said he liked most of the budget, but had some objections.

“This budget places rural over urban and increases the urban or rural divide that I think we have to deal

with,” Wayne said.

Wayne cited as an example the $3.8 million in the budget for repairs to an irrigation tunnel in Wyoming that waters crops in western Nebraska, while the city of West Point doesn’t have drinking water.

Sen. Kate Bolz disagreed with Wayne.

“I don't think that we have a rural urban divide or dichotomy in this budget. I think the majority of what this budget does is lift up the state as a whole,” Bolz said.

Bolz said while the budget does contain money for western Nebraska, it also contains $9 million to help eastern Nebraska counties hard hit by flooding.

Debate over the budget also veered into other areas. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the Revenue Committee, complained that her committee’s plan to lower property taxes was being blocked by the state’s largest school districts.

“We asked all those schools

bring us an idea. What can we do to move this forward? I have not heard from any of them. The Revenue Committee is not the one not trying to negotiate here. We need some help. Besides ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no.’ And that is what we're getting from the larger schools,” Linehan said.

Sen. Julie Slama added to that argument.

“The message of the largest school districts in the state is loud and clear that they don't believe that the kid sitting in a classroom in Pawnee city should have the same educational opportunities as, let's say, Lincoln or Millard,” Slama said.

Sen. Matt Hansen disagreed that the largest school districts are holding things up.

“School districts aren't holding things up. Senators on this floor are holding things up, because they do not believe that the tax plans that have been proposed so far are right for their districts and right for their communities,” Hansen said.

Sen. Tom Briese warned the arguments were jeopardizing other proposals.

“Folks, we're playing with fire here. If you want to jeopardize LB720 and business incentives in this state, dig in your heels. If you don't think UNMC dollars are important, dig in your heels and continue to oppose what the Revenue Committee is trying to do. If you want to jeopardize property tax relief, dig in your heels.

Briese was referring to legislation for business tax incentives and a new hospital and teaching facility in Omaha, in addition to the property tax legislation.

Despite the back and forth, senators voted 41-2 first round approval for the main budget bill. The action accords with what Speaker Jim Scheer said senators needed to emphasize.

“The priority for me right now is trying to make sure the budget is done so that if something were to come up at least we would have the continuation of funding for the state budget to move forward in July. If we pass a bill -- whatever that bill might be -- March 15 or June 15 or September 15, any of those other bills aren’t necessarily time-specific,” Scheer said.

Scheer said he hopes the budget can be completed next Friday, adding he’s deciding on a day to day basis whether the Legislature needs to take a recess because of the coronavirus.




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