Ricketts' veto of welfare increase raises hackles; budget gets first round okay

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April 30, 2015 - 6:25pm

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of increased welfare benefits was met with surprise and anger in the Legislature Thursday while debate began on the budget amid predictions of higher state tax revenues.

For the last 30 years, the maximum welfare benefit for a single mother with two children has stood at $364 a month. LB89, the bill Ricketts vetoed Wednesday night, would have increased that by about $100 next year, and about another $75 a month four years from now. Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, sponsor of the bill, said one of its main reasons was to keep families together and keep kids out of the child welfare system:

In: Well over 50 percent of child abuse and neglect cases are neglect where the parent cannot provide the basics – food, clothing, shelter for a child. There’s something missing there. Well, that’s why you use ADC – the Aid to Dependent Children. And it’s called that to ensure that children can stay with families, rather than getting into the child welfare system and the foster care system," she said.

The increased ADC payments would have come entirely from federal funds that the Department of Health and Human Services has accumulated but not spent. In his veto message, Ricketts called the increase well-intentioned. But he said it would exhaust the federal funds by 2020. He suggested he would sign a bill if the increase included a sunset clause, meaning it would end four years from now.

In an interview, Campbell expressed frustration she had not been told of the governor’s intended veto, and Ricketts administration officials had not suggested a solution earlier in the process. "The frustrating factor for me is that we were trying to look at solutions with a deadline of midnight last night. It is unfortunate that we did not have those conversations between general and select or select and final," she said. General File is the first round of debate and voting; Select File is the second, and Final is the third. The bill passed Final Reading last Thursday, giving the governor until Wednesday midnight to veto it.

In a speech on the legislative floor, Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha was more blunt, faulting the governor’s policy research office, or PRO. Krist had this advice for his fellow senators dealing with the Ricketts administration, to avoid communications problems he said existed with the administration of previous governor Dave Heineman. "Call the folks in the PRO and say ‘Do you have a problem?’ I do. It didn’t work in the Heineman administration. They never picked up the phone and returned a phone call. But I thought this administration would be different. My hope is it still will be different," he said.

Asked for reaction, Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the PRO met with Campbell March 24th to express their concerns. Gage said Krist had inserted himself into the process in the last 48 hours. And he said the governor had offered his comprise four year "sunset" solution to both of them. Campbell said she didn’t remember that, and Krist called it completely inaccurate.

Campbell said she is trying to decide whether to attempt an override or to try and attach some compromise to another bill. But she said she opposes the idea that welfare benefits would revert to their current level, established in 1985, four years from now.

Lawmakers also began debate on the next two year budget. Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Heath Mello praised his committee’s recommended spending blueprint. "The decisions within these budget recommendations today are a responsible balance of strategic investments, fulfilling the state’s obligations, and holding the line at one of the lowest percentage spending growth in the last 30 years," he said.

Mello put the annual increase over the next two years at 3.1 percent per year. But Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said that wasn’t the full story. "I’ve got some big questions, and I’ll continue to ask ‘em as one senator out of 49 about this budget. I’ve come to discover that a lot of tax dollars spent are not in the numbers," he said.

Groene said counting a $120 million increase proposed in the property tax credit fund, and some one-time expenditures, the average annual increase was more than 5 percent. As debate continued, one of those proposed expenditures, $8 million for a Creighton University dental clinic in Omaha and training for outstate dentists, came under fire. A proposed compromise would allow the University of Nebraska dental college to also qualify for some of the funds. Budget-making lawmakers also got a bit of leeway Thursday, as the state‘s economic forecasting board raised its estimate of state revenues by $22 million over the current and next two fiscal years. Ricketts immediately called for the money should be returned to the taxpayers.

Correction: Sen. Campbell said Friday Gov. Ricketts did talk to her about the possibility of a solution in the form of a four-year 'sunset' clause several hours before issuing his veto.






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