The Legislature gave final approval Tuesday to budget bills and a proposed constitutional amendment to protect hunting rights.
The budget bills deal with adjustments to the two-year, $7 billion budget adopted last year. Among major increases are $24 million for subsidized child care for low income families, and $19 million for deficits in the state's child welfare system. There's also money to restore part of the cuts to Medicaid providers and to reduce the waiting list for services to the developmentally disabled.
On the other hand, school aid is expected to be about $28 million less next year than previously projected, due to slower school spending growth and rising land values and property taxes.
The adjustments come as the Legislature appears ready to cut income taxes. Sen. LaVon Heidemann of Elk Creek, outgoing chairman of the Appropriations Committee, says he's more comfortable that future budgets can be balanced now that the proposed tax cut has been reduced. "I think it's manageable but there will be some challenges out there. We won't be able to do everything that we want to do but we should be able to do everything that we need to do," he said.
Among the approved budget items are almost $80 million in higher education construction projects to be funded out of the state's cash reserve. University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken hailed the approval, saying the projects would meet critical workforce needs, create thousands of well-paying jobs, improve health care and expand educational opportunities.
Lawmakers also voted final approval for a proposed state constitutional amendment protecting hunting, fishing and trapping rights. Supporters say it's important to get out ahead of possible anti-hunting initiatives; opponents have argued there is no real threat to hunting rights and the amendment is unnecessary. Voters will decide in November.
Another proposed constitutional amendment, increasing senators pay from $12,000 to $22,500 a year, received second-round approval with no debate. It still needs one more approval before being put on the November ballot.
On another matter, lawmakers tweaked a bill clarifying that nonprofit corporations created by cities to build and manage public projects under lease-purchase agreements would not have to pay sales and property taxes. The bill stemmed from a ruling by the Department of Revenue that taxes were due on TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series, in Omaha.
Under an amendment by Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher, future such projects would not get tax exemptions unless they were approved by popular vote. Schumacher explained his reasoning, saying "Cities sometimes in the past have used the vehicle of what I'll just call a dummy corporation staffed by city officials in order to take on a major project and let bonds for the project, of which the taxpayers are liable for without running it past a vote of the people." The amendment was adopted 32-0. The bill still needs one more vote of approval before being sent to the governor.