Legislative issues dealt with this year persist

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May 26, 2011 - 7:00pm

Some of the same issues that the Legislature dealt with in the session ended Thursday, including school aid, roads, and health spending - are expected to continue grabbing attention in the years ahead.
Senators at the end of every legislative session tend to point with pride to what they've achieved. This year's no exception, judging from the words of Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, speaker of the Legislature.
"I think this was an outstanding session," Flood said, listing his reasons: "The budget was done so well by the Appropriations Committee and adopted by the Legislature, redistricting completed on time and delivered to the governor, Commission of Industrial Relations reform that's significant and meaningful, roads funding addressed, and child welfare issues addressed."
Throw in some economic development initiatives, like a state-subsidized internship program for college students, and 25 million dollars toward the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Innovation Campus, and you've got some highlights many would agree on. But with a closer look at how those issues were handled, you realize it's not like they've been taken care of forever.
On the budget, for example, the single biggest chunk in filling a nearly 1 billion dollar projected gap came from cutting more than 400 million dollars in the school aid formula. Senator Greg Adams of York, chairman of the Education Committee, worked hard on the issue, but isn't crowing about it.
"I don't know that the state needs a whole lot of credit for the cuts," Adams said. "I think the schools are the ones that have said We'll deal with it.'"
One way to deal with it will be to use up reserves, while hoping state revenues improve. And while lawmakers have clamped down on how much school spending can grow, Adams says he expects the state's contribution will rise again.
"Over time as the revenue picture improves, we will again be putting more money back into the formula," Adams said. "But we can't sustain 9-10-11 percent annual growth in state aid. What I'd like to be able to do is to be able to stabilize growth."
It's a similar story in health care spending, where the Legislature cut rates paid to many Medicaid providers by two and a half percent. Lincoln Senator Kathy Campbell, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, was instrumental in scaling back Governor Dave Heineman's proposed 5 percent cut. But Campbell says even the smaller cut will have negative effects.
"Fewer people will take Medicaid patients," she predicted. "Fewer people who are willing to take them in a mental health capacity as a counselor. Hospitals having to say how do we cover this cost?' So it's truly an access issue, I believe."
Lincoln Senator Bill Avery says those cuts may not last. "I think as the economy improves we're going to try to restore a lot of the cuts," he said, "especially the Medicaid provider rates."
Campbell says that effort may be overshadowed by how the state deals with federal health care reform, including questions of whether to set up its own health exchange, and what the effects on Medicaid will be.
On roads, lawmakers approved Valentine Senator Deb Fischer's proposal to set aside one-quarter cent of the existing sales tax for road construction beginning two years from now. Campbell says it's important to have made that commitment. But she acknowledges it may have to be revisited if tax receipts don't stage a hoped-for recovery.
Child welfare reform is another pending issue. Faced with legislation, the governor agreed to delay any expansion of his administration's controversial privatization of child welfare management until June, 2012. But Campbell says taking time out to evaluate what's already happened is just the first part of what needs to happen.
"The second phase of that is really, given all of that information, where do we go from here?" she said. "And how does the legislative branch set some vision and policy direction in working with the executive branch and moving forward in protecting children in this state?"

Then there's CIR reform. Adams says the budget crunch and Omaha's pension problems created pressure for changes to the Commission of Industrial Relations, which decides public employee wage disputes when the parties can't agree. The bill eventually passed is supposed to make outcomes more predictable and dampen future pay increases. Campbell credits the mix of legislators in the officially nonpartisan Legislature who worked on a solution.
"You had a Democrat - and we'll use party labels here - in Senator Lathrop, and Republican, in Senator Utter and Ashford...come together and say We have to tackle this issue,'" Campbell said. "So from the start you also bridged the partisan effort that might be in the CIR. And you had people who I think could pull both sides of the political spectrum in the sense of union and management."
Still, Adams says lawmakers will have to keep on top of the issue to see how the reforms work.
No such bipartisanship was on display in redistricting, at least when it came to congressional districts. There, lawmakers split largely along party lines to pass a plan making the competitive Omaha area district more Republican. But Senator Tom Carlson of Holdrege said the more wrenching changes were at the legislative level.
"Particularly in rural Nebraska, on the legislative districts, it changed almost every one of us," Carlson said. "And that's not easy. So that's good to get that behind us."
Redistricting may be done for now. But the demographic trends that required such major change are an ongoing challenge, says Scottsbluff Senator John Harms.
"I think some of the biggest issues I think we're confronted with is how do we grow rural Nebraska?" Harms said. "Because as you saw with the redistricting, that is a major issue, and I have real concerns about where we might be in regard to the population and the move from rural to urban when we go back to the redistricting 10 years from now. So I think that's something that we have to really seriously look at."
It looks like that, and other issues the Legislature acted on this year, will continue to demand senators' attention next year and into the future.



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