Sen. Beau McCoy spoke in favor of Gov. Dave Heineman's budget vetoes. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
The Nebraska Legislature overrode almost all of Gov. Dave Heineman’s budget vetoes Tuesday.
On Saturday, the governor vetoed $65 million from the budget passed by the Legislature. Tuesday, lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to override about $61 million of those vetoes.
Debate centered on two items. The first was $2.5 million senators had approved to install four fountains in the state Capitol’s interior courtyards. Heineman said the Legislature should apply part of the money he vetoed to expand a property tax credit program.
Sen. Beau McCoy said the fountains are an example of misplaced priorities. "We are not doing enough for tax relief for Nebraskans. And the Nebraskans that I talk to, by and large, the vast majority of them, are incensed and offended that we would talk about funding these fountains before we would do more for tax relief," McCoy said.
Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the fountains would be paid for from money in the state’s savings account, or cash reserve. And he said that was not an appropriate source of money for property tax relief. "The Nebraskans I talk to are incensed that our legislature would consider using our savings account for tax changes that doesn’t benefit all Nebraskans. They’re incensed that we would travel down such an fiscally irresponsible path to utilize one-time money from our cash reserve for any ongoing tax changes," Mello said.
Sen. Bill Avery said the fountains were the last major unfinished part of architect Bertram Goodhue’s original design for the Capitol, left uncompleted because the state ran out of money in the Depression. Avery said completing that design is a worthwhile and timely project, with an important anniversary of statehood approaching. "I think it’s a worthy, not especially expensive way to honor the past, honor Goodhue and others who worked on this building, honor our history. We are approaching our sesquicentennial, our 150th anniversary. And it’s appropriate that we finish this building in time for that celebration in 2017," Avery said.
Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial supported the governor’s veto of the fountains, saying they would be disappointing. "When you talk of a fountain, I thought we’d see something that would be beautiful – water shootin’ in the air, and something very nice. Not just a little bowl that’s got a little bit of water bubbling up in the middle. To me that’s not a fountain. But evidently that’s the terminology of it," Christensen said.
Capitol Administrator Bob Ripley said the fountains, inspired by Goodhue’s travels in Persia, will be about six feet in diameter with water flowing from a spout rising four to six inches from the center. Senators voted 25-10 against McCoy’s attempt to remove them from the budget override.
McCoy’s other attempt to remove funds involved $12 million for the first three years of a 10 year, $77.7 million replacement of the Capitol’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. McCoy complained that an analysis of how much energy would be saved has not be completed. "We are talking about embarking on at least…a $77 million project without waiting for a full analysis of the potential ramifications of this. Why?" he asked.
Mello replied that saving energy was not the main reason for replacing the 50-year old system, which he compared to a car with 500,000 miles on it that could fail any time. Sen. Ernie Chambers cast the veto override fight in political terms. "The real matter we’re dealing with is the Legislature vs. the governor. He cannot run again. He’s going out the door. This is his last hurrah – his last chance to stick his finger in the eye of the Legislature and laugh," Chambers said.
If that was the intent, it was the legislators who had the last laugh, defeating McCoy’s proposal 33-8, then voting 37-11 to override the governor’s vetoes in the main budget bill. In addition to spending on the Capitol, the overrides included $10 million for job training, $7 million for juvenile services, and another $7 million for Game and Parks deferred maintenance.
Chambers also provided a comic moment as he withdrew a resolution in the midst of the veto override debate. "I have two announcements that I’m going to make," he intoned seriously. "I’m going to tender my resignation to the governor, and I’ll give my copy to the speaker of the Legislature. That’s the first announcement."
"And the second one: this is live -- April Fools!" he added, to laughter and applause.