Park fees going up; budget signed; redistricting fights move

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May 16, 2011 - 7:00pm



Senators wasted little time overriding Gov. Dave Heineman's veto and authorizing an increase in state park entry fees. Sen. Dave Pankonin of Louisville, sponsor of the bill, said the estimated 2 million dollars it will raise over the next two years is needed to help deal with deferred maintenance and keep the parks in good shape.

Pankonin said Nebraska park entry fees are currently the lowest in the nation, and would still be tied for the lowest even if the increase were approved.

In his veto message, the governor had raised the possibility that a fee increase would hurt tourism in the state. But Sen. John Wightman of Lexington supported the veto override.

"I think if we look at tourism overall, we are going to be better served by having nicer state parks than we are by having the lowest fee among all of the states for state parks," said Wightman.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins opposed the override. Bloomfield suggested the Game and Parks Commission was using resources that should be going to maintenance to acquire more land instead. He cited the example of land being added to Ponca State Park. "That's irrigated farm ground that has come out of production - taken off the tax rolls. We don't have the money to maintain what we have now but we can purchase irrigated farm ground and take it off the tax rolls? I see inconsistency there. I think the governor is absolutely right in vetoing this bill," Bloomfield said.

Senators voted 42-5 to override the veto. The bill authorizes an increase in daily park entrance fees for residents from the current $4 up to $5, and annual permits for one motor vehicle will be allowed to rise from the current $20 to $25. The higher fees won't be allowed until January 1.

Later in the day, the governor signed the $7 billion budget for the next two years. In doing so, he praised senators for largely adopting his proposals, noting that the main bill passed on a vote of 43-0. "No other state has achieved this level of cooperation and partnership between the executive and legislative branches," Heineman said. "Therefore, I will be signing the budget into law without any vetoes."

The budget cuts the amount of overall school aid, including federal stiumulus funds, by $128 million or nearly 14 percent next year, then partially makes that up with an increase of $58 million the following year. That's still about 31 million dollars more than the governor originally proposed, but he said it was justified by increased revenue forecasts.

The budget also cuts payments to many Medicaid providers by 2.5 percent instead of the 5 percent the governor recommended. Senator LaVon Heidemann, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he thought this budget would be difficult. But he added "In the end what really surprised me is the acceptance from the people of the state of Nebraska. Because we didn't hear a lot of pushback. They knew what our challenges were before us and the state as a whole I believe accepted that and was willing to be part of it."

The additional tax money projected by the state's Economic Forecasting Advisory Board in April will be put in the cash reserve. So that "savings account" is projected to stay at nearly $300 million, instead of declining to $66 million as had been thought.

On another matter, the Redistricting Committee advanced two proposals to the full Legislature for debate. One redraws the state's legislative districts. It was amended to avoid splitting the city of Alliance in two, as had been proposed earlier. But a fight over which western Nebraska district should be abolished still looms.

Meanwhile, committee members split 5-4 along partisan lines in advancing a proposed congressional redistricting map. Minority Democrats on the committee complained it helps the Republicans in the Omaha area district, in violation of principles agreed to by the committee. But Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, a Republican, said the proposal is constitutional and legally defensible.

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