There were no significant changes by late Wednesday afternoon as lawmakers continued work on the proposed state budget for the next two years. But senators did debate whether state officials need a new plane, and how money for schools should be divided.
Under the plan proposed by the Appropriations Committee, the state would spend $3.8 billion in the fiscal year beginning July 1, and $4 billion the year after that. That is an average growth of 5.2 percent a year.
Wednesday, lawmakers talked about a variety of possible changes to the plan. One involved whether or not to go ahead with a plan, favored by the administration of Gov. Dave Heineman, to spend $2.2 million to replace an airplane used to fly officials around the state. Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala said it’s not just state officials that benefit. With the capital being on the eastern side of the state, being able to get places quickly "is not only good for the governor and the administration, but it’s also good for the people in rural and outstate Nebraska," said Schilz. "It’s their government too, and they need to have access to those folks and I believe that that’s what an airplane does."
Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist agreed with the need, but questioned whether the plane currently owned by the University of Nebraska Foundation would be the best to meet it. "I believe the governor and agencies of our state do need air travel on occasion. There are times that necessitate air travel. But the questions that kept coming up and were never firmly answered were ‘Do we need to own a plane to get that air travel? Do we need to own this plane?’" Nordquist said.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee, Nordquist said he would not oppose the purchase. But Sen. Omaha Ernie Chambers, calling the purchase a mistake, said he and Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton would offer an amendment to take it out of the budget. Senators had not yet reached a vote on that amendment late Wednesday afternoon.
And, foreshadowing a battle on a separate bill, senators also discussed a proposal to change the school funding formula. The Education Committee’s original proposal generated opposition from the state’s largest school districts. Senators negotiated and agreed to a compromise that would supposedly, in the long run, benefit the largest districts.
However, Omaha Sen. Bob Krist filed an amendment to make a further adjustment. Krist said his amendment is supported by large and medium-sized districts.
Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, the Education Committee chair who had supported a formula more favorable to small rural schools, said Tuesday she would not compromise further. "I can’t do it anymore. I cannot turn my back on the majority of school districts in this state for the benefit of a few that are already getting the bulk of the increase," Sullivan said. "That is not what I was sent down here to do. And I will not do it. And if you jump on board with this, then you have to ask yourself who’s running the show. Are there 49 senators, or are there some people on the other side of the glass?" she said, referring to lobbyists.
Krist replied on Wednesday that he supports the compromise that has been worked out, but alternatives need to be discussed. "These are honest amendments that will create some discussion amongst educated people and level-headed people. We can have that discussion and we can move on," Krist said. "I still support the efforts that came out. But I think there was a certain contingent -- and those were the business managers – who brought this to me and said ‘Yeah, but.’ Well, that’s my obligation to address the ‘’Yeah, but.’ That’s all of our obligations," Krist said.
Senators are expected to reach a vote on the school aid bill in the next several days.
On another matter, former Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy has reimbursed the state $500 for thousands of calls to four women that he made on his state issued cell phone. Sheehy resigned in February when the Omaha World-Herald newspaper disclosed the calls. The phone plan he was using did not charge per minute; a spokeswoman for Gov. Dave Heineman characterized the payment as a voluntary reimbursement.