The final forecast for state tax revenues before the Legislature makes some big budget decisions was finalized Friday. And while the numbers remain unchanged, that sets the stage for some important choices in the coming weeks.
Members of the state's Economic Forecasting Advisory Board were generally optimistic about the economy. But they tempered that optimism with concern about potential developments.
North Platte banker Rick Kolkman pointed to agriculture, saying "One concern we have is the rapidly escalating price of land. And we're thinking that there's going to be a correction sometime down the road when commodity prices dip a little bit, that we could see some little disruption there."
Laurence Lanphier, chairman of the board and an accountant in Omaha, said that city's economy seemed to be plugging along. But he had some global concerns: "The Euro zone, Korea, Iran, Pakistan - those are all factors that we don't really know if and when or how they're going to impact the economy," Lanphier said. "And then of course the oil prices and the value of the dollar, as it goes up and our exports decrease, there could be some serious problems there," he added.
With the board's forecast for state revenues holding steady, that leaves it to legislators to reconcile competing demands on the state budget. Gov. Dave Heineman called the unchanged forecast "positive news," and repeated his call for tax cuts to be the top legislative priority. But Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said even with scaled-back projections for state school aid increases, there's around a $100 million dollar shortfall in the next budget. Lawmakers will resume the task of balancing these and other competing demands next week.
In other legislative news, insurance companies would be required to cover chemotherapy pills the same way they cover intravenous or injected medication, under a bill advanced by senators Friday. Nordquist is the sponsor of the bill, which he said is similar to legislation enacted in 15 other states.
Supporters said it could help reduce the need for Nebraskans to drive to a doctor's office or clinic to receive cancer treatment from an IV drip bag. "This bill comes down to the idea that when you get cancer, or your family gets cancer, that we leave the decision to the doctor and the patient to say that the best chemo treatment for you is either in the pill form or the bag form and you can get access to that," Nordquist said.
The senator said studies for large companies had found covering anti-cancer pills was not much more expensive than other forms of therapy. But Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy said he was worried about the effects on small businesses. "What about those who may be driven into the ranks of the uninsured because of small business premiums - insurance premiums - that go through the roof?" he asked.
The bill would not apply to the uninsured, or people on Medicaid, Medicare, or those whose companies self-insure. But Nordquist said it would still apply to about 30 percent of the population. Senators gave it first round approval on a vote of 30-4.