2016 Legislature: long on issues, short on money, time

Jan. 5, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

The Sower atop the Nebraska Capitol dome. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Legislature begins its 2016 session Wednesday. Lawmakers have no shortage of issues to deal with, from property taxes to prisons and medical marijuana to Medicaid. But two things that are limited are time, and money.

The Nebraska Constitution limits the Legislature to meeting 90 days in odd-numbered years, and 60 in even-numbered. So 2016 will be a so-called “short session,” although it may not seem like that. Including weekends, days off and holidays, senators are scheduled to meet from Wednesday until April 20. And there’s a long list of issues to confront. Omaha senator Heath Mello lists school finance, property tax reform, infrastructure finance and planning, prison overcrowding, and behavioral health, among others.

Sen. Heath Mello (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

But to Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, something else takes precedence,

“Obviously trying to address the state’s roughly $132 million projected budget shortfall will be the number one priority for both the Appropriations Committee and the governor moving forward in 2016,” Mello said.

Governor Pete Ricketts has said the budget, along with property taxes and prisons, will be his priorities. The budget shortfall Mello mentioned reflects a cut in tax collections projected by the state’s Economic Forecasting Advisory Board in October. It’s only about 1.5 percent of the roughly $9 billion in taxes the state was projected to collect when lawmakers approved their two-year budget last spring. And the state has a cash reserve of more than $700 million.

But there are ideas for spending some of that. Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who last year led the successful effort to increase the gas tax, wants to use some of the cash reserve for roads.

“Take an advance out of the cash reserve and call it an infrastructure bank. It’s a bank of dollars that can be used for designated needs – completing the expressway system, for matching funds to complete the repairs on the roads and bridges that we have. And then the gas tax dollars that were designated to the state – most likely that will be used to replenish that infrastructure bank,” Smith said.

Sen. Jim Smith (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

About one-quarter of the 600-mile expressway system approved by the state in the 1980s remains to be completed, and a 2014 legislative report shows almost one in five county bridges in the state has significant structural deficiencies.

Then, there’s the cost of reducing overcrowding in Nebraska’s prisons, which currently hold almost 60 percent more inmates than they were designed for. Corrections Director Scott Frakes has a plan to spend $26 million to add 160 beds to the Lincoln Community Correctional Center. And Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis says that may be just a beginning.

“That is in some respects the black hole I think. We do know that there is a request for funding for an additional construction project of $26 million,” Davis said. “You don’t undo an overcrowding situation in a year. It’s going to take five or ten years to get that under control.”

Both Davis and Frakes say they hope the state does not have to build a new prison.

At the same time there is pressure for more spending, there is also discussion of tax cuts. Ricketts has said he wants to curb income taxes and continue work on property tax relief.

Most property taxes in Nebraska go for schools. Education Committee Chairwoman Kate Sullivan says that calls for tightening controls in a number of areas, including trying to limit the increase in valuations on land and property, and limiting levy authority, budget authority, or spending growth for schools. But “The devil is in the details,” Sullivan added.

Sen. Kate Sullivan (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha is skeptical.

“There’s no clear consensus that I’ve heard from people on property tax relief. And with the state budget as it is, I’m not sure we’ll make much headway in that effort,” McCollister said.

McCollister is more positive about another controversy that’s expected to come up for the fourth year in a row: Medicaid expansion.

“It’s going to be a different model, probably based on the Arkansas model, where you help the working poor in Nebraska -- and there’s probably 77,000 of that are generally working poor -- help them afford insurance,” he said. The Arkansas model uses federal Medicaid dollars to subsidize private health insurance.

That doesn’t satisfy critics like Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion.

“The bottom line is, people in our state just don’t want it. They don’t care if it’s the Arkansas model or the New Jersey model. They just don’t want it,” Kintner said.

There will be hundreds of other proposals, including one left over from last year to legalize medical marijuana. Senators say they’ll introduce new proposals, including paid family medical leave, attorneys for juveniles in the justice system, and a committee to respond to climate change. A proposal to legalize casinos, to compete with an initiative already underway on that subject, is also expected.

While people may think they have a sense of whether those proposals will pass or fail, Sen. Smith advised being prepared for surprises.

“You never know what a day brings in Nebraska. It’s kind of like the weather,” Smith said.

Over the next four and a half months, we’ll get a clearer picture of what is, for now, somewhere over the horizon.

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