Legislature Approves Budget; Lake, Canal Projects Advance

March 29, 2022, 5 p.m. ·

The Nebraska Legislature debates Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
The Nebraska Legislature debates Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature gave final approval to state budget bills Tuesday, but questions remain over possible vetoes, tax cuts, and criminal justice reforms. And lawmakers advanced major water projects.

It was the final reading on the budget bills, the third round of debate when typically no changes are made. And that pattern held true Tuesday. But questions remained about whether the spending decisions would stick. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan voiced her reservations.

“For this to pass, and everybody to get what they want in this bill, we have to have tax cuts. This is not going to work if we think we’re going to spend $1.75 billion and we don’t have tax cuts,” Linehan said.

Linehan was referring to a combination of state spending increases and $1 billion in federal ARPA funds. The ARPA spending bill has yet to pass, and Gov. Pete Ricketts could still use his line-item veto to reduce state spending.

The tax cuts Linehan referred to include cuts to Social Security, personal and corporate income taxes, and property taxes. Those were blocked, at least temporarily, by a filibuster last week.

Sen. Steve Lathrop said the Legislature should consider his proposals for criminal justice reform and reducing prison overcrowding, including reducing some drug sentences and making prisoners eligible for earlier parole, before cutting taxes.

Lathrop complained reform opponents were refusing compromise.

“I’ve given you charts, I’ve given you graphs, I’ve given you 27 hours of explanations, and everybody just sits there, waiting for the hours to pass, not looking for the solution, and waiting for the text to tell them what to do next. ‘What should I do? I gotta wait until I get a text. Who’s going to email me direction on this one? I guess we’re against it. I’m not really sure why. But we’re against it,’” Lathrop said.

Lathrop said he’s been negotiating, but complained his negotiating partners lack the ability to say ‘yes’ to his proposals. Sen. Julie Slama criticized those complaints.

“I am just honestly beside myself that the same senator who gets up and bemoans the sanctity of the institution and how you can’t personally attack senators is not only personally attacking senators by belittling them and saying that they’re only capable of thought when a text gets on their phone, but also throwing the only women who are subject matter experts under the bus by kicking them out of negotiations,” Slama said.

Slama mentioned she and Sen. Suzanne Geist are conservative women on the Judiciary Committee, which Lathrop chairs. Lathrop angrily denied Slama’s charge.

“There’s nobody trying to go around any women in this place. That is nonsense. It is nonsense. The irony is you would try to make it look like I’m personally attacking somebody by attacking me. But that’s what we’ve come to expect. And that’s what this turns into when we get to a serious issue but you guys can’t get a text message from the corner office to go ahead and solve a problem and vote for a bill. We get this kind of crap,” he said.

The “corner office” is Gov. Pete Ricketts’s office in the northeast corner of the Capitol.

Sen. Mike McDonnell said he, Lathrop, Geist, and Sen. Terrell McKinney spent time trying to negotiate a compromise, and defended the process.

“Throughout those approximately nine hours yesterday, off and on, they were professional, all three of them, they were polite, and they were passionate. Just because you don’t agree, doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. And there’s possibly another path to agree on,” McDonnell said.

That path remained unclear Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, lawmakers gave second-round approval to a possible lake between Lincoln and Omaha. Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh opposed the proposal.

“Nobody really seems to feel very confident about the ability for this lake to exist in perpetuity without a massive investment of funds over its entire existence. It’s going to constantly have to be dredged, all of the different things. Another reason I don’t like this lake is because the people there don’t like this lake and they don’t want it. And we will have to ultimately use eminent domain to build it,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Mike Hilgers said the goal is not to use eminent domain. And he said while $20 million has been appropriated for a feasibility study, most of the money for the project would not come from the state.

“Well over 90 percent would come through other sources than state dollars. So for an opportunity for a small investment of state dollars for an opportunity to…entice private investment that could be well over a billion dollars and generate multiple billions of dollars of economic activity I think is something that is worth exploring and going down. I think we’ve got a pretty good plan to go through the various phases in order to accomplish it. And so I think big picture it’s a big idea a big vision and if we hit it, it’s going to be a home run in my opinion,” Hilgers said.

An amendment by Cavanaugh to eliminate the lake attracted only 6 votes, with 25 opposed. Another amendment, to ensure that the public would have access to all areas of the lake if it’s built was approved, 32-2, and the bill then got second round approval on a vote of 29-4.

Another proposal up for second-round approval gives permission for the Department of Natural Resources to build a canal to bring water from the South Platte River in Colorado to Nebraska. Gov. Ricketts has said the canal is needed to prevent Colorado from developing water projects that could use 90 percent of the river’s flow.

Sen. Carol Blood questioned that rationale.

“It’s kind of like when you have a noisy neighbor. Do you call the police, or do you ask your neighbor to keep the noise down?” Blood asked.

Sen. Mike Jacobson defended the proposal, pointing to the interstate compact that gives Nebraska the right to water in the non-irrigation season if the canal is built.

“We have zero right to those flows in the non-irrigation season – that 500 cubic feet per second – if we don’t build the canal,” Jacobson said.

Lawmakers gave the canal proposal second-round approval on a voice vote.