Legislature advances budget with new prison, canal

May 3, 2023, midnight ·

Budget book with "Martian Green" cover (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Budget book with "Martian Green" cover (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature gave first-round approval Wednesday to a state budget for the next two years that includes building a new prison and constructing a canal to bring water from Colorado.

Toward the beginning of Wednesday’s debate, Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Rob Clements was talking about the budget book distributed to all senators, with the cover a cross between lime green and chartreuse.

“This green is called ‘Martian Green’ according to the fiscal office, and (it’s) pretty hard to miss,” Clements said. (To see the complete budget book, click here).

But it was a more down-to-earth green – the color of money – that the budget’s all about. Sen. Tony Vargas, a member of the Appropriations Committee that shaped the budget proposal, talked about allocating money at a time when the state has lots of resources.

“We are trying to fund as many things as possible that are rising to the level of priorities,” Vargas said.

Appropriations Vice Chair Sen. Anna Wishart said she’s proud of the budget, adding that the committee prioritized water projects.

“I don't know if there's anything more basic in terms of needs than access to water, to the tune of $180 million for drinking water for Southeast Nebraska. One hundred eighty million in this budget is going to help Lincoln and the surrounding communities get a second water source. That's a big deal for our community,” Wishart said.

But other senators were critical of some committee recommendations. Among them was Sen. Danielle Conrad.

“We shouldn't be making investments in things like a massive new prison without a plan for criminal justice reform. We shouldn't be allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to reignite 100-year water war with the state of Colorado,” Conrad said.

The budget contains another $95 million on top of $240 million set aside last session to complete funding for a new prison, estimated to cost more than $335 million. Critics say it will be full the day it opens unless the Legislature revises sentencing laws.

The budget also contains $574 million for the so-called Perkins County Canal, to bring water from the South Platte River in Colorado into Nebraska.

Another part of the budget would take $14 million from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and give it to the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. Sen. John Cavanaugh said the Legislature can’t change the provisions for the Environmental Trust approved by voters in the Nebraska Constitution.

“There's that specific other section that says how the environmental Trust Fund how the lottery funds are appropriated 44 and a half percent go to the environmental trust, that does not say they go to the Legislature to appropriate as the Legislature sees fit for things that maybe are within the sphere of this area and that somebody might think is similar,” Cavanaugh said.

But Clements, serving his first year as Appropriations Committee chair, said the committee had taken that into account.

“And we put language in that restricts the Department of Natural Resources as to the use of the fund to keep in according to the restrictions in the constitution and the Environmental Trust provisions,” he said.

Senators voted 28-12 against Cavanaugh’s amendment to block the fund transfer. They then voted to add $5 million a year for a pilot program to try and prevent post traumatic stress disorder by reducing gun violence, moving toward a likely first-round vote on the budget bill later Wednesday evening.