Legislature Debates Budget, Rejects Eviction Moratorium

July 27, 2020, 5:40 p.m. ·

Sen. Julie Slama watches the Legislature from a balcony Monday. A family member tested positive for COVID-19; Slama tested negative, but will wait until a retest Wednesday to rejoin her colleagues (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Legislature Monday debated adjustments in the state budget, and lawmakers rejected a proposal for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

This is the second year of a two-year budget passed last year, and the adjustments amount to less than $100 million in a nearly $10 billion spending plan. The biggest change is an increase of $55 million for the Nebraska Emergency Management agency to help pay costs from last year’s flooding. Sen. Curt Friesen has proposed cutting other areas, saying Nebraska should not follow the lead of federal legislators.

“I know there’ll be another stimulus package coming out because the federal government just in an election year can’t turn off the spigot. They will just continue printing more dollars. And I, for one at least, am very concerned about our federal deficit. They need to shut it off. Everyone needs to tighten belts, and try and make due with what we have as best we can and see where this leads us,” Friesen said.

Sen. Kate Bolz objected to cuts Friesen was proposing for services to the developmentally disabled and for federally qualified health centers.

“I don’t think it is appropriate in a pandemic to balance the budget on the back of our most vulnerable populations…individuals with developmental disabilities, and majority and low-income populations needing healthcare assistance,” Bolz said.

Senators continued debating the budget Monday afternoon without reaching a second-round vote on the bill.

Earlier in the day, senators rejected an attempt to attach a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures to an affordable housing bill. Sen. Adam Morfeld, who proposed the amendment, said it was especially important now.

“The pandemic has placed even more stress on Nebraska renters. Unemployment in Nebraska has risen to an historic high during the pandemic, and as federally-expanded unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire this week, many Nebraskans will struggle to find ways to pay for rent,” Morfeld said.

Sen. Matt Williams, presiding over the Legislature, ruled Morfeld’s amendment was not germane to the underlying bill under legislative rules. And Sen. Steve Erdman said he thought there was a bigger problem.

“I don’t think it’s constitutional. I think we’re getting into a situation where we’re starting to change contract law. I have a contract with a tenant. That contract is in place and then this bill passes, does that then nullify that contract?” Erdman asked.

Morfeld challenged Williams’ ruling against amendment, but senators voted 30-19 to uphold it.

And sniping continued over a Republican Party mailer that accused Janet Palmtag, an opponent of Sen. Julie Slama, of siding with Lincoln liberals, atheists and radical extremists, and juxtaposed Palmtag’s image with a picture of Sen. Ernie Chambers.

Last week, Chambers called the mailer racist, and wondered aloud what would happen if he acted as Thomas Jefferson had toward Sally Hemmings: “Suppose I had raped white women? Suppose I enslaved Sen. Slama, and used her the way that I wanted to?” Chambers said.

In a letter published Saturday in the Omaha World Herald, Susanne Shore, wife of Governor Pete Ricketts, called the remarks ”horrifying” and “insulting” to young women across the state.

In debate Monday, Chambers hit back, referring to the anti-Palmtag mailer.

“I wonder why Mrs. Ricketts does not condemn her hubby for engineering, masterminding and specifically approving this attack on another woman,” Chambers said.

Sen. Joni Albrecht supported Slama, who’s 24, and urged lawmakers to get back to business.

“I think Sen. Slama is a woman wise beyond her years. She’s very thoughtful, resourceful, and most definitely right for the job on the floor of this Legislature. And I don’t like to see her or anyone else beomg poked at. We are here to do the state’s business. I’d appreciate it if we’d get back to that. We are wasting a lot of time and we have a lot of great bills that the state of Nebraska deserves to have passed,” Albrecht said.

Over the noon hour, the Revenue Committee held a public hearing on a proposal to “decouple” the state’s income tax system from changes in the federal income tax passed by Congress as part of the CARES Act. Right now, the state’s system is linked to the federal system, so tax cuts at the federal level, particularly more generous treatment of business losses, will reduce state tax revenues by an estimated $250 million over the next three years.

Sen. Tom Briese introduced an amendment to prevent about $240 million of that loss. Briese said the state has more important priorities.

“I brought this amendment to ensure that we have the ability to fund property tax relief and reform. We cannot sit by and let changes made in Washington impair our ability to deliver on the marquee issue facing our state: property tax reform,” Briese said.

Business groups opposed the proposal. Bryan Slone spoke against it on behalf of the state chamber of commerce and the state banking association. He said it would hurt the state’s most vulnerable businesses at a time when they can least afford it.

“December’s going to be too late for a lot of these businesses, particularly in the hospitality area as an example. I would say the hotels, the restaurants, the bars – all the service industries that service the entertainment and arts – these businesses may go out of business this year without sufficient liquidity,” Slone said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chair of the Revenue Committee, said it would be part of negotiations as the Legislature tries to balance proposals including those for property tax reform.