Legislature fails to override any of Ricketts' budget vetoes

May 17, 2017, 5:28 a.m. ·

Lincoln statue on west side of Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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In a day of sometimes bitter debate, Nebraska lawmakers failed to override any of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ budget vetoes.

The major fight took place over a proposal by the Appropriations Committee to override more than $32 million Ricketts vetoed for providers of services in the areas of developmental disabilities, behavioral health, and Medicaid, particularly nursing homes. The funds would have been used to keep the amount of money available for payments for those providers flat for the next two years, as opposed to a three percent cut proposed by the governor.

Ricketts has argued the cuts are needed to give the state a sufficient financial cushion over the next two years. Supporting the override, Sen. Robert Hilkemann suggested Ricketts was overreacting. “Are we broke? No, we’re not broke. I was at a conference in Illinois recently. Illinois has $9 billion of unpaid bills on their treasurer’s desk. Nine billion dollars! When we get done with this, even if we do this override, we’re still going to have $350 million in our rainy day fund,” Hiklemann said.

That rainy day fund is being drawn down from $637 million. In addition, the budget approved by the Legislature would have reduced the reserve built into the budget from 3 percent to 2.5 percent. Ricketts vetoes take that back up to 3 percent.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan defended the vetoes. “We have to face the reality that we’re in. We aren’t broke. But we shouldn’t let ourselves get quite so close,” Linehan said.

Sen. Bob Krist, who has a developmentally disabled daughter, said senators opposed to overriding funds for developmental disability service providers were not paying attention. “You’re not listening because you’re not looking into the face of our DD population and the health care providers that deal with them on a daily basis. You’re not listening because you have a voice in your ear that says ‘I need to follow the track I’ve been told to follow,’ Krist said. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m going to tell you it’s going to be tough to win any override for any reason, because some people in this chamber have already made their mind up that whatever the governor has put in place is what we’re going to accept.”

But Linehan argued the governor simply had a different expectation about the near-term economic future than the Appropriations Committee. “Their budget is based on the fact they hope the next year is better. I don’t have any visibility that next year looks better. The ag economy certainly doesn’t look better. So the governor’s budget – at least the way I view it -- is based on the fact it’s not going to get better,” Linehan said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, supporting the overrides, said the vetoes threatened providers of services for people with disabilities like Northstar Services in northeast Nebraska. Pansing Brooks criticized her colleagues’ attitude. “People with disabilities are having issues and can’t afford to get jobs or work because places like Northstar are closing down. Well, let them eat cake – pull yourselves up by the bootstraps. What’s wrong with ya? What is wrong with you?” Pansing Brooks characterized her colleagues as saying. “Let’s turn that around: What is wrong with us?” she asked.

But Sen. Mike Groene, defending the vetoes, said state spending increases on aid to individuals, including Medicaid and child welfare, had averaged 5.7 percent annually over the last 20 years. “Hard-hearted, huh? I don’t’ think those numbers show that,” Groene said.

Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the vetoes threaten nursing home finances, and could have spillover effects. “How many nursing homes may fail? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t have a crystal ball. But I know the shape that they’re in,” Stinner said. “I know the fact that the municipalities have had to take over these nursing homes. And I know that everybody that talks about property tax and property tax relief – where do you think those losses are going to be? They’re going to be borne by those municipalities,” he added.

Senators voted 27-21 to override the provider rate veto, but since it takes 30 votes to override, the veto stood.

On another issue, senators defeated an attempt to override a veto of three hundred thousand dollars for probation services, despite arguments that spending would help hold down prison overcrowding.