Legislature Passes Budget; Abortion Rights Supporters Rally at Capitol

May 21, 2019, 5:22 p.m. ·

The Nebraska Legislature meets Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Legislature gave final approval to a two-year, $9.3 billion state budget today/Tuesday, amid arguments over whether it spends too much, or not enough.

As lawmakers approached a final vote on the budget, Sen. Steve Erdman, a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee who opposed the document, rose to protest. “We continue to spend more year over year, we continue to appropriate more, year over year, and then wonder why our taxes are too high,” Erdman said.

Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, pushed back. Stinner said the committee had balanced competing needs such as relieving prison overcrowding and restoring cuts to people who provide services under Medicaid.

Stinner said the resulting budget increase was modest. “We did corral the expenditures at 2.5 (percent) on core, we provided for Medicaid expansion which took us to 3 percent, and that is the budget that we have been debating over the last couple days,” Stinner said.

He was referring to the average 3 percent increase in the budget over each of the next two years. That includes a $51 million a year increase Gov. Pete Ricketts recommended to an existing $224 million property tax credit fund. That means the state would spend a total of $275 million a year, basically from sales and income taxes, to offset about 7 percent of local property tax bills of more than $4 billion.

Sen. Robert Hilkemann said that’s what senators should tell constituents who ask what they’ve done. “When people ask you that question – you’re not doing anything for property tax relief – we are. We are. Is it enough? Probably not. And I would agree with you, and I hope that we can find a solution,” Hilkemann said.

A proposal by the Revenue Committee to raise other taxes in order to provide an additional $300 million in property tax relief has stalled in the face of opposition by Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state’s largest school districts. The committee has discussed a scaled-down plan using about $100 million from ending sales tax exemptions, but that faces an uncertain future as well.

Erdman predicted senators would be forced to deal with the issue by an initiative petition drive, which would require the state to offset 35 percent of local property taxes. If enough signatures are gathered, voters would be asked to approve that initiative on the November, 2020 ballot. “We won’t make a decision here about property tax relief. Next year, we won’t make a decision about property tax relief. But I guarantee you the following year we will. So the petition is alive and well,” he said.

One sponsor of the petition, Doug Kagan, has withdrawn as a sponsor, but Erdman said the effort is continuing.

Also Tuesday, supporters of abortion rights packed the Capitol rotunda for a rally. It was part of actions around the country to protest against legislation in various states to restrict abortions and challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized it nationwide. Among those addressing the crowd was Sen. Megan Hunt.

Sen. Megan Hunt addresses abortion rights rally at Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

“As long as people have been getting pregnant, people have been looking for ways to end those pregnancies. As long as men are raping us, as long as men are raping our children, we will need ways to safely and legally end those pregnancies,” Hunt said, to applause.

Sprinkled in the crowd of hundreds of supporters, a much smaller group of abortion opponents held signs opposing the procedure. One of them, Mike Davis of Lincoln, said “It’s pretty morbid when people can cheer the death of children. It’s pretty clear God said ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ And abortion is murder, plain and simple.”

Some of the legislation passed around the nation prohibits abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy. There has not been a similar proposal yet in Nebraska, but some senators have discussed the possibility.

The Legislature is considering a proposal requiring abortion providers tell women who take the first of two pills for a drug-induced abortion that they can find information on the Department of Health and Human Services website if they change their mind.

Opponents say the so-called abortion reversal procedure is not scientifically proven, and the measure would require women to be given inaccurate information. The bill is expected to receive a final vote in the next day or so.