Capitol: Lawmakers advance funding for University projects

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March 14th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – The Legislature gave first-round approval to proposed changes in the state budget today, as sniping continued over whether a tax cut could fit into it.

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The budget contains a fistful of capital construction projects at campuses of the University of Nebraska and the state colleges.

Sen. Galen Hadley supports expanding a nursing program in Kearney to help attract people to rural Nebraska. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

There’s $50 million towards a cancer research tower at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. There’s $7.5 million for renovations to the Oak Bowl stadium at Peru State College, $6.7 million for an addition and renovation of the Armstrong Gymnasium at Chadron State, and $6 million toward an eventual $60 million for a Veterinary Diagnostic Center in Lincoln. And there’s $15 million for a building to expand a nursing program and establish other health programs in Kearney.

Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney said that’s needed, not only to keep young people in rural Nebraska, but to enhance services and keep people in towns throughout the area. “If you want to look out 20 years, if we don’t have medical health care in outstate Nebraska, what are we going to have?” Hadley asked.

“How are you going to convince people to move to Ainsworth, Atkinson, those kind of places, if you say ‘You want to go (to) health care? You get in your car. How far? Oh, it’s only 130 miles.’ Is that what we want? I don’t think so.”

Sen. Steve Lathrop argued Gov. Dave Heineman's proposed tax cuts could create a "crisis" in the state's projected shortfall. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Except for the ongoing appropriations for the veterinary diagnostic center, all the construction projects are being funded from the state’s cash reserve. But funding for the rest of the budget, and whether it conflicts with Gov. Dave Heineman’s proposed tax cuts, remains a subject of controversy.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop renewed the attack on the governor’s proposals, which would add about $140 million to a projected $460 million shortfall in the next two-year budget.

“We must be careful, colleagues, in the next few weeks not to create a crisis for ourselves,” Lathrop said. “If we take the deficit to over $600 million for the next biennium, we are creating a crisis for the next Legislature.”

That drew a rebuke from the governor. “Sen. Lathrop favors increased spending, and he opposes tax relief for low income and middle income Nebraskans,” Heineman said. “His priorities are misguided in my opinion.”

“Sen. Lathrop wants Nebraska to take a step backwards,” he said. “I don’t. I want us to move forward. And the way to move forward is to continue to control your spending, lower taxes, and create a more business-friendly, job-friendly and family- friendly environment.”

Senators gave the budget bills first round approval. The tax bill has not yet come up for debate.

In the afternoon, senators debated a proposal to reimburse agencies that provided services to children but were not paid under the state’s controversial child welfare privatization. Agencies which were subcontractors to the lead contractor throughout much of the state outside the Omaha and Lincoln areas say they are owed $2.5 million.

Lathrop, chairman of the Business and Labor Committee, argued that the state should pay the claims, even though the lead contractor – Boy’s and Girl’s Home — was the one who didn’t pay, because the state was obliged to serve the children. “We didn’t discharge that duty because we picked somebody who was incompetent,” Lathrop said. “Not that they didn’t have a good heart – everybody who came in front of the committee told us they were good at what they did, which was providing services. They had absolutely no experience in coordinating them.”

Other senators worried that the state would be setting a bad precedent by paying the claims. Among them was Omaha Sen. John Nelson. “The services were provided to the children. They were paid for. They were paid to the lead contractor,” Nelson said. “I don’t think that the statute says that we have to pay twice, Sen. Lathrop. I hear words like fairness, it’s the thing to do, it’s appropriate. That’s not contract law.”

Senators adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on the proposal.

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