Legislature ‘asserted its independence’ in 2012 session

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April 24th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – The Nebraska Legislature finished its session last week, and the effects of their actions on everything from child welfare to taxes will be felt in the coming months and years. It was a session in which some said senators reasserted themselves, and set some far-reaching changes in motion.

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When the year began, one of the biggest issues facing lawmakers was child welfare. Critics said the state’s privatized system for dealing with abused and neglected kids was costing way more than expected and letting children slip through the cracks.

Sen. Kathy Campbell says the creation of a Children's Commission and inspector general post in the state's child welfare system is a key change. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee proposed changes, including taking back case management from private agencies. But in February, the state ended its contract with the fourth of five private agencies, and the legislation was changed to allow the remaining agency – Nebraska Families Collaborative, which includes Boystown – to continue as a pilot project in the Omaha area.

Lawmakers also authorized a new Children’s Commission to come up with a strategic plan, and created the post of inspector general to watch over the system.

Sen. Kathy Campbell, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said that’s a key change.

“The reason is that long after all of the senators who worked on this are gone, you’re going to have a person in place who is keeping a watchful eye on the entire system,” she said. “And that’s a long-term benefit for the protection of children.”

Gov. Dave Heineman said he appreciated lawmakers' efforts on child welfare, but called the results of the session "mixed." (Photo courtesy State of Nebraska)

On a related note, the state Department of Health and Human Services hired a new director for its division of Children and Family Services, which oversees the child welfare system. Thomas Pristow wasn’t around during the controversy over poor performance that led to privatization, or the subsequent controversy that led to its largely being reversed. But he said that under department Director Kerry Winterer, he’ll focus on making the system work better.

“Leadership does make a difference,” he said. “We don’t want pendulums swinging back and forth. There needs to be consistency. The system we set up should not be personality-dependent. It needs to be outcome-dependent. It needs to be performance-dependent. Not based on just me as the director or Kerry (Winterer). It needs to be based on performance.”

Lawmakers had criticized the Heineman administration and the Nebraska DHHS for ignoring the Legislature and undertaking privatization on their own. Now, Campbell said, that seems to have changed.

“I’m encouraged by the attitude that we’re seeing from the Department, and certainly from the new Child and Family Services director (Pristow),” she said. “It seems to be an attitude of more inclusiveness: We want to talk to you before we develop some things. What are your ideas? What do you think of this?’

“That’s a very good start.”

Lawmakers also approved hiring more caseworkers and increasing pay for foster parents.

Speaker Mike Flood said the Legislature delivered a "responsible midbiennium budget." (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

While child welfare occupied a lot of legislative attention, lawmakers acted on a wide range of other issues, as well. (Here’s a list of topics legislators have submitted for future study.) They extended the state Department of Environmental Quality’s authority to do an expedited review of a new route for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. They required cities to hold votes on imposing or increasing so-called “occupation” taxes on things like restaurant meals, and they eased a requirement that schools contact county attorneys when children miss more than 20 days in a year.

Speaking shortly before the session ended, Legislative Speaker Mike Flood offered a list of what he said were highlights.

“We delivered a responsible midbiennium budget. We found room for tax cuts acknowledging that that was an opportunity we had to take advantage of this year. We made significant investment in the university system and the health projects that they’ve identified for nurses and cancer research and (a) veterinary diagnostic center,” he said. “I think that was probably the top accomplishment,” Flood said.

Sen. Brad Ashford said the Legislature asserted its independence this session. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Those adjustments to the two-year budget included more money for child welfare. Some cuts made last year to Medicaid were restored, but cuts to schools remain in place. The income tax cuts passed this year were a scaled-down version of a proposal that Gov. Dave Heineman made his top priority – when fully implemented in two years, they’ll save a family of four with an income of $50,000 about $54 a year. Heineman originally resisted the university construction proposals cited by Flood, but later concluded the state could afford them.

The governor didn’t give the traditional end-of-session speech to legislators. But when asked his reaction to their work, Heineman called the results “mixed.”

“I appreciated the work on child welfare, appreciated the fact that we passed a modest but important tax relief package. We passed a series of economic incentives,” he said. “But then we ended on a note that I think was inappropriate for the state, that we’re going to give taxpayer-funded benefits to illegals, and legal Nebraska citizens are likely to get a tax Increase.”

What the governor termed “inappropriate” were bills he vetoed that lawmakers overrode on the last day of the session: one restoring prenatal care to illegal immigrants, the others giving municipalities an additional half a percent of sales tax authority, depending on voter approval.

Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, the longest-serving current legislator, suggested the process was even more important than the particular issues.

“What was significant, I think, to me, is that the Legislature in a very dramatic fashion really took on the governor on these policy questions,” he said, “which I think was asserting its independence, its co-equality, asserting its prerogative really to pass the laws.

“That’s our job,” he added. “The governor doesn’t pass the laws, the Legislature passes the law.”

Whether or not that assertiveness continues will be seen next year, as term limits prevent many in the current legislative leadership from returning. Meanwhile, Nebraskans will have a chance this November to weigh in: voting on whether or not those limits should be lengthened from two to three terms, whether or not senators’ pay should increase from $12,000 a year to $22,500, and of course, whether or not individual legislators should be re-elected.

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