Summer food aid, taxes, budget and horseracing in legislative mix


March 7th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Summer food for kids, gambling, taxes and spending were all in the mix in the Legislature Tuesday.

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Beatrice Sen. Norm Wallman said during the school year, about 100 thousand Nebraska kids get free or reduced price lunches in school. During the summer, only about 10 thousand get help with food.

Wallman said that’s been because a lot of schools are shut, and nonprofit organizations like YMCAs that could provide federally funded food aid sometimes lacked adequate refrigerators and dishwashers. He’s sponsored legislation to provide grants totaling $140,000 to buy things like that, and to do outreach work. If that succeeds in raising the number of eligible kids who get food aid from one in ten to four in ten, that would bring in more than $2.3 million in federal dollars, he said.

Wallman said nonprofit organizations like YMCAs that could provide federally funded food aid sometimes lack adequate refrigerators and dishwashers (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Legislature)

The proposal drew praise from a long list of senators, who said it would address an important need. But Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus said he was conflicted. He said no one wants to see kids go hungry,. But he objected to what he said was a philosophical shift. “It used to be that parents were responsible for feeding their children. It used to be that when you had a child, you were responsible and there were consequences for not carrying out that responsibility. And this general drift that underscores this legislation seems to say it is society’s responsibility,” he said.

The bill authorizing the program got 25 votes to advance, the bare minimum needed, and while no one voted against it, 16 senators were present but not voting, which has the same effect as a “no” vote. Then, debate stretched on about appropriating the money needed to put the program into effect – usually almost an automatic vote once the program is endorsed. Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, a supporter of the bill, commented on the process. “I am just astonished, frankly. We have talked longer on spending $140,000 for children, to feed children, not their parents. To feed children than we spend talking about $2.5 million in subsidy for a data center or whatever,” Haar said.

After recessing for lunch, lawmakers returned and voted 35-0 for the appropriation.

Meanwhile, the Appropriations Committee is sending a budget proposal to the full Legislature that does not include either Gov. Dave Heineman’s tax cut proposal or an increase in school aid.

The proposal does include nearly $10 million to restore part of last year’s Medicaid cuts. It includes nearly $19 million for child welfare. And it provides $65 million of the $91 million the University of Nebraska requested for construction, toward a cancer research center in Omaha and a health building in Kearney.

It would leave the state with $17 million to spare, above its required budget reserve. But the governor’s tax proposal would cut revenue by almost $52 million next year.

The Revenue Committee is considering a scaled-down proposal that would cut revenue by $37 million. It would keep the inheritance tax, which the governor wants to abolish, and it would not cut corporate taxes. It would cut tax rates for individuals in the lower and middle income brackets, but not for the upper bracket. The governor said he was working closely with Sen. Abbie Cornett of Bellevue, the committee chair.

The Legislature also began debate on allowing a new form of betting on horse races. The proposal would allow betting on races that have already been run, which would be replayed on video terminals. Information that would let bettors identify the races would be removed, but they would still bet based on information about things like the horses’ and jockeys’ former performance.

Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, the bill’s sponsor, said it’s needed to replace the Lincoln track which is closing this fall. That track is located on the former state fairgrounds, which is being converted into the University of Nebraska Lincoln’s Innovation Campus.

“We need a new track down here. That much is certain. Another certainty is that it won’t happen if we don’t do something to pay for it, which this would provide. This is about keeping horseracing alive, plain and simple, in Nebraska,” he said.

Lautenbaugh said up to four thousand jobs are at stake. But Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery sought to turn the economic argument around. Avery called the bill an expansion of gambling, and quoted economist Paul Samuelson on the subject:

“Gambling involves sterile transfers of money between people creating no new money, and no new goods. Gambling does not create a product. Gambling does not add value to an existing product. Gambling is a sterile transfer of money between people. Usually, money is transferred from those who don’t have it to those who do.”

Lawmakers adjourned for the day without reaching a first round vote on the bill.

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