Budget Debate Highlights University Cuts, Court Increase, Tax Changes


February 1st, 2017

Sen. John Stinner opens state budget debate (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Cuts to the University of Nebraska, more spending on alternatives to prison, and changes to the tax system are being discussed at the Capitol.

This is the first of two budgets the Legislature will deal with this year. The state’s facing a projected budget shortfall of about $900 million over the current and next two fiscal years. So this debate was about cutting the current budget, for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said tax receipts have been coming in slower than expected. Stinner said the state should react the way families do when someone takes a salary cut. “You know, you call your family members together and you say ‘You know that allowance you used to get? Or that you do get? I’m taking that away. You know that vacation we were going to go on?’ You start to cut. That’s what normal people do,” he said.

Stinner said the committee was recommending about $137 million of $151 million in cuts proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts. One place the committee disagreed with the governor was over his proposed cuts to the Nebraska Supreme Court, whose budget includes probation.

Stinner said restoring $4 million Ricketts proposed cutting from the court was consistent with sentencing reforms the Legislature adopted two years ago to reduce prison overcrowding:

“So now the nonviolent (offender) is going to stay out of your prisons, going to stay at the local level, but you need to have people to service ‘em. You need parole officers, you need probation officers, you need to have programs for these folks to rehabilitate them,” Stinner said.

The Department of Correctional Services, which runs those overcrowded prisons, is likely to get a budget increase. But Ricketts has proposed cutting the University of Nebraska in his budget for the next two years. Sen. Adam Morfeld said that would be a mistake. “To me, the $50 million in cuts to the University and several other agencies is entirely unacceptable,” Morfeld said. “If we are truly dedicated to retaining and attracting young Nebraskans, we will invest accordingly. Because a budget is not just a document. It’s a statement of our values,” he said.

University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds has said Ricketts’ proposed budget cuts could force tuition increases and layoffs.

Sen. Kate Bolz, vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, said senators need to look beyond simply addressing the immediate budget problem. “The real point is that we need to take a look not only at the decisions that we are making in terms of appropriations, but also the policy decisions that we’re making in terms of revenue,” Bolz said.

That’s “revenue,” as in taxes, where proposals for major cuts to both property and income taxes have been made. Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said she isn’t against making needed budget cuts. “I’m against not talking about the big picture, which is this picture of cut everything, move forward. Become Kansas, I guess. I just do not get where all of these discussions are going,” she said.

Her reference to Kansas was to the financial troubles that state has had since enacting deep income tax cuts earlier this decade.

Sen. Bob Krist objected to the Legislature’s accepting cuts to its own budget – money he said would be needed in the future for things like a $125 million renovation of the Capitol’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. “We just decided to roll over and do what the governor wanted us to do. That may be necessary in the next two years. It’s not necessary now,” Krist said.

Lawmakers adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on the budget.

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