Revenue forecast drops as University seeks more money; “Choose Life” plate debate continues


February 27th, 2017

Sen. John Kuehn, left, questions University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds, right, on budget (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

There was more bad budget news for the state of Nebraska Monday, as revenue forecasts were cut again even as the university asked for more money. And senators continued to debate whether the state should authorize pro-life specialty license plates.

Lincoln, NE – There were two meetings in Nebraska’s Capitol Monday, held at the same time and separated by less than 150 feet of hallway, that illustrated the state’s budget dilemma.

In one meeting, officials from the University of Nebraska pleaded with members of the Appropriations Committee not to cut the university’s budget. Bob Whitehouse, chairman of the University’s Board of Regents, warned of the possible effects of cutting $7 million a year from the budget for the next two years, plus not including another $3 million for a teaching lab known as iEXCEL, that was foreseen in the last budget.

“We know that with a reduction in state funding, we would almost certainly have to vote on an operating budget that limits our ability to be the most affordable and excellent academic institution that we want to be,” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse went on to ask senators to keep state support for the university flat, at $583 million, for the next two years.

“Flat funding, plus iEXCEL, represents $10 million more for the University of Nebraska each year than what this committee initially recommended. Yet $10 million would make a dramatic difference in terms of tuition costs for students and families and our ability to grow Nebraska’s economy,” he said.

University officials, citing rising salary and health care costs, have said the funding could make a difference between tuition increases of 7 percent, on the one hand, or double digit increases, if the projected cuts are finally approved. But Sen. John Kuehn, a member of the Appropriations Committee, was skeptical.

Kuehn said the University’s position amounted to asking senators either to cut somebody else, or raise taxes.

“If you’re talking about the Kuehn family, I know what a tax increase is going to do to them. I don’t have a clear vision for what a $7 million reduction in the base budget to the University of Nebraska system is really going to impact to them. My inclination is, probably not a lot,” Kuehn said.

Meanwhile, in another meeting down the hall, the Economic Forecasting Advisory Board was knocking a hole in the revenue forecasts the committee has been using to design its budget.

The Board reduced its revenue forecasts for the current and next two fiscal years by $98 million, compared to what the board projected in October. But since then, lawmakers have informally begun counting on collecting about another $70 million, because online retailing giant Amazon began collecting sales taxes on purchases by Nebraskans in January. Taking those projections into account, the new revenue forecasts are about $168 million short of what had been expected.

Gov. Pete Ricketts reacted to the announcement by issuing a statement that read, in part, “We must tighten our belts and balance the budget without raising taxes.” The governor made no mention of any effect on his proposal to cut income taxes. But the Open Sky Policy Institute, which has opposed Ricketts’ proposal, called it “fiscally irresponsible” to continue considering tax cuts.

In legislative debate Monday, senators continued to wrangle over Sen. Dan Watermeier’s proposal to authorize specialty license plates that say “Choose Life” for drivers who want to buy them.

Sen. Bob Krist said there are already over 40 specialty plates, honoring everything from Creighton University to families of soldiers killed in battle. But Krist, who is pro-life, said “Choose Life” plates would be different.

“You’ll recognize, I hope, in that laundry list I just read, there are no controversial plates. So where do we draw the line? ‘Friends of the Nebraska Death Penalty?’ How about that one? Where do we draw the line where we say ‘No, this is too controversial?” Krist asked.

Sen. Adam Morfeld quizzed Watermeier about how he’d feel authorizing plates with a pro-choice sentiment as part of his bill.

“To me that’d be hostile to the intent of my bill,” Watermeier said. “That’s the reason why I’m going to oppose this bill in the end,” Morfeld said. “If we are going to put political statements on state license plates, then we should be able to avail our citizens of both arguments and both sides of the debate.”

Watermeier said 29 other states already have “Choose Life” plates. And Sen. Mike Hilgers said the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed states have that ability.

“The Supreme Court has said that as a legislative body – us, deciding this today – we can choose certain types of speech that we want to allow on license plates. The check on that is the democratic process. So to Sen. Pansing Brooks’ discussion, Sen. Morfeld’s discussion, they or others are absolutely free to bring other license plates, go through the hearing process. We can have debate on them. If they don’t pass, they can mobilize through grassroots effort and elect  candidates and legislative officials who will pass those hose types of license plates,” Hilgers said.

Hilgers pointed out the ACLU had sued North Carolina, which has choose life plates, objecting that it did not offer pro-choice plates. But while a federal appeals court sided with the ACLU, the Supreme Court disagreed.

Sen. Ernie Chambers has filed more than two dozen amendments trying to block Watermeier’s bill, or at least require six hours of debate and 33 votes to invoke cloture and vote on the bill itself. By the end of debate Monday, senators had debated three hours and 11 minutes, meaning the unofficial six hours of debate before a cloture motion could be reached late Tuesday morning.

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