Budget debate starts; Ricketts opposes felon voting bill


April 27th, 2017

Sen. John Stinner discusses the budget Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Debate over the state budget got off to a fitful start Tuesday.

Lincoln, NE – Before they got to the budget, senators discussed a proposal that included suspending a personal property tax credit program that exempts from taxation $10,000 worth of equipment for small businesses and agriculture. That would save about $30 million a year. But it ran into resistance from lawmakers like Sen. Tom Briese.

“The intent of the personal property tax relief act of 2015 was to provide property tax relief to small businesses and agriculture. And it is providing property tax relief — not a lot, but some. And I’m willing to take that away from these folks,” Briese said.

After several senators spoke against the proposal, Speaker Jim Scheer removed it from the agenda.

Tuesday afternoon, debate began on the main budget bill. The two year plan calls for spending just under $9 billion, with growth averaging 1 percent a year.  Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the proposal reflects the state’s priorities.

“This is the approach. This is the budget. We actually took a look at each one of these big areas we talked about. Education: prioritized K-12. We prioritized the property tax relief fund. We prioritized prison overcrowding with Justice Reinvestment and Corrections. We also prioritized provider rates. And we definitely have funded another utilization, another increase in Medicaid,” Stinner said.

Speaker Scheer tried to set some ground rules for the debate, telling senators that if they want to add to the budget, they should indicate where the money would come from.

“It’s real easy to say ‘I want to put $10 million back into this or I want to put $100,000 back into that. The question is where does the $100,000 come from? We have a balanced budget in front of us. It’s not Appropriations’ problem what we do with it now. It’s our problem,” he said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers objected to that idea.

“To suggest that a person should not offer an amendment to the budget committee bill unless he or she can tell where to get money or where money is going from/to is preposterous. He first started by talking about the hard work that the budget committee did. Then said ‘When we finally get that bill out here, then on the fly you’re going to have to come up with things that it took the Appropriations Committee all this time to arrive at,’ so in effect ‘Don’t debate the budget bill, let it go as it is,’” Chambers said.

Debate then began on proposed amendments. Sen. Curt Friesen, chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, objected to the proposal to divert $30 million from the gas tax that had been earmarked for roads to the general fund instead.

“When you looked at where our recent survey of roads and bridges in the state – especially bridges, county bridges and state bridges — we were deficit and we sorely needed some funding. We had long neglected the expressway system. We had stopped funding any new construction and were just typically trying to do maintenance. So I cannot support the concept of using any motor fuels revenue being used for non-roads- related purposes,” Friesen said.

Friesen said the money to restore roads funding could come from a fund used to fund health care projects, or elsewhere. Stinner opposed restoring the funding, saying that even with the diversion, roads would still get more money over the next two years than currently.

Senators adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on roads funding.

Also Tuesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts came out against a bill passed by the Legislature Monday, which would restore voting rights to felons as soon as they finish their sentences, instead of making them wait two years.

“Frankly I think waiting two years to demonstrate that you are going to be productive member of society and that you can keep your nose clean is not too much to ask of people who have been felons. We have a law that I think is very reasonable in this state that if you’re a felon, you have to wait two years before you can vote, and that’s the way it ought to stay,” Ricketts said.

Sen. Justin Wayne, sponsor of the felon voting bill, said he would attempt an override if Ricketts vetoes the bill. Wayne said people before him had died getting the right to vote, and the least he could do was to fight for it.

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