Governor criticizes prison funding cuts; cost of off-year elections hit
April 6th, 2017
Gov. Pete Ricketts is criticizing senators for cutting proposed funding for prisons. And the head of the Legislature’s Government Committee says holding off-year elections in Lincoln and Omaha wastes taxpayer dollars.
Lincoln, NE – As the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee moves toward recommending a budget for the next two years to the full Legislature, members are paring back the money proposed for prisons.
Gov. Pete Ricketts had asked for $11 million to increase prison staff, including 96 corrections officers. The committee cut that down to $4.5 million, and said the administration should fill currently vacant positions before requesting more. Wednesday, Ricketts criticized that action.
“I’m actually very disturbed by that because for months and months the Legislature has said ‘Hey, we need to reform Corrections. Tell us what you need to be able to do that.’ We have given them a bunch of recommendations where took them at their word and gave them the list of the things we need and now they’re cutting it.,” Ricketts said. “I think that is the wrong direction and I’m disappointed with what the Legislature’s proposing to do.”
Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. John Stinner defended the committee’s action. Stinner said that the Department of Correctional Services currently has between 135 and 145 vacancies.
“We fully funded the 145 vacant positions. They need to fill those in order to come back and ask for additional ones. You know, we could come back at the end of this next fiscal year and take a look at a deficit request or something along those lines,” if the department succeeds in filling the existing vacancies and still wants more positions, Stinner said.
The Department has been plagued by understaffing, forced overtime and low morale. Officials of the union representing corrections officers have said the problem is not so much recruiting new employees as retaining those already hired, when corrections departments in Douglas, Lancaster and Hall counties offer better pay. Pay levels are determined by negotiations between the governor’s administration and the union.
Also on Wednesday, Sen. Jon Murante, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, lamented the low turnout in Omaha and Lincoln city elections Tuesday. Murante said turnout in Omaha, which had a mayoral and city council primary, was only 21 percent, and in Lincoln, which had a city council primary, it was 18 percent.
“Beyond the fact that we have such a small percentage of people electing such important leadership positions, we understand the fact that they are incredibly expensive. In the case of the city of Lincoln, they conduct citywide elections every single year. The city of Omaha, over a four-year period, takes one year off. This is a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to property tax payers,” Murante said.
Murante said he will ask his committee to study the situation. He said one possible solution would be to schedule city elections in the same year as elections for governor.
Also Wednesday, Gov. Ricketts signed legislation authorizing “Choose Life” specialty license plates. Asked what effect he thought such plates would have, Ricketts said compared them to pro-life billboards.
“It really is raising awareness and helping promote people to think about what does it mean to defend innocent life? Who are the vulnerable people in our society, whether it’s our senior citizens or our unborn?” Ricketts said.
Senators opposing the bill argued the state shouldn’t make its license plates a platform for one side of the abortion controversy. Ricketts said the state can express a preference. Asked if that would extend to a pro-death penalty plate, the governor said “we’ll take those issues up as they come.”
And late Wednesday afternoon, committees advanced bills that are likely to be fiercely debated over the next few weeks.
An Education Committee proposal would set the amount of school aid at just under $1 billion next year. That’s an increase of $21 million from the current level, but it’s $46 million less than the increase that the current school aid formula calls for. And the Revenue Committee advanced a proposal that would cut the top income tax rate from just under 7 to just under 6 percent over a period of 10 years, if state revenue growth permits. The bill would also cap the growth of ag land valuations and increase state school aid to substitute for property taxes by an estimated $34 million two years from now.
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