Budget debate begins

Lawmakers began debate April 30 on the state’s $8.6 billion budget package. The state budget is structured on a two-year basis, with the budget enacted during legislative sessions held in odd-numbered years.

As introduced, the Appropriations Committee budget proposal would result in a financial status at the end of fiscal year 2016-17 that is $48.9 million more than the 3 percent minimum reserve.

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, said the budget package represents a 3.1 percent average growth rate in spending over the biennium. That level is the lowest in 30 years, he said, with the exception of 2003 and 2009, when the state was battling significant economic recessions.

Mello said the budget package would maintain a strong cash reserve while focusing on property tax relief, economic development, education and public/private partnerships.

“The decisions in this budget package recognize the priorities of this Legislature,” he said.

Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner spoke in support of the budget package, saying it represents a compromise among individual committee members with very different perspectives.

“No one got everything they wanted in this budget,” he said. “But overall, we funded what we had to fund … we said no to some things that were tough to say no to; we put things off that we may very well fund in the future. I think, on balance, this is probably a good budget.”

Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha agreed, calling the package a sustainable, responsible budget. He said the five new members on the committee brought a willingness to look at issues and agencies with a fresh perspective.

“The new members brought a lot of great questions and a willingness to dig in,” he said.

The committee’s budget package comprises seven bills, three of which were advanced to select file April 30:
LB658, which would provide for the $12,000 annual salaries of Nebraska’s 49 state senators, advanced 33-0;
LB659, which would fund salaries and benefits for judges and constitutional officers, advanced 38-0; and
LB656, which would make adjustments to appropriations for the current fiscal year, adopted 38-0.

Debate continued into the evening on the mainline budget bill, LB657, which was introduced by Kearney Sen. Galen Hadley on behalf of the governor. A pending Appropriations Committee amendment would become the bill, which contains recommendations for state operations and state aid.

Among other provisions, the amendment includes the following appropriations over the biennium:
$79.8 million for the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act;
$75.9 million for the federal Medicaid match rate;
$64.4 million for Medicaid reimbursement rates; and
$53.8 million for a 3 percent increase in funding to colleges and universities.

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