Budget package clears second round

Lawmakers amended and advanced several bills comprising the state’s $8.6 billion budget package May 6. The state budget is structured on a two-year basis, with the budget enacted during legislative sessions held in odd-numbered years.

Among the amendments considered on select file were adjustments offered by the Appropriations Committee.

Chairperson Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha offered an amendment to LB657, the mainline budget bill, to increase the property tax credit by $4 million each year of the biennium.

Mello said the state Economic Forecasting Advisory Board met while the budget package was being debated on general file and revised revenue projections upward over the next two years.

The $12 million in additional revenue projected for the current fiscal year is directed to the cash reserve fund by law, he said, leaving approximately $9.7 million in additional projected revenue for the next fiscal year.

Mello said the committee believed that amount should be directed to property tax relief.

“The Appropriations Committee felt this was a responsible and sustainable increase,” he said, adding that it would bring the property tax fund total to $408 million for the biennium.

The amendment was adopted 34-0.

Cedar Rapids Sen. Kate Sullivan offered an amendment that would have eliminated $500,000 per year in general funds for the Master Teacher Program Act and increase aid for special education by the same amount.

Sullivan said that while national certification for teachers is valuable, special education funding should be a higher priority use of state funds. Special education needs continue to grow, she said, while federal funding shrinks.

“[Special education] is one of the priorities that every single school district in this state has to deal with,” Sullivan said. “For whatever reason, there are more and more children being identified for special education.”

Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer supported the amendment, saying the master teacher program is not “scalable.” He said the program has been available since 2000 and only 113 teachers have completed it.

The proposed appropriation would fund 100 additional teachers each year, he said, resulting in approximately 1,000 of the state’s 30,000 teachers being nationally certified by the next decade.

“What we’re talking about is a very small group of teachers,” Scheer said, adding that a direct increase in funding for special education would make a positive impact on more students.

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz, who originally proposed the master teacher funding in her LB185, opposed the amendment. Funding the program would benefit all students through improved teacher effectiveness, she said, adding that the budget also contains an increase in special education funding.

“I stand against this amendment because I don’t think it’s an either/or conversation,” Bolz said. “I think it’s a both/and conversation.”

The Sullivan amendment failed on a 20-16 vote and LB657 advanced to final reading by voice vote.

Additional amendments

A Mello amendment to LB661 also sparked debate. Among other provisions, the amendment would change criteria relating to the Oral Health Training and Services Fund.

The budget appropriates $8 million to the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education to develop, award and administer a contract with a dental college to provide discounted oral health services and oral health workforce development.

The amendment would require a minimum 10-year contract for provision of discounted oral health services. In addition, dental students receiving education subsidies under the contract would be required to practice in a dental health profession shortage area for at least five years.

Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy supported the amendment, saying it would ensure that the contract is open to both of the state’s dental colleges.

“I think that’s an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Omaha Sen. Tanya Cook opposed the amendment, saying it failed to address significant concerns regarding Creighton University that were raised during general file debate. A well-funded private, ecumenical institution should not be eligible to receive state funds, she said.

“That point is not reflected in this amendment,” Cook said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha agreed.

“I am opposed to any money going to a private institution, and especially one that is sectarian,” he said. “There should be a sharp line of demarcation—in fact a wall—between church and state.”

The amendment was adopted 30-2 and LB661 advanced by voice vote.

Also adopted was an amendment offered by Mello to LB662, which would transfer $7.8 million from the cash reserve to the Nebraska Capital Construction Fund. The funds would be directed toward the ongoing update of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system in the Capitol Building.

Mello said the state has the opportunity to invest in a geothermal plant to provide more efficient, independent and reliable energy to the Capitol. Window restoration and moving and rental costs to temporarily relocate offices during the HVAC project also will be necessary, he said.

“The returns on this investment will result in energy cost savings over the next 20 years,” he said.

The amendment was adopted 30-1 and LB662 advanced by voice vote.

Mello also offered an amendment to LB656 to appropriate $385,000 to the Nebraska Educational Telecommunication Commission. The funds would be used to replace a television antenna that fell from a tower in April, he said, restoring over-the-air television service to the panhandle region of the state.

Following adoption of the amendment 34-0, the bill advanced by voice vote.

Other provisions

Also advanced to final reading by voice vote were:
LB658, which would fund the $12,000 annual salaries of Nebraska’s 49 state senators;
LB659, which would fund salaries and benefits for constitutional officers;
LB660, which would appropriate funds for capital construction and property acquisition; and
LB663, which would increase Nebraska Supreme Court judges’ salaries.

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