Mainline budget bill advances after cloture

After more than eight hours of debate spanning two days, lawmakers voted April 26 to cease debate and advance the state’s mainline budget bill to select file.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist48' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. John Stinner'>Sen. John Stinner</a>
Sen. John Stinner

LB327, introduced by Speaker Jim Scheer on behalf of the governor, contains recommendations for state operations and state aid. An Appropriations Committee amendment replaced the bill.

Among other provisions, the amendment includes the following proposed increases to baseline appropriations over the biennium:
• $62.4 million for the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act (TEEOSA);
• $35.6 million for Medicaid;
• $15.4 million for staffing, programs and equipment for the state Department of Correctional Services; and
• $11.4 million for the courts under the Justice Reinvestment Act.

Among other reductions, the amendment also includes proposed cuts of $24.7 million to state agencies, $13 million to the university system and $9 million in foster care contracts with private providers of kinship placements for state wards.

Gering Sen. John Stinner, chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, said the proposal reflects the committee’s commitment to K-12 education, property tax relief and continuing efforts to fix the state’s corrections system. State boards, commissions and agencies were committed to making the budget work in difficult circumstances, he said.

“To an agency, they expressed a concern about the budget,” Stinner said. “They wanted to be part of the solution with the budget and the deficit shortfall, and they are really the ones that I want to acknowledge. They have to carry the ball from here. They have to make the tough decisions based on a limited amount of resources.”

Debate focused on proposed changes to the Appropriations Committee amendment.

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, chairperson of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, offered an amendment April 25 that would have reduced by $4.4 million in fiscal year 2017-18 and $2.1 million in FY2018-19 an appropriation from the Highway Cash Fund to the Roads Operations Cash Fund.

Friesen said the purpose of the amendment was to prevent the use of motor fuel tax receipts from being diverted for purposes other than roads infrastructure.

“The amendment properly adjusts the Highway Cash Fund appropriation to match program infrastructure projects and roads operations,” he said, adding that he had supported the 2015 bill that increased the state’s motor fuel tax.

“I believed then and believe now that the increase was good policy and I’ve always been supportive of the concept of the gas tax being used to pay for roads and being solely dedicated to that purpose,” he said.

Friesen said that without the amendment – and another pending on LB331 that would reduce transfers from the Roads Operations Cash Fund to the General Fund – the variable gas tax rate would need to be set to match the higher appropriations and transfer levels, resulting in a higher overall gas tax rate.

Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman supported the amendment, saying the transfer in LB327 represents a “historic departure” from the policy of using gas tax receipts solely for infrastructure needs.

“This has the potential to have detrimental impacts to various infrastructure projects around the state,” he said, including the need to expand U.S. Highway 30 to accommodate agriculture needs and improve safety.

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr opposed the amendment, saying that although he understands the importance of roads, all aspects of government need to be included in the cuts necessary to balance the budget.

“I don’t know how people can feel that they don’t need to be part of the solution,” he said. “We’re all in this together. We are slowing down the growth of government with this bill.”

Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln also opposed the Friesen amendment, saying the committee’s proposal makes significant investments in roads funding elsewhere in the budget, including adding Amazon sales tax revenue to the State Highway Capital Improvement Fund.

“Highway construction [funding] increases by $45 million for the biennium,” she said. “I just want everyone to work from the facts.”

The amendment was defeated April 26 on a 20-27 vote.

An amendment brought by Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher was debated April 26. It would have removed a provision stating that, to the extent permissible under applicable federal regulations, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will prioritize the use of all funds associated with the Federal Title X Program to federally qualified health centers, community health centers, hospitals, tribal government entities and state and local government entities.

Title X funds are used to subsidize Pap smears – and treatments and procedures for the follow-up of abnormal Pap smears – as well as the diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screenings and family planning services. General funds provided under Title X cannot be used to perform, facilitate, counsel or refer for abortion services.

Schumacher said the omission of stand-alone clinics in the priority list would allow DHHS to de-fund entities that provide health care to tens of thousands of low-income Nebraska women. Such a policy change should have come in the form of a legislative bill that would have had a focused public hearing, he said.

“A budget should be about how we spend money, not about how we change policy on highly sensitive issues,” Schumacher said. “This should not have been tried this way.”

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist agreed, saying the language appeared to be targeted at a specific provider of Title X services.

“I think this is a deliberate attempt to take funding away from Planned Parenthood,” he said. “I think it’s a deceitful way to do it.”

Sen. John Murante of Gretna opposed the amendment, saying the new language simply would prioritize how Title X funds are allocated and would not change the services that are provided or access to those services. In addition, he said, Appropriations Committee hearings are open to the public.

“I don’t know how that process differs from any other process on any other bill that we’ve had this year,” Murante said. “That’s how our system of government works.”

Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln agreed, saying the language that would be stricken by the Schumacher amendment was included in the budget bill as introduced. There was public notice, he said, and an opportunity for the public to be heard. More importantly, he said, the change is good public policy.

“I think there’s a good case for why we would want to prioritize some of these centers,” Hilgers said, because they have a broader range of services than those that can be provided at stand-alone clinics.

The amendment was defeated on a vote of 17-19.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks then said she would offer an amendment to add stand-alone clinics to the list of entities that could be prioritized for Title X funding and remove the words “up to” before the amounts appropriated for the program.

She said the change would help ensure that stand-alone clinics in Grand Island, Kearney, Crete, and North Platte could continue to operate so that low-income women would not have to travel long distances for services.

“My intent with the amendment is to cover everyone who is currently covered,” Pansing Brooks said.

After continued discussion, Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer offered a motion to invoke cloture, or cease debate and vote on the bill. He encouraged senators to work together before select file to find a solution to the Title X funding issue and others.

“This budget is going to drive the state of Nebraska for the next two years. What we do will have consequences … for all Nebraskans, in one form or another,” Scheer said. “We have to show fiscal restraint; we also have to show compassion.”

The cloture motion was adopted on a 42-6 vote. Senators then voted 46-1 to adopt the committee amendment and 36-1 to advance the bill to select file.

Continued debate on the budget is scheduled for May 2.

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