Nebraska Legislature passes $9.3 billion budget, with $51 million more for property tax credits

Nebraska Legislature passes $9.3 billion budget, with $51 million more for property tax credits
Supporters rally at Nebraska Capitol in defense of abortion rights as more states pass strict limits (Worlld-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers signed off on a two-year, $9.3 billion state budget package Tuesday, after overcoming a pair of last-minute filibusters from fiscal conservatives.

The main budget bill passed on a 35-12 vote, with two senators abstaining. Other measures in the package passed with stronger support. The bills now head to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has until Monday to sign or veto them or make line-item vetoes of specific spending items.

Included in the budget is a $51 million annual increase in the state’s Property Tax Credit Fund, as Ricketts recommended. The credit fund may end up being the biggest property tax relief offered by this year’s Legislature.

State Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha pointed out that, with the increase, the credit fund now amounts to 5.9 percent of the total budget. The additional funds bring the total to $275 million per year.

“We are doing something for property tax relief,” he said. “Is it enough? Probably not. I hope we can find a solution to the property tax.”

Overall, the legislative budget calls for a 2.9% annual increase in state spending, less than the 3.1% increase the governor had proposed.

The budget package includes larger increases in rates paid to health care, child welfare, behavioral health and other providers than the governor had proposed, while leaving out money that Ricketts had sought for a new targeted college scholarship program.

The budget includes funds for a $49 million expansion of maximum security prison space and money for “problem-solving courts” across the state for veterans and drug offenders. The budget package provided funding for the first nine months of voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage made no comment about the budget except to say that the governor typically takes his full five days to review legislation before making a decision on it.

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, a member of the Appropriations Committee, led the filibuster attempts, arguing that the budget should have cut state spending below last year’s level rather than increase it.

“It’s no secret that I’m not at all pleased with this budget,” he said. “We continue to spend more year after year.”

He proposed an amendment to the main budget bill that would have taken $7.3 million away from the University of Nebraska. He said his intent was to use that money to boost Medicaid payment rates to nursing homes.

Erdman argued that the university could stand to lose that money, while nursing homes take care of some of the most vulnerable Nebraskans. He also called for a 2 percent cut in overall spending so that money, plus increases in state tax revenue, could be put into property tax relief.

But other Appropriations Committee members said the budget represents a balance of interests and priorities for the state. The package already includes money to boost Medicaid payment rates for nursing homes, as well as changes intended to increase accountability for those funds.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the committee chairman, called the budget “austere” and noted that the increase comes after two years of belt-tightening in response to lackluster revenue.

He said the budget addresses the state’s priorities, which he listed as easing the overcrowding in state prisons, replenishing the state’s emergency fund and making progress toward adequate payments for behavioral health and developmental disability services providers. The budget boosts state school aid by $135 million over two years and provides the university a 2.2% increase for salaries and a 2% bump for utility costs.

Supporters rally at Nebraska Capitol in defense of abortion rights as more states pass strict limits

LINCOLN — Cheers and chants rang through the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday as more than 350 people gathered to defend abortion rights.

The rally was part of a national day of action organized in response to a wave of Republican-controlled states passing strict new limits on abortion.

An Alabama law would permit abortions only if the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus cannot survive. Georgia and Ohio banned abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be heard, typically about six weeks, and Missouri passed a law banning them at eight weeks.

Former State Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha led off the gathering, calling the new laws an assault on women’s reproductive rights and an attempt to put government in control of their bodies.

“It’s a basic human right to maintain body autonomy,” she said.

Kacie Ware of Omaha said the right to autonomy proved critical to her 14 years ago, when she was 16 years old and was impregnated by a 31-year-old man.

She knew immediately, she said, that she wanted an abortion. But to get one, she had to navigate numerous legal and social hoops, from getting a judge to waive the requirement of notifying her parents to having to walk past protesters outside the abortion clinic.

“I love abortion,” she said. “I am grateful I was able to access the care I needed.”

The biggest cheer of the day was for Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has consistently fought anti-abortion legislation. He exhorted the crowd to carry the momentum into the voting booth. Politicians expect that activism will die down and people will go back to being complacent, he said.

“If you don’t vote, then today is in vain,” he said.

Chambers also referred to the number of abortion restrictions passed by Nebraska lawmakers, who meet in a chamber off the Rotunda: “Today you are in the belly of the beast, and you should give it indigestion.”

Tuesday’s rally took place before state lawmakers were slated to renew debate about another abortion measure.

Legislative Bill 209, sponsored by Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, would require that women seeking medication abortions be told that they may be able to continue their pregnancy if they change their mind before taking the second of the two pills used.

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha called the measure “the canary in the coal mine” for an attempt at banning or severely restricting abortion in Nebraska. Last week, Gov. Pete Ricketts tweeted his admiration for the Alabama law.

The rally drew some counterprotesters, who held up signs saying “Remember the Unborn” and “Defund Planned Parenthood.”

Planned Parenthood sponsored the Lincoln gathering, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and the Women’s Fund of Omaha.

Student discipline. A rarely used “pull” motion passed with the minimum 25 votes Tuesday night, allowing a chance for a floor debate on the controversial issue of physical restraint of disruptive students.

State Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte filed the pull motion after his Legislative Bill 147 was deadlocked, 4-4, in the Education Committee, which he chairs.

A lengthy dispute over the motion to pull the bill so it could be debated by the full Legislature included several barbs over who was responsible for the deadlock. There was also criticism that such motions run counter to the tradition of letting legislative committees decide which bills are ready for prime-time debate, and which ones aren’t.

Groene, who has introduced similar discipline bills in the past, said LB 146 is needed so teachers can “control” their classroom and protect other students from violent, disruptive classmates. He added that current state law doesn’t clearly spell out the rights of teachers.

But groups that represent school administrators and disabled students opposed a compromise amendment drafted by several education groups, including the powerful state teachers union.

The compromise would let teachers use “reasonable physical contact” to protect a student, school personnel or others from “imminent physical injury,” unless the force is used to cause pain, uses mechanical restraints or pushes a child into a prone, face-down position on the ground. The bill also would grant teachers immunity from lawsuits unless their use of force was flagrant, reckless or used in gross negligence.

LB 147 was supported by the NSEA, which, ironically, spent heavily in an attempt to defeat Groene for re-election last year.

The senator, however, said he’s not holding a grudge. “We have allowed violent and angry students, those who are enraged, to dictate what happens in the classroom,” Groene said. “We need to ensure that teachers can control their classrooms.”

But opponents said LB 147 was unnecessary, could especially harm students with disabilities or behavioral issues, and went too far in encouraging teachers to use physical force on students. Fremont Sen. Lynn Walz said that teachers need to get better training on how to deal with unruly students and de-escalate problems, and where to find help for students with behavioral and mental problems.

”This bill does nothing to address the root causes,” Walz said, adding that there was a reason the bill wasn’t advanced by the Education Committee.

Brain injury. Nebraska lawmakers took a major step toward providing community-based services, as well as support and information, for people with brain injuries.

Senators gave first-round approval to an amended version of LB 481, which would put $500,000 a year from the Health Care Cash Fund into a newly created Brain Injury Trust Fund. The new fund would be used to contract with outside sources that specialize in brain injury.

Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha said the need is critical in Nebraska. He said someone in the state suffers a brain injury every hour of every day, with potentially devastating consequences.

He faced opposition from Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee. She objected to taking money from the Health Care Cash Fund, citing a report from the state investment officer that said the fund is not sustainable with the amount of money being drawn from it every year.

But Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, disagreed. He said the state has added to the fund almost every year, using the annual payments made under a national settlement with tobacco companies and the interest earned.

Medicaid expansion. State officials would have to notify the Legislature and hold a public hearing before pursuing certain types of health care reform under an amendment adopted by lawmakers Tuesday.

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue offered the amendment to LB 468, introduced by Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont. The amendment would apply to 1115 demonstration waivers, which state Medicaid officials plan to use to set up a two-tier system for Medicaid expansion. The system would have different benefits and more stringent requirements than traditional Medicaid.

The amendment also would apply if the State Department of Insurance seeks a 1332 innovation waiver under the Affordable Care Act. States can use such waivers to implement innovative ways to provide access to health care.

Donnybrook over taxes, business incentives. Lots of discussion, and strategizing, is underway for Wednesday’s pivotal debate over two of the top issues of the 2019 session: property tax relief and a replacement for the Advantage Act, the state’s top tax incentive package for growing businesses.

A major question is whether the ImagiNE Act, or Legislative Bill 720, has the necessary 33 votes of senators to head off a filibuster led mostly by rural lawmakers who have pledged to block it unless they get substantial property tax relief.

If you ask around the Capitol, there’s plenty of doubt about that.

With only a few days left in the 2019 session, Wednesday sets up as decision day on those two big issues.

Honestly, it’s an award winner. Nebraska’s edgy tourism motto created national buzz last year — and now has won a national award. The Nebraska Tourism Commission, along with Turner PR, recently won a Bronze Anvil award in the “word of mouth” category for its slogan, “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

Honestly, not everyone loved the motto, but it did create an amazing national discussion about Nebraska and whether its tourism possibilities weren’t for everyone.

The Bronze Anvil Awards are given by the Public Relations Society of America.

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