Inside the Rotunda 2021: Week 14

Debate Drama, Budget Debate Begins and Priority Bills Advance

After a long Easter weekend, Senators came back to Lincoln on Tuesday, kicking off the week with mostly “non-controversial” consent calendar priority bills while awaiting the release of the Appropriations Committee’s biennial budget proposal. A procedural note for you watchers: the current Speaker has announced that it’s his general plan to begin the first day of every legislative week at 10 am. There has been a general sense that things are moving quickly this year with less debate (or filibustering) than usual. Filibusters might still be coming on a few more hot-button priority bills that have yet to be debated, but overall, this Fly is somewhat surprised by a relative lack of priority bills causing extended debate compared with previous years.

Budget Debate Begins
On Thursday, seven bills hit the floor on General File that make up the proposed state budget for the next two years. The budget seemed to move unusually fast this year, perhaps owing to the absence of Senator Ernie Chambers, who was known to take up time on the budget bills to make a variety of points; and perhaps also due to the fact that this year’s biennium sees a rosier budget picture in which higher revenues and stimulus funds allowed for a budget that grants many entities a little bit of what they wanted.  The Appropriations Committee didn’t have to make tough choices about cuts, and with $211 million left for the floor, Senators will now get to fight over who gets that money for their pet projects.  Overall, things look better for Senators who have been unable to secure funding for their bills in recent biennia.

All but two budget bills sailed through first-round approval with little discussion. In a rare move, Senator Mike Flood was able to get an amendment to the budget passed that includes an additional million for creative districts. Senator Machaela Cavanaugh proposed an amendment to the budget to appropriate additional funds that would eliminate the waiting list for developmental disability services, but the measure did not gather enough support to advance.
 
After quickly moving through most of the budget, debate slowed down on the final two bills. LB 380 that appropriates funds for state government is the “mainline” budget bill. Some senators took time to hold up a vote on this bill in response to a controversial decision that was made behind the scenes: Thursday morning, Executive Board members voted to appoint nine senators to the LR 29 Eastern Service Area Child Welfare Contract Special Investigative and Oversight Committee. Notably, Senator Machaela Cavanaugh, who introduced the resolution to create the committee, was left off the committee, stoking frustration in some. This special committee was created in response to the troubled child welfare contract with St. Francis Ministries.
 
The final bill of this biennium’s budget package, LB 383, received the most lengthy and substantive debate, owing to many differing views in the body about the inclusion of funding for a potential new prison. Nebraska ranks among the worst states in the nation in terms of prison overcrowding, and the State’s corrections department has long been plagued by staffing shortages and turnover, along with much-needed repairs at the existing State Penitentiary. The proposed budget includes $115 million to be held in the 

Capital Construction Fund for this purpose. This money is currently set aside in the fund but is not appropriated – meaning it cannot yet be spent. The Legislature will have to approve its use in the next session. In the meantime, a study will be conducted by an independent contractor over the summer to assess the state’s corrections and parole data to give Senators a better idea of where problems exist before they chart the best path forward. Whether that will be a new prison facility or criminal justice and sentencing reforms remains to be seen. Some argue that we can’t build our way out of our current issues, advocating instead for smart sentencing reforms; while others argue that we must improve the facilities and programming we have within Corrections. 
By the end of a long debate Friday, LB 383 passed with an amendment that sets aside an additional $15 million for site selection, design, and planning of a potential new correctional facility – but Appropriations members were clear that the actual building of any new facility would not occur until after the Legislature has an opportunity to review the results of the study this interim.

Other Budget Highlights

  • Replenishing the Cash Reserve: Also known as the “Rainy Day” fund, this budget adds $412 million into the fund. Fiscal conservatives are excited about this move because it brings the fund closer to its recommended level, giving the state a safer buffer to weather economic downturns.
  • Provider rate increases: A long-advocated-for 2% increase to payment rates for providers of child welfare, mental health, and other services through DHHS.
  • Property tax relief: The Property Tax credit is increased $63 million over two years, and the LB 1107 income tax credit for property taxes paid passed by the body last year is brought to about $314 million

Other Happenings

  • Nine senators were appointed to the LR 25 Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Special Oversight Committee.
  • Priority bills advanced:
    • LB 307 (Pansing Brooks) – Juvenile Right to Counsel
    • LB 322 (Williams) – Statewide School Safety Reporting System
    • LB 644 (Hansen, B.) – Taxpayer Notification of Subdivision Property Tax increase Requests
    • LB 451 (McKinney) – Prohibit Natural Hair Discrimination
    • LB 260 (Hunt) – Good Cause Unemployment
    • LB 527 (Walz) – Transition Services for Students with Disabilities
    • LB 497 (DeBoer) – Financial Assistance for Providers Caring for Survivors

We expect the budget to be passed by Tuesday of next week, and Speaker Hilgers has said he plans to use the following couple of weeks to pass any spending bills right after the budget.

This is intended to give Senators a better idea of where we sit with money available in the budget as we go along. In the final weeks of the session, Senators will work through the remaining priority bills that have no fiscal impact.

Will the rest of the session sail through with relatively little drama? Time will tell.

Until next week,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall

The Capitol Fly on the Wall

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