Week 18: Mainline Budget Released, Debate Begins

We’ve finally made it to the turning point in every legislative session: budget time! The proposed budget for fiscal years 2023-2024 and 2024-2025 can be viewed here. The provisions of the budget on the floor are contained in LBs 814, 818, and 813. LB 814 is the “mainline” budget bill that contains funding for the majority of the state government’s expenses.

As an overview, this year’s proposed budget includes a historically large transfer of cash reserve funds, known as the “rainy day fund,” for a few key projects:

  • $575 million for the proposed Perkins County Canal,
  • $95 million for a new prison, and
  • $524 million in other miscellaneous projects.

This totals up to a $1.2 billion drain on the fund. Economists and fiscal analysts have cautioned that the legislature ought to think carefully about maintaining a more robust cash reserve so that the state will be in better shape to weather any future economic downturns, and to be careful not to over-commit to long term expenditures – like proposed tax relief measures – that might not be sustainable in years when we don’t have so much cash to work with. It increases General Fund spending by 2.3% and leaves $700 million for all other bills on the floor, including substantial proposed cuts to income and property taxes. $1.25 billion will go to the Governor’s new Education Future Fund to support public K-12 schools.

Last week, the legislature debated the budget bills on General File at length before voting to advance them. The filibuster led by Sens. Cavanaugh, Hunt, and allies continued though they weren’t the only ones speaking this time, as many more senators offered commentary about what was and wasn’t included in the Appropriations Committee’s budget proposal.

Many legislators who don’t sit on the Appropriations Committee – and thus, didn’t have a hand in crafting the budget – took to the mic to express their frustrations with how the process has gone this year. At the heart of their concerns was the short amount of time they had to digest the lengthy document before it came time to debate it. The official Budget Book was distributed to senators less than 24 hours before debate on the mainline budget bills was scheduled. With their primary duty as Nebraska legislators being the passage of the state’s budget each biennium, many spoke about how the proposed budget, which funds all of the state’s agencies and vital public services for citizens, deserves careful study and lengthy consideration, which they argued, wasn’t possible within that time frame.

While leaders on the Appropriations Committee, its members, and some supporters praised the committee’s efforts at developing what they said is a thoughtful and measured budget that contains something for everyone to appreciate, other members critiqued its privileging of tax cuts for corporations and wealthier Nebraskans while offering minimal relief for low- and middle- income Nebraskans.

Senators Wayne and McKinney led one line of opposition around the package, criticizing the use of $335 million for a new prison facility when, they said, the body has failed to put forth any serious consideration of criminal justice reforms that would help to alleviate our state’s overcrowding problem. In a clever strategic play, the two wielded control of the floor by offering a motion to correct the journal. Corrections to the journal are scheduled along with messages and other announcements from the Clerk at the beginning of each legislative day. Every so often, the Clerk will offer some correction to the journal, which is the official legislative record of floor proceedings. But many of us were surprised to see a senator make a motion to offer a correction. Wayne said he had been combing through this year’s journals recently and found a handful of errors that might legitimately need correcting; and that he was now using this as a tactic to take up his own filibuster of what he sees as shortcomings in the budget package. I’ve also heard that Wayne, as Chair of the Judiciary Committee, has been holding off on executive sessions that would move bills out of his committee in protest of the body’s lack of will to work with him and McKinney on criminal justice reforms.

LB 574 Update

As we learned the week before last, bill sponsor Sen. Kauth considers negotiations on LB 574 to be over. Since then, there haven’t been any official updates on that front, but I’ve heard rumblings that some senators have grown frustrated with what they perceive as Kauth’s lack of will to work in good faith on a compromise – and that this may be weakening support for the measure. In negotiations that Kauth referred to as “listening sessions,” opponents of the bill offered a substantive amendment with stringent criteria that youth would have to meet in order to receive gender-affirming care. Since supporters apparently rejected that compromise, opponents will likely take the bill to cloture on the final round where it’s unlikely to be amended.

It is possible that if things play out this way, it could “give cover” to some moderates who have been on the fence about supporting LB 574 unamended to now abstain from supporting it on the final round. But it is also possible that supporters will hang with Kauth, as there’s some bitterness about Cavanaugh’s filibuster and perhaps a desire not to let her “win.” Another possibility is that Kauth learns she doesn’t have 33 votes for the bill on Final Reading and the Speaker “holds it” by not scheduling it for the rest of this year; theoretically allowing Kauth to whip her votes over the interim to try anew next year. Take this all with a grain of salt as it could end up being any of these scenarios or something that surprises us entirely.

LB 626 Afterthoughts

Following LB 626’s defeat, there are rumors floating around that the Governor would call the body into a special session over the interim to take another stab at passing a law to further restrict abortion in Nebraska. The legislature can also call itself back, but would need 33 members to agree and vote for cloture. Since LB 626 failed on a cloture motion with only 32 votes due to the abstention of Sen. Riepe, abortion opponents in the body and/or the Governor would need to somehow convince him or any other member who hadn’t previously supported LB 626 to support a new abortion restriction bill. Anything is possible, especially if some member is willing to introduce a less restrictive ban, such as a 12-week ban, which Riepe and others have already signaled they’d be more amenable to.

The other rumor has been that some member might try to amend the content of LB 626 or something similar onto a different bill, but that’s highly unlikely as once again we could expect it to be filibustered and it would need to earn one more vote that doesn’t seem to be there under the current circumstances. My thoughts right now are that we won’t get to it again before this session concludes, but I’m not ruling out the possibility of a special session.

What’s Next

This week’s four legislative days (Monday through Thursday) are scheduled as late nights. Much of the week will be spent on second-round debate of the budget bills advanced last week. Per legislative rules, the budget bills must be passed by the 80th legislative day. Monday brings Day 74, so with the long hours scheduled for the next week, the body is in pretty good shape to meet that requirement.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall