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The second session of the One-Hundred and Seventh Legislature has come to an end, with the body adjourning Sine Die on April 20, 2022. The second session, which lasts 60 days, is generally termed the “short” session, while the 90-day sessions occurring in odd-numbered years are known as “long” sessions. Despite this year being a “short” session, it was not short on long nights, challenging subject matter, contentious debates and money.
It can generally be said that there is no such thing as too much money, but after this session, I think you would find many senators willing to debate that statement. With a much better than expected economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and an huge influx of federal funds, the Legislature was in the unusual and difficult position of deciding how those funds should be dealt with. As you can imagine, there was no shortage of suggestions on how the Legislature should tackle this issue.
The Nebraska Constitution requires the state to have a balanced General Fund Budget and determining how to craft the budget is certainly a balancing act. Senators must always keep in mind that these are taxpayers’ dollars and we’ve been elected to protect and spend those dollars wisely. A balance must be found between providing much-needed tax relief, investing in the state’s future growth, ensuring effective and sustainable government programs and maintaining enough of a safety net to be able to successfully weather economic downturns. I think we were able to find that balance with the budget approved this session.
The $9.8 billion budget represents a slight increase in the annual average spending growth from 3% to 3.2%. Much of this growth can be attributed to badly-needed pay increases for state employees that serve in 24-hour facilities such as the penitentiary, and for private providers that serve the state’s most vulnerable Nebraskans including those with developmental disabilities and those in foster care and nursing homes. Years of stagnant reimbursement rates have led to a crisis-level shortage of these critical-care providers resulting in dangerous staffing shortages in our corrections system and a lack of necessary services for those in need. While meeting the needs of the state, the budget also left ample money in the state’s cash reserve fund, which is expected to reach a record-high of $1.3 billion next year. The budget also allowed for the passage of the biggest tax-relief bill in the state’s history.
The Legislature passed LB 873 on April 7th and Governor Ricketts signed it into law on April 13th. The $900 million tax-cut package includes the following provisions:
These tax-relief provisions will make Nebraska a more tax-friendly state, particularly for seniors, and will benefit existing Nebraska businesses and help attract new businesses to the state. Combined with the state’s existing Homestead Exemption program and the state’s $313 property tax credit program, the new refundable income tax credit programs for property taxes paid to schools and community colleges, will amount to over $1 billion dollars in state property tax relief. You can find out more about the new income tax credit programs on the Department of Revenue’s webpage: https://revenue.nebraska.gov/.
In addition to balancing the state’s budget while making sure Nebraskans get some of their hard-earned money back, the Legislature also needed to figure out how to allocate $1.4 billion in federal funds granted through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). There was less discretion with respect to the ARPA funds as this money has to be spent by 2026 on COVID-related items or on sectors negatively impacted by the pandemic. Because these are one-time funds, starting new programs that need continuous funding was not an option and federal law specifically prohibited leveraging the funds for tax cuts. Any inappropriate use of these funds is subject to recoupment by the federal government. The ARPA package approved by the Legislature included funding for job training; affordable urban and rural housing; improvements to drinking and wastewater infrastructure; one-time premium pay for health and welfare providers; grants to nonprofit, shovel-ready projects, and incentives for rural health care providers and nursing students.
Of those ARPA funds, I was able to secure a total of $40 million for expanding mental health services through expanded education and facility capacity. Our state is facing a mental-health care crisis with a shortage of service providers and an increase in needed services, particularly among our younger Nebraskans. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this problem.
As Chairman of the Health and Human Services committee, some of my other personal accomplishments for this session include: overseeing the passage of legislation that creates a strategic work group to provide direction for a statewide model for child welfare in Nebraska; guiding the passage of a bill that would provide support for family caregivers of children with developmental disabilities and require the state to hire a consultant to evaluate our developmental disabilities system; passing legislation that would modernize Nebraska’s procurement system to an electronic platform and require the state to prepare for revamping the state’s procurement system to mitigate costly contract failures, such as the recent child welfare contract with St. Francis Ministries; and successfully negotiated an agreement between the administration and other senators to ensure passage of a bill that would require the availability of capacity for county jail inmates awaiting competency hearings and would require the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to provide Medicaid enrollment assistance to inmates at the state correctional facilities and at county facilities in Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy prior to leaving incarceration.
Though 2022 was a “short” session, it definitely wasn’t short on activity and a lot of hard decision making. Despite having unexpected amounts of available funds, the Legislature held the line on wasteful spending while expanding the availability of essential services and provided record tax relief while ensuring protection of Nebraska’s fiscal health during the next economic downturn. However there is always room for improvement. Over the legislative interim I will continue to examine how to consistently move our state forward and I always welcome your input. Together we can assure Nebraskans have the opportunity to live the good life for years to come. Please feel free to reach out to me through my office, (402) 471-2730 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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