We are entering a critical part of the 2014 legislative session.
Nebraska voters approved a series of constitutional amendments that dictate how we appropriate and spend taxpayer dollars. Our constitution requires a balanced budget and state law provides for a cash reserve to temporarily hold any unexpected increases in revenue receipts. The Legislature passes a biennium (or “two year”) budget every odd-numbered year. Since Nebraska voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring annual legislative sessions over forty years ago (previous to its passage, the Legislature only met once every two years), during even-numbered years, the Legislature nearly always makes adjustments to the final year of the state budget. This isn’t mandated, but is usually appropriate to better match actual expenses incurred. If revenues are coming in stronger than expected, it also provides senators more opportunities to pass tax relief measures and return those extra dollars back to the taxpayers.
The Appropriations Committee released its budget adjustment recommendations on March 7. I was pleased to see that they included a 22% increase in the amount of funding for the state’s Property Tax Credit Program. This program provides direct property tax relief to Nebraskans by offsetting the amount of local property taxes political subdivisions assess. The credit is proportional relief and based on a person’s property valuation versus statewide property valuation. In my comprehensive tax relief proposal introduced earlier this year, I included a 30% increase in this property tax relief measure. There will be at least one opportunity to get closer to my goal through amendments to the Appropriations Committee recommendation during floor debate.
Other notable changes that the Appropriations Committee recommended to the state budget include increased resources for water management, state park maintenance, criminal justice system reform, job training and recruitment funding, and State Capitol repairs. Drought and interstate water compacts are creating challenging conditions for our agricultural producers and the water they need to produce our food and fuel. A statewide commitment to better utilize the water resources in our aquifers and that enter our state through surface water channels can create better opportunities to maximize their benefits and ensure future sustainability. Some state parks maintenance needs have been deferred for decades and it is important that we prioritize high use areas for repair and rehabilitation. Our district’s assets, including Fremont State Lakes and Dead Timber State Recreational Areas, have recently been repaired, and other parks assets are in line for improvements as well if the budget adjustments are adopted. Our criminal justice system, including prison capacity issues, will be the focus of other budget amendments. Increased interest by Nebraska businesses and out-of-state businesses looking to relocate to our state motivated the Appropriations Committee to increase funding for job training programs. Repairs to the State Capitol were also included in the recommendation to replace an increasingly obsolete HVAC system in the building. The committee also recommended installation of fountains in the Capitol courtyards, but this proposal may not cross the finish line we debate “wants” versus “needs.”
It is clear that Nebraskans’ greatest need is tax relief. We have the opportunity to pass meaningful, significant tax relief this year. I will continue to urge my colleagues to maintain a laser-like focus on this goal.
Please continue to share your thoughts with me on issues before the Legislature. I can be reached at 402.471.2625, email@example.com, and District 15, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.