As we turn the page on the calendar and hopefully turn to spring soon, the Legislature enters into the final, crucial six weeks of the session. This past week saw the end of committee hearings and beginning March 3rd, we will begin full-day debate. We will be doubling our floor debate time which, at this point, is necessary.
I truly believe that here in Nebraska, we have the best system in the country for hearing bills. The public hearings of all bills introduced are a guaranteed, fundamental part of our way of doing business. This is the time the “second house” of our state government, the people, get to be heard however, we are at the point of the session, that in order to get much else done, we must turn our attention to the bills presented and discuss the issues advanced for longer than three hours each morning.
As I said above we have six weeks left. We have had 105 bills designated as priority bills whether by senators, committees or the speaker. We will go late on several evenings probably beginning around the second or third week of March. Bills without priority status are somewhat unlikely to advance from the looks of future offerings still on the table.
The well publicized issues are still to come before us. Medicaid expansion, prison reform and some form of tax relief, whether income or property tax or a combination of both, are now being advanced by committees so I anticipate beginning next week on some of these issues.
At the beginning of the year, it was well publicized that we had over $725 million in the cash reserve or “rainy day” fund. I am learning that if you tell this group there is “extra money”, there will be a “rush on the bank” to get some. As of last week we had well over $200,000,000 worth of ideas on how to spend some of this money. This figure does include the money to buy a state airplane but the estimate is already off by close to $1 million. There is a bill to install fountains in the courtyards of the capitol. The cost here approaches $2.7 million. There is a request before the Appropriations Committee to begin a 10 year, $78 million renovation of the capitol building’s windows and heating and air conditioning. The state Game and Parks Commission needs $40 million just to catch up on maintenance.
Recent headlines have declared that our state water plan is “…chaotic, disjointed and irrational” (Lincoln Journal Star 2-27-14). Our “…School funding system is broken” (Lincoln Journal Star 2-26-14. Do you think either of these areas will get some discussion?
As you read this column you will probably know the findings and recommendations of the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Board which meets Friday, February 28th. This group analyzes state revenues and compares them to projections. Even with good news here, I know we must be careful in this “out year” or second year of a budget cycle. The next several weeks call for considered, measured attention to the important issues before us.
Senator Jerry Johnson