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Following adjournment of the Legislative session, legislative staff and committees begin work on interim study resolutions. These study proposals, designated with the “LR” prefix, can be submitted by individual senators or standing committees. Each study is referred to one of the standing committees, where Committee Chairs prioritize the resolutions and determine whether a public hearing will be held. This year 127 different studies were introduced. A full list of the interim study resolutions and their full text is available on the homepage of the Nebraska Legislature’s website.
Interim studies vary significantly in their depth and purpose. Public hearings are not required and are at the discretion of the chair. Interim studies tend to be political, rather than objective, in nature. They should not be confused with a performance audit, which is an objective study of a legislative program with defined standards for analysis conducted by trained professional auditors. Interim studies can be used to research future legislation, providing an opportunity to identify stakeholders that may engage on an issue. They may also examine a concept that failed to advance in a prior session, helping to refine and improve legislation for future years.
This year I introduced two interim study resolutions. The first, LR 190, is to study the creation of an Ethics Committee in the Nebraska Legislature. Outside of issues of campaign finance under the jurisdiction of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Committee, there are no ethics rules for members of the Nebraska Legislature. Consequently, there is no process for addressing ethical concerns among members of the Nebraska Legislature unless it is illegal activity defined by statute via the courts. The public assumes there are rules and a process in place for ethical conduct, even though none exist.
During my three years in the Legislature a number of ethical issues have emerged with no guidance for resolution. These include concerns of conflicts of interest, senators registering to lobby while in office, personal use of state resources, and expectations of residency within a district among others. Public confidence in the legislative process necessitates greater transparency in the ethical expectations of state senators. LR 190 has been referred to the Executive Committee.
My second interim study, LR 242, examines the feasibility of adopting a zero based budgeting process for state agencies. Zero based budgeting is a process for building a budget that begins at “zero” and requires justification for each component of the budget request. Thus, the budget is built each time based on the current priorities and needs of each agency.
Currently, the Nebraska state budget is developed using a “baseline budget” process. This means that a new budget assumes the previous year’s budget will be supplied, with the appropriations process focusing primarily on the addition of new spending programs to the prior budget base. No justification of need is required for previous funding, nor accountability for the use of taxpayer dollars appropriated before. This process can promote inefficient use of state funds, as well as distort revenue and spending needs. For example, the often cited $900 million shortfall at the beginning of the year was not based on actual spending decisions, but an assumption that state spending would grow during the next two years at an annual rate of 6%.
As progress is made on each of these two studies, I will continue to update constituents of District 38. My office will also be undergoing a staff change. John DeWaard, my Administrative Assistant, will be leaving to start medical school in Missouri at the end of the month. Although he will be missed greatly in the office, I am excited to see my former student and research advisee move forward in his medical career. Jessica Shelburn, my Legislative Aide, will be staffing the office alone until John’s replacement is in place. I do ask for your patience as we accommodate summer schedules during that time.