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The lawmaking process should be transparent and devoid of undue influence by special interest groups. The annual lobbying report of Common Cause Nebraska released this week provides insight into the ever-increasing amount special interests spend lobbying elected officials. In 2017 a record high $17,446,838 was spent on lobbying in Nebraska. This represents a 26% increase since 2013. In total, 377 paid lobbyists representing 550 special interests sought to influence the decisions of your elected officials.
During my four years in the Legislature I have introduced a number of measures intended to increase voters’ ability to clearly see how special interests are influencing state policy. A quixotic effort, none of the bills were ever advanced from the Government, Military, and Veterans Affairs Committee. The data contained in this year’s Annual Lobby Report by Common Cause underscores the urgent need for greater transparency.
Aside from the shocking amount spent on lobbying, the source of the bulk of the money is equally jarring. Of the top ten largest spenders over the past five years, half represent political subdivisions. The biggest spender is the League of Municipalities, which is funded by Nebraska cities and towns. The University of Nebraska is the fourth biggest spender, while the Nebraska Council of School Administrators and the Nebraska State Education Association are ranked seventh and eighth, respectively. Omaha Public Power is ninth.
Voters are often unaware how much of their tax dollars are used to pay for lobbying activities. The use of taxpayer dollars for lobbying is not new, but it obscures the policy process. In some cases, public dollars are used to employ full time lobbying staff. In addition, most also hire private contract lobbyists. The ever increasing amount of public dollars used to lobby state government indicates the success of the effort to keep state money flowing to the local governments that spend your taxes on lobbying.
A look at the lobbying efforts of some public school districts provides insight into why revising Nebraska’s dysfunctional school funding formula to distribute equalization aid to all schools has been unsuccessful. $2,399,081 has been spent over the past five years by 17 schools districts and the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy County. The seven biggest spenders–Omaha, Lincoln, Millard, Bellevue, Papillion, Ralston, and Grand Island–represent 70% of that total.
In the name of open government, political subdivisions using money derived from public funds should file the entire contract for public evaluation. All Nebraskans should be able to clearly identify how public money is used to lobby. Voters should be able to take this spending into account when voting for elected officials that serve on these local boards and councils.
For Nebraskans who wonder why income tax cuts continue to drag down efforts to address voter’s top concern, property taxes, follow the lobby money. Almost a quarter million dollars, the largest amount by any single special interest group, was spent opposing property tax reform and promoting income tax cuts by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce. Although Nebraska’s cities spent the most on lobbying as a five year total, the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce comes in at a close second, edging into the top spot for single year spending during 2016 and 2017.
The money spent on lobbying does not exclusively represent money spent to buy drinks and dinners for lawmakers or contribute to their campaign funds. The impact of the money is to buy a constant presence, access, and relationships with elected officials. The continual presence of the lobby, both in the capitol and at social events attended by lawmakers, creates an echo chamber of special interests. Voters should expect their elected representatives at all levels of government to at least be transparent about when and how special interests leverage their influence.
In Lewis Carroll’s novel “Through the Looking Glass”, Alice, of Wonderland fame, encounters the character of the Red Queen. Alice runs next to the Queen who exclaims ““Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Known as the Red Queen’s Race, the characters represent an arms race of sorts, were no matter how fast one competitor runs, the other matches speed. The net result is neither gets anywhere.
Many state economic development programs intended to recruit and retain businesses to Nebraska remind me of Alice racing the Red Queen. No matter how extensive the package of incentives and tax breaks, another state is willing to up the ante to lure the company away. What ensues is a vicious cycle of incentives paid for by all Nebraska taxpayers. When large companies leave Nebraska, such as ConAgra and Cabela’s have, a new, more aggressive cycle begins again to retrain workers and recruit new businesses to fill the vacant space.
The argument in favor of economic development incentive programs is that they create economic activity that ultimately produces more in tax revenue in the form of jobs and investment than the cost associated with the incentives. While the argument sounds logical, supporting evidence is scarce. Ironically, the companies that profit from incentive programs provide the greatest political obstacle to obtain data needed to valid their benefits.
For the last four years I have served on the Legislative Performance Audit Committee, serving as chair for the past two. Since 2015 the Legislative Performance Audit Office has been required by state law to conduct evaluations of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs, the largest of which is the Nebraska Advantage Act. The overall goal of the performance audits is to objectively evaluate the outcomes of the taxpayer investment in the companies that receive benefits under the program. The financial benefits include income tax credits, sales tax refunds, and personal property tax exemptions.
According to Department of Revenue data, participating companies have qualified for over $842 million of income tax credits, $158 million of sales tax refunds, and over $5 billion of personal property value exempted from paying local property taxes. Despite the large financial cost of these programs, data to support the policy outcomes of the incentives is not readily available. Questions as basic as where are the incentivized jobs located in the state are not easily answered. These outcomes are important when determining the impact of the taxpayer investment.
Evidence does not exist to support claims that the Nebraska Advantage act provides returns greater than the investment Nebraska taxpayers have made. The companies do not report data that is useful in answering that question. However, I can say with certainty that participating companies, and the Chambers of Commerce that represent them, aggressively oppose any effort to obtain data to evaluate the incentive programs. With hundreds of millions of dollars invested by Nebraska taxpayers in these companies, having accurate and complete information about the impacts is simply good government.
In some cases, a few individual companies have been very forthright and willing to provide all information they can to support the economic impact of the incentive programs. However, the opposition to transparency by some of the largest companies receiving Nebraska Advantage Act benefits is concerning. It creates doubt about the true result of the programs. Are they actually creating new and critical economic activity in the form of better jobs and new investments, or are they little more than corporate welfare?
This past session the Performance Audit Committee introduced and prioritized LB 935 in an attempt to obtain the information needed to thoroughly evaluate the outcomes of Nebraska’s incentive programs. Opposition from Advantage Act beneficiary companies was strong. The bill advanced to Select File where it stalled due to costs requested by the Department of Revenue, claiming the need for a full time IT specialist to include an additional data field in the reports filed by recipient companies.
Without more and better information about the jobs and investments paid for by taxpayers, it is difficult to understand the full opportunity cost of the programs. While it may not be feasible to end the Red Queen’s Race of incentives, Nebraska taxpayers should know with clarity what the cost of the race is. Nebraskans deserve more than investing and investing without getting anywhere.
The 105th Nebraska Legislature adjourned sine die on Wednesday, April 18. Latin for “without day”, adjournment sine die means the legislature has adjourned with no specified date to reconvene. This concludes the 60 legislative days specified in Nebraska’s Constitution for the Legislature to meet during even numbered years. This is the only time during my four years in the Legislature the body has used all available days for legislative business.
The conclusion of the legislative session is accompanied by the usual volume of articles summarizing what was accomplished and what was not. Reasonable distance allows for more objective analysis, and I will address specific issues in greater detail in columns in the coming weeks. The most pressing issues facing Nebraska deserve more than a superficial discussion.
Although the Legislature has adjourned its regular session, a special session can still be called during the interim. As I wrote two weeks ago, it is my opinion that a special session dedicated to addressing property taxes is the most likely opportunity for structural reform. Shortly after I began discussing the idea with some of my legislative colleagues a group of 13 senators submitted a letter to the Secretary of State requesting a special session.
According to Nebraska statute, once a request is made to the Secretary of State by at least 10 senators, the first of two timelines is initiated. The first is a 10 day period for at least 33 senators to respond to the Secretary of State in support of a special session. Should that benchmark be reached, the Governor then has 5 days to issue a proclamation calling the Legislature into special session. The Legislature has never called itself into special session. The last special session, held in 2011, was called by the Governor, as were all prior special sessions.
The initiating request, made before the session even ended, illustrates why a solution to the property tax crisis has not been accomplished. The short time period for debate and “take it or leave it” approach of the past few sessions has prevented a successful legislative proposal from thorough discussion and debate. Repeating that mistake by calling the Legislature into session a week after it adjourned, locked in a stalemate, is simply repeating the same mistake. The timing of the request is more political than practical. It seems more important to “appear” to voters and the public that senators are “doing” something about property taxes by joining the call to an immediate special session than actually working toward success.
The advantage of a special session is to allow time for all senators to give sole focus on addressing property tax reform without distraction. Waiting until mid to late summer for a special session is far more practical. Proposals need time to be developed, vetted, and analyzed. With a primary election less than a month away, electoral politics would influence good policy, and those senators running for re-election would have their attention divided.
During my term the property tax reform proposals have been largely developed and negotiated by special interests. It is time the Legislature takes the reins and addresses a legislative solution by talking to each other. There have been no policy votes on any single property tax proposal in the past several years, only procedural votes used for political maneuvering. Until there is a clear picture of where each senator is at on specific components of the various proposals, an immediate special session would be a waste of taxpayer money and legislator time.
Success or failure of even the best idea rests in its execution. I am disappointed, but not surprised, by the rush to repeat the same mistakes that have prevented legislative success on property taxes. I support a special session that has been carefully prepared for with a high probability of success. Leadership, rather than political gamesmanship, is needed now more than ever.
Reliable and affordable access to the internet has become an essential need for most Nebraskans and is a common concern expressed by constituents in District 38. Many rural residents have significant challenges with speed and reliability of land-based internet service, and instead must turn to wireless providers to gain internet access. In fact, over half of internet access is currently via wireless devices rather than traditional computers connected to wired internet service providers.
Each generation of wireless technology brings with it a 10 fold increase in speed and capability. Increasing sophistication of applications and the sheer volume of data being exchanged during even basic tasks makes the deployment of the next generation of wireless infrastructure, known as 5G for 5th Generation, critical for rural Nebraskans.
This past week the Nebraska Legislature saw defeat of a bill critical to laying the foundation for deployment of 5G technology in Nebraska. Ironically, much of the opposition of the bill came from rural communities who would not be impacted directly by the bill’s provisions, but have the most to gain from a rapid upgrade to 5G technology.
The bill, LB 389, was written to provide consistency and facilitate the deployment of small cell technology in Nebraska’s urban centers. If you have ever been at an arena or stadium in Omaha or Lincoln for an event and been unable to send a text or access the internet from your phone, you experienced the need for small cell deployment. A typical cell tower has a coverage radius of several miles. When use is high, such as when ten thousand people are in a single arena, the coverage area of a cell tower shrinks and congestion occurs. Small cell devices are placed on utility poles in areas of high density use to provide network access.
Currently cities have the ability to charge whatever they want for a wireless provider to “lease” space on a publicly owned pole to install a small cell unit. The city of Lincoln charges $2,000 annually for each device. That is a cost that is passed along to you, the wireless consumer. For the governments of Lincoln and Omaha, these fees represent revenue streams that you experience no differently than a tax on your wireless bill. Each city also has its own process and restrictions for applying for placement. This patchwork of regulations and excessive cost has hindered the widespread installation of small cell technology in Nebraska’s urban centers.
There are lots of things mounted on public utility poles. In Nebraska, these are poles owned by you, the ratepayer. The practice is so common that NPPD has a set rate for “leasing” this space. It is $11.50 each year. The placement of small cell devices does not result in increased costs for the city. It does, however, provide an important consumer service to the taxpayers who own the infrastructure.
Small cell technology will never be deployed in the small towns across Nebraska. They are used only in situations where thousands of data users are concentrated in a very small area of a few city blocks. Despite this fact, many rural communities, including several in District 38, actively lobbied against the legislation with false claims. Unfortunately, their opposition has created serious consequence for rural Nebraskans. Nebraska now goes to the back of the line for 5G deployment, which delays the technology for several years.
With the increased speed and data transfer afforded by 5G technology, congestion in high density urban areas will be magnified. In order to accommodate the increased traffic, deployment of an extensive small cell network in Lincoln and Omaha will be required before upgrading Nebraska’s cellular network to 5G. The barriers of cost and regulation established by cities to generate revenue has a very real and profound cost to all Nebraskans, beyond the increase on their cell phone bills.
Nebraska had an opportunity to streamline a regulatory process and facilitate better technology access at a lower cost, a process already adopted in 15 states almost unanimously. It highlights the need for voters to know clearly how their local elected officials are lobbying on legislative issues and the impacts of their efforts. Rural Nebraskans will be paying the price for years of the failure of their local officials to study and understand this very important issue.
When I ran for the Legislature four years ago, property taxes were the top issue with voters. As we approach the final days of my fourth year, substantive policy changes to address the property tax burden have yet to be adopted. Like most taxpayers, I am frustrated by the inability of the legislature to substantively address such a widely recognized and commonly discussed problem.
It is my belief the Legislature is not able to accomplish the major policy overhaul needed to correct the property tax problem during a regular session. The politics involved in completing the required duties of a legislative session get in the way of productive, thoughtful policy discussions that are necessary to reform the system. Thus, I assert a special session for the specific purpose of property tax reform is the only option for crafting a meaningful solution.
A regular session requires focus on a number of issues necessary to keep state government running. The top of the list is adopting a state budget. Having served on the Appropriations Committee for the past four years, I have spent five days per week in committee in the development of the state budget. Spending decisions, by their nature, should take top priority. There are necessary state adjustments in response to ever changing federal policy, including revenue, education, transportation, and natural resources. These immediate concerns take precedence over the comprehensive approach needed for restructuring the property tax system.
Property tax reform requires a frank and honest discussion about a number of topics that are often deemed “sacred cows”. Property taxes fund many of the most visible and direct services taxpayers experience every day: education, local government, and emergency services. The spending decisions are made locally, by our neighbors. Policy discussions, rather than focusing on facts and a strategy for the future, are taken personally.
The special interest groups that represent each of those constituencies have a tried and true formula for protecting their specific piece of the pie. Each year property tax reform bills begin their debate on the floor late in the legislative session. Despite the fact all bills must be introduced in the first 10 days of the session, lobbyists “run out the clock” as a negotiating tactic. Rather than working to find compromise and bring the bill for floor debate early in the session, interest groups stall and drag their feet. Once the deadline looms, each group tries to force senators into a “take it or leave it” scenario. As we have seen, this approach does not lead to progress.
Given the importance and magnitude of the property tax issue, bringing bills to the floor for consideration, debate, and compromise as early as possible would be the best strategy for achieving reform. Yet year after year the bills are stalled in committee and delayed until the final days of the session. Of the many ideas introduced, few are allowed full discussion by the entire Legislature.
With all of the issues being addressed in a regular session, every senator and group has their own priorities and interests. Vote trading among senators on tax bills is rampant. Interest groups promise to support or withdraw opposition of unrelated issues to leverage their bargaining power. The sequence of unrelated bills on the floor has more influence on the success of a property tax bill then the policy itself.
Honesty and candor are rare commodities in political discourse. A property tax solution that works for all Nebraskans–homeowners, farmers, commercial property interests–requires everyone to set their parochial interests and short term needs aside and work collectively for the good of the state.
This week the Legislature will finally debate a tax reform bill on day 53 of a 60-day legislative session. The proposal has three distinct components of new policy. First, it decreases the corporate income tax rate. Second, it transfers $5 million from the state’s Cash Reserve to a Department of Economic Development cash fund. Finally, it creates an income tax credit equal to 2% of ag land and 1% of residential property taxes. The intention is that the size of the credit will increase annually, with eventually reaching 20% of total property taxes paid by 2030.
I evaluate tax proposals using the principles of simplicity, transparency, neutrality, and stability. First, I look for simplicity. Complex tax policy creates opportunity for abuse of the tax code and makes it impossible for taxpayers to clearly understand their tax bill. Second, I look for transparency. Policies that hide taxes or obscure how they are paid create a disconnect between taxpayers and how their dollars are spent. Third, I support tax policy that is neutral. Neutrality means that tax policy does not favor or punish one group or industry at the expense of another. Finally, I look at the stability of tax policy, avoiding wide swings in revenue that create unpredictability.
Two of the three components of the tax proposal are currently unnecessary. The $5 million transfer to the DED cash fund is nothing more than a financial earmark to buy votes. The Cash Reserve has been ravaged to only one-third of what it was two years ago. The property tax refund requires $34 million from the Cash Reserve to achieve the meager property tax relief offered. It is foolish to drain the fund of another $5 million to add pork to a tax relief bill. The corporate income tax reduction in a time when we are already implementing budget cuts also does not seem logical.
While I welcome any opportunity for property tax relief and have opposed any measure that would increase property taxes on Nebraskans, the “income tax refund for property taxes paid” scheme fails to meet my standards for good tax policy. The use of state General Fund revenue to provide an income tax credit to offset property tax collections is marginal on the simplicity standard. While initially you can look at your property tax statement and calculate the 1 or 2% of the refund, that number will grow annually. Local spending growth has outpaced state revenue growth for many years now. As the cost of the income tax credit grows for the state, it is likely sales or income taxes will be increased to cover the cost. That shift creates complexity.
Using tax dollars collected and appropriated by the state to offset property taxes levied and spent by independent local boards fails the standard of transparency. State General Fund spending would be dictated by local officials with no accountability to state lawmakers or residents in other communities. Spending decisions made by board members in Omaha and Lincoln would be covered by taxpayers in District 38, while neither you nor your senator will have any influence or control over those dollars. A clear line of sight between taxpayers and those who spend their money does not exist.
Neutrality is also marginal with this proposal. Applied to current income tax policy, the refund will magnify any favoritism and carve outs that exist in the current system. The existing inequities in the distribution of the property tax burden in rural school districts for funding K-12 education are also perpetuated, as they are not addressed.
The long-term stability of the income tax refund proposals is also an open question. Nothing in the proposals alters that pattern of local spending. In fact, past experience has demonstrated that increased state spending to cover local spending results in increased local spending. The impact on the state budget is a percentage of local property taxes levied, which state legislators have no control over. The long-term stability of the state budget would be determined by the individual actions of all the local boards across the state, with no accountability at the state level.
Taxpayers need to be clear on two points about the proposal. First, you will continue to pay the full amount of your property taxes when they are due. You will not receive the refund until the following year when you file your income tax return and apply for the credit against your income tax liability. Second, your property taxes will continue to rise at the same rate as they have in prior years. Nothing in this proposal changes any of the structural problems that have made Nebraska the 5th highest property taxes in the nation. Given past history, it is highly likely the rate of growth of your property tax bill will exceed the growth of the income tax credit over the 10-year phase in plan.
The second year of a legislative session is often referred to as a “short session”. Limited to 60 legislative days, time is a valuable commodity. With adjournment scheduled in mid-April, the Legislature will be holding session into the late nights for the next several weeks. With many important issues yet to receive first round debate and a budget modification bill that has failed two cloture votes to end debate, time is of even greater importance.
By legislative rule, the budget must be advanced to the Governor by legislative day 50, which is Tuesday, March 27. The failure of the second cloture vote on Select File prohibits that from occurring. The Legislature will have to suspend the current rules to complete our budget modification process, which will take 30 votes. Additionally, the budget will require 33 votes to pass with the “emergency clause”. Normally a bill will become effective law 90 days after it is signed into law by the Governor. When a bill is passed with the emergency clause, it takes effect upon being signed. Because of the delays in the budget advancement by a minority of senators, if the budget fails to pass with 33 votes it cannot take effect before the end of the fiscal year.
While most of the focus of the current budget bill has been on the reductions needed to respond to decreases in state revenue, the bill also includes very important appropriations to meet increased needs. Most significant is an additional $30 million to meet the expenses associated with child welfare programs. The state has experienced an unprecedented increase in the number of at-risk children requiring placement outside of their home to protect their health and safety. The program will run out of funds by May and will be unable to pay those foster parents and other caregivers until the modified budget takes effect in July.
In addition to the budget, any tax reform bill has yet to be debated on the floor. There are another group of non-controversial bills, known as Consent Calendar bills that have not been addressed by the body. Consent calendar bills are bills critical to address non-controversial but important changes to existing laws.
The increasing trend toward extended debate and use of the filibuster has consumed a significant portion of the legislative session. Cloture is a procedural motion to end debate and allow votes on the substance of a bill. In order to invoke cloture 33 of the 49 senators must vote to end debate. This two-thirds majority is among the highest thresholds in the country. The center of the rules discussion last session was to address the cloture issue.
Unfortunately, many issues have not even seen a vote on the bill, up or down, because of the inability to gain a two-thirds majority. In essence, current legislative rules and procedure have effectively created a supermajority requirement to pass any substantive legislation. Because of the time requirement involved in cloture, the time spent on extended debate consumes time for debate and passage of other legislation.
First round debate of modifications to the state biennial budget took place last week in the Legislature. At the center of the debate was a provision that would require private agencies that receive tax dollars who provide family planning services to have objective separation from abortion services. The requirement for a clear distinction between health care services and abortion is vital for compliance with federal law, which states taxpayer money must “not provide abortion as a method of family planning”.
The provision centers around a program known as Title X (the Roman numeral “ten” not the letter “x”). Title X is a federal grant program that awards money to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS then awards these dollars as grants to private agencies that provide direct services to patients with financial need. These services include screening for STDs, breast and cervical cancer, as well as pregnancy testing and contraception. Across the state 13 clinics receive Title X funds, providing these services to 27,954 Nebraskans at 41 different locations. In total, a little under $2 million of taxpayer money is distributed to these clinics to provide services.
In order for Nebraska to remain eligible to receive these federal funds, the state must be able to demonstrate compliance with federal law. In recent history tens of millions of federal dollars have been required to be repaid by the state due to failure to comply with federal program requirements. The federal law that prohibits taxpayer dollars from being used to fund abortion services through Title X reflects the overwhelming opinion of most Americans against the use of public funds for abortions.
The objective separation requirement in the intent language of the appropriation for the Title X program is essential to protect the integrity of the program because Nebraska Title X funds have been used for abortion services. A 2015 a report by the State Auditor identified the magnitude of the problem. The audit of one clinic, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, found that Title X dollars were used to pay for physician fees for abortions, clinic manager time for abortions, fees associated with pathology of tissue from aborted children, and employee travel to provide abortions. All of these payments were prohibited by federal law.
Clinics that receive public money under Title X are paid in advance at the beginning of each month. Thus, illegal expenditures were paid from the fund. The payments were identified in the audit of clinic expenditures by the state. Had the federal government identified these payments for abortions services before the State Auditor did, Nebraska’s eligibility for Title X funds could be denied.
The importance of the intent language in the budget bill is best stated by DHHS CEO, Courtney Phillips. In a letter to me regarding the program and audit findings, she states, “This is to say that these expenditures placed the entire program at risk. The proposed language in LB 944, Section 71 provides greater clarifications, and with it program integrity. This helps ensure Title X funds are not misused and protects access for Nebraskans”.
The ability to tax is the most significant exercise of power by the government. Once collected, those public dollars are to be used to promote the common good. I, like most Nebraskans, find the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortion morally repugnant. At the same time, I support access of all Nebraskans to essential family planning and reproductive health care services. The intent language in the current budget bill is critical to protecting vital access to health care through ensuring compliance with federal law and the will of the people.
Higher education in Nebraska is a diverse landscape. An examination of the most recent reports by the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education demonstrates the wide array of options for the 136,917 Nebraska students enrolled in education after high school. Programs span the state in communities from Chadron to Hastings to Omaha.
There are four broad categories of higher education in Nebraska. The University of Nebraska system, which is composed of five campuses, the three campuses of the State College System, the six Community College networks, and the 20 private colleges and universities. Collectively, these programs confer over 30,000 degrees and awards annually. The University of Nebraska system, State College System, and Community Colleges are all supported by taxpayers. Independent colleges do not receive funds from state or local taxes.
Nebraska taxpayer support for public higher education in Nebraska is among the highest in the nation. Every student enrolled in the University of Nebraska system is subsidized with over $11,000 of state income and sales tax dollars each year, which amounts to over $300 paid by every Nebraska resident. Taking into account state General Funds and Property Tax support, the 39,000 community college students in Nebraska receive over $8,000 per student annually in taxpayer support. On a per-student basis, the state college system receives the least public support, with $5,600 annually.
The University of Nebraska media blitz, advocating for additional state appropriations, gives the impression that they are the primary workforce development driver in the state. While they are the largest system, they only make up about 39% of the enrolled post-secondary students in the state. The vast majority of Nebraska students are enrolled in other colleges and universities. When examining graduation outcomes, Nebraska’s private colleges award 38% of the state’s Bachelor’s degrees, even though they enroll 25% of the state’s students. Private colleges also awarded more Doctoral and Master’s degrees than the entire University of Nebraska system, without receiving any state tax money.
Nebraskans have made a significant investment in a highly educated workforce through a strong financial commitment to higher education. In the proposed budget, to be considered by the Legislature, $725 million is dedicated to higher education. Community Colleges will collect another $320 million in property taxes. At $1.4 billion, that exceeds the $850 million for Medicaid and the $974 million for state aid to K-12 education.
On an annualized basis of degrees awarded, Nebraska taxpayers spend $51,000 per degree awarded by the University of Nebraska system, $45,336 per Community College degree, and $30,000 for graduates of the state college system. They spend nothing on the 9,500 degrees awarded every year by Nebraska’s independent colleges.
I am a strong advocate for higher education. I am privileged to have earned a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine. I am honored to hold a position as Professor of Biology at Hastings College, providing me firsthand knowledge of the value of higher education and the challenges faced by colleges and universities in Nebraska.
What is missing in the current budget discussion about state funding of higher education is proportionality. A 2% reduction in state appropriations does not cripple workforce and economic development in Nebraska, despite the full page newspaper ads. Many colleges and universities across the state have adjusted their budgets to reflect the evolving higher education landscape without devastating their local communities.
Most disappointing to me is the lack of attention to the disproportionate manner in which state colleges are treated compared to the University system, as the numbers stated above clearly demonstrate. Nebraska’s State Colleges serve a high proportion of first generation college students with high academic and financial need, yet they receive the least public support per student of any of the public institutions.
Although public hearings and floor debate dominate the media coverage of the legislative process, what happens in the committee setting ultimately dictates the direction of bills introduced at the beginning of the legislative session. In Nebraska’s unicameral system, committees, and especially committee chairs, are allowed a level of discretion and control over bills unlike any other legislative body. Every bill introduced is required to have a public hearing. However, that is where equal treatment of a piece of legislation ends. The scheduling of the bills for hearing, the consideration of a bill by the committee in executive session for advancement, and the development of any committee amendments to a bill are all controlled by each individual committee chair.
When during the session a public hearing is scheduled can have a significant impact on the fate of a bill. If a bill does not receive a priority designation, it is highly unlikely it will be debated by the full legislature. Each senator gets to designate one bill as a priority, and each committee can designate two. The Speaker gets to select 25 bills as Speaker Priorities. The deadline for selection of priority bills was last week. Bills with hearings scheduled after the priority selection deadline are not likely to be selected as priorities or make it to the floor for debate.
Additionally, bills are scheduled for floor debate only when advanced. The earlier a bill has a public hearing, the earlier it can be advanced from committee to General File for full debate. The latter half of the session, as we are in now, becomes packed with many of the more complex and controversial bills that have been given a priority designation. Later bills are unlikely to be discussed even if advanced to General File.
Even if a bill has significant support by senators in the Legislature, it still must have the support of a majority of the members of a committee to be advanced to the floor. Determining committee membership is a complex process. Assigned by the Committee on Committees at the start of a new legislative session, committee membership is balanced among congressional districts. Determining which senators sit on a committee is a complex matrix that considers ranking of the members of a particular congressional district caucus, seniority, the caucus of the committee’s chair, and previous service on a committee.
Additionally, not all committees have an odd number of members. Revenue, education, and judiciary, for example, have only 8 members. It is not uncommon for a bill to be deadlocked in a committee on a 4-4 vote, even if it has substantial support in the broader Legislature. If members of the Legislature want to debate a bill that has not been advanced by a committee, it requires a “pull motion” supported by a majority of the senators to advance it to General File. Last year the first pull motion was used during my tenure in office.
In order for a bill to be considered for advancement from a committee, the chair must consider the bill in an executive session. Committee chairs are given wide latitude to determine how their committee will operate, with some controlling which bills may even be considered during an executive session. Simply put, if a committee chair opposes a bill, they are within their authority under the current rules to never act upon it following the public hearing.
Given the nature of the committee process, a senator has the greatest influence on policy areas of the committees on which they serve. As a member of the Appropriations Committee over the past four years, I have spent a significant portion of my time working on the state budget. Appropriations is the only committee that meets every day of the week, and thus is the only standing committee on which I can serve. The other 40 senators serve on 2 or 3 different committees in different subject areas.
With less than half of the session remaining, the Nebraska Legislature will conclude bill hearings and move to full days of floor debate on February 28. If you would like to see which bills will be the focus of debate for the remainder of the session, you can access the list of priority bills on the homepage of the Nebraska Legislature’s website. You can also access the agenda for each day and link to live coverage provided by NET.