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The Appropriations Committee presented their recommendations for the budget to the Legislature this past week. The budget bills were also given first-round approval from the Legislature. Over the interim, the financial status of the current biennium has improved significantly. The variance from the minimum General Fund reserve was estimated at only $0.2 million when we adjourned last year, but has since grown to $133.8 million. Furthermore, the rainy day fund increased from $322.4 million to $731 million, representing 14% of the budget, the amount advised by financial experts. This can be primarily attributed to an increase in General Fund revenue, both actual and projected. The budget represents an average growth of 3.0% over the two-year period.
There were some significant increases since the two-year budget was passed last year. The largest deficit request that was funded was $46 million to replenish the Governor’s Emergency Program, which was used for flood damage, and to fund the state’s portion associated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance program, where local governments and the state are each responsible for 12.5% of the costs, with FEMA funding 75%. Additionally, the Appropriations Committee included $9.2 million to assist counties with their 12.5% portion, if their costs totaled 20% or greater of the county’s 2018 taxes levied. Other deficit requests in the Committee’s budget recommendations include $10 million to maintain minimum staffing levels at the Lincoln Regional Center and the Norfolk Sex Offender Program, $9 million in higher than expected costs for the homestead exemption program, and $8 million for pay increases for Department of Correctional Services’ staff, in an effort to retain qualified staff and reduce the need for overtime.
The Legislature gave first-round approval to a package of bills that were introduced as a result of a lengthy investigation into the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTC), in light of a crisis at the girls’ facility in Geneva last summer. The legislation will require the Department of Health and Human Services to create a 5-year operations plan, to develop an emergency plan for each facility, to conduct annual facility reviews, to hire a superintendent for education programs, and to contract for a cost study and needs assessment for an inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit. Furthermore, by July of next year, the Kearney YRTC could only house boys and the Geneva YRTC could only house girls. Since the crisis, the Kearney YRTC has been housing both sexes, which has created problems.
One year ago, northeast Nebraskans were dealing with the disastrous flood that hit our area, as well as other parts of the state. I attended a briefing hosted by Governor Ricketts. Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said that more than 500 payments are in progress or completed on public assistance projects totaling more than $11 million. He also mentioned that a Long-Term Recovery and Resilience Plan will be unveiled by early summer. Director of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, Kyle Schneweis, revealed that Nebraska had 3,300 miles of closure and 27 bridges that were heavily damaged or destroyed at the height of the flooding. Within a month, 99% of the closed highways were reopen. The last bridge was reopened in February. The Adjutant General for the Nebraska National Guard, Major General Daryl Bohac, disclosed that in the month after the flood, 461 soldiers with the Guard drove 45,000 miles and put in 335 hours of flight time, rescuing 112 people, of which 66 were hoist rescues by helicopter. These statistics show the significant amount of work and funding that went into rescue and recovery efforts stemming from the flood. Our work is not done.
This year, it is the COVID-19 virus that is affecting our state. Several cases were confirmed in Douglas County and notification was made this past week of the first presumptive positive coronavirus case in northeast Nebraska. In an effort to prevent a sudden peak of illnesses that could overwhelm our healthcare system, schools have cancelled classes, athletic events have been cancelled or fans restricted, nursing homes have limited visitors, and other plans are being made. Local public health departments are key players in these decisions. The number for the North Central District Health Department covering Boyd, Holt, Knox and Rock Counties is (402) 336-2406 and the number for the Northeast Nebraska Public Health Department covering Cedar and Dixon Counties is (402) 375-2200. A good website for general information is: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.Again, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on the issues before us. I can be reached at email@example.com, my telephone number is (402) 471-2801 and my mailing address is District #40, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.