Over the Fence
A bi-weekly newsletter from Senator Tom Hansen
(April 23, 2009)
This week the Appropriations Committee made tentative decisions on its recommendations for the $6.9 billion two-year budget. The plan is lean — 1 percent average growth in state spending over the next two years. And it means some pain, including likely layoffs at the University of Nebraska and at state agencies.
The tentative plan requires no tax rate hikes. It gives a small rate increase to health care professionals who take Medicaid patients. The University of Nebraska and all higher education will see state funding increases — a 2 percent increase the first year of the biennium in lieu of the original 1.5 percent increase proposal.
The state’s budget situation is part good luck and part good planning. State government is sitting on a $566 million state cash reserve, saved during better economic conditions. The state’s cash reserve will be used to cover a $190 million budget gap. That gap could increase after the state’s forecasting board provides new, likely lower, revenue forecasts for the next few years. The Committee will take a final vote on the budget recommendations next week.
After more than 14 hours of debate, a vote to stop debate and force a vote on a school funding bill fell short of the needed votes. The bill, LB 545, introduced by York Senator Greg Adams, was meant to slow growth in state aid to schools over the next few years. It included a 10 percent increase next year and a 7 percent increase the year after. Some districts would have gotten substantial increases in the next two years. Some would have lost money. The standoff on the bill was fueled primarily by Omaha senators, because Omaha Public Schools and some other larger districts would have lost some of their increases in state aid. Those senators argued it was important to fully fund state aid, especially for districts in which there are high rates of poverty and English Language Learners. But Senator Adams said the money just wasn’t there. Speaker Mike Flood said he had not decided what to do in bringing the bill back for more debate. In the past, bills that failed an attempt to stop debate were not rescheduled. However, this is a significant issue.
Another bill that was debated this week dealt with giving tougher penalties on certain sex crimes. LB 97, introduced by Omaha Senator Scott Lautenbaugh, creates the offense of unlawful use of the Internet by a registered sex offender and enhances penalties for crimes relating to enticement of a child and the manufacture, possession and trafficking of child pornography. With sexual predators using the Internet to entice children, a parent has to be vigilant in overseeing their child’s use of the computer. The Internet has expanded the child pornography problem. The bill would bar registered sex offenders from using such social networking sites as MySpace or Facebook, and it would require them to provide Internet communication identities. What sexual predators value the most is anonymity. They value blending in. The bill takes away their ability to blend in. LB 97 would create an exception for teens who knowingly send nude pictures of themselves to another minor and for those younger than 19 who get a picture from a person who is at least 15 and don’t send it on. LB 97 was advanced to the second round of debate.
During the Appropriations Committee budget meetings this week members expressed it was the intent of the Legislature that local Workforce Investment Boards direct a percentage of funds received by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) be used for dislocated worker employment and training activities to support access to training and training-related supportive services, including tuition for credit-bearing courses, costs related to adult basic education programs, and certificate programs. Also, $400,000 in state General Funds will be expended for a website to help keep us compliant by tracking the use of ARRA funds. Therefore, Nebraska citizens will be able to go on-line and follow where and how that money is being used.
The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board met this afternoon and presented us their newest projections. Their revisions reduced revenue estimates from the Appropriations Committee budget plan by $94.5 million over the current year plus the next two budget years. Revenue estimates had been speculated to be $60 million. This is not good news… we have much work ahead of us!