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The 2016 60 day legislative short session will begin in a little over a month. A summary of some of the major issues that will be addressed are:
1) $110 million budget shortfall. Anybody associated with agriculture or the railroad knew this scenario was coming and I happen to believe the deficit will be higher when the forecasting board reports in February. Last session we expressed an opinion as to 3.5 % annual spending increase in the state budget not being sustainable with the economic outlook we now face By law, the legislature is to maintain a minimum 3%, approximately $240 million, in a “General Fund reserve” to cover fluctuations in cash flow, so we will either revisit the budget or cut spending (my preference) or transfer money from our $725 million “rainy day fund” which is created by excess taxes collected from citizens beyond the budget needs. I would prefer government did not overtax its citizens in the first place.
2) Juvenile Probation System. The Legislature’s move of juvenile probation to the Judicial Branch has operated for a mere 15 months. There is now sentiment by some legislators to move it back to the Executive branch’s Health and Human Services Department. The spat is over separation of powers between branches of government. The legislature in 2014 created the “Office of Inspector General of Child Welfare.” The person holding that position asserts that they have not been given all the information they have asked for; the Chief Justice rightly believes that judicial independence is core to the separation of powers between the branches of government. In the short time the new system has been in place it seems to be working well, detention rates of youths have dropped, and with parents now being backed by the strong arm of the judiciary, more troubled teenagers are staying in the family home instead of foster care. This situation is more about strong personalities than about a failed probation system. There is also talk of moving adult probation out of the judicial system. I will not support any changes to probation next year – we need to give it time.
3) Prison reform will be back next year. I believe the new Prison Director is doing a good job identifying what needs to be fixed in the system. I do not believe the money is there for all of his proposed fixes, unless we shift spending priorities. Again we need to give the new prison director time, and quit blaming him for errors in management that preceded him.
4) I have stated that it will take a shift of millions in spending either within school funding or between agencies to lower your property tax bills. Jon Habben of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association has testified before the Education committee stating that since 2007 $287 million in state aid has flowed out of rural Nebraska because of property tax inequities. We just finished a series of meetings held by the joint Revenue and Education committees on the property tax burden in relationship to public education funding. Unrealistic real estate valuation increases, antiquated minimum taxation levy requirements on school districts, lack of a foundation aid base for every student no matter where they attend public school are some of issues we identified. I plan to work with other senators to address these issues with legislation. I will go into greater detail in a future column.
I would like to give a shout-out to the elected officials and employees at the County who actually cut their tax-dollar request by $60,000, the city of North Platte did not increase property taxes and the Twin Platte Natural Resource district cut tax bills by $529,000. Those elected officials deserve a thank you. It seems the government entities in charge of our educational facilities are still unable to control spending; ESU 16 14.2 % increased $166,000, Mid-Plains 10.8% increased $1,470,000 and the six school districts in our county increased their property tax request by a combined $3.53 million. Some of the increases by the public schools can be blamed on state government policies, but not all.
I will be writing columns more frequently as the session nears. I need the input of the citizens and the best way to accomplish that mission is to keep you informed.