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I’ll make a prediction in this week’s column. Much like how we began the last session with the budget being over $1 billion in the hole, we’ll start the next session in another budget hole. The budget we passed was built on the assumption of 5% revenue growth, which would come from an economy growing at a similarly robust pace. It’s not. I’m not banking on the “Eclipse” tourism to save us.
Back in July, the Lincoln paper reported “the Federal Commerce Bureau says Nebraska logged the worst economic performance in the U.S. in the beginning of 2017.” Net tax revenue receipts for July were $268 million, which was 2.8% below the certified forecast of $276 million. I predict this trend will continue. Assuming we’re not called back into special session to do more budget cuts because of these revenue shortfalls, then we’ll start the 2nd session of the 105th legislature with more budget cutting. Maybe in the hundreds of millions.
This will be a “short” session (60 days). People should not get their heart set on some special piece of legislation passing because I think it is very likely we’ll spend most of the next session arguing over more budget cuts. Unlike last time when a lot of the cuts were really just reductions in future increases and other accounting devices, THIS time we’ll be cutting “bone” because all the budget fat and meat is already gone.
So where does the Legislature cut?
First, we need to know where the money is spent. According to the Department of Revenue about 37% of the budget is spent by one State Agency: The Department of Health and Human Services. About 29% of the budget is spent on just sixty-nine of Nebraska’s two-hundred forty-four K-12 School Districts (175 of them get NO State Aid). We spend 11% of the budget on Public Safety and about 17% of the budget goes to higher education.
Second, I think we need to know what the Nebraska Constitution says we have to pay for. During my Army career, I became familiar with quite a number of Army regulations. When reading them, you had to pay close attention to words like “shall” and “must.” Words like “should” and “may” were worth noting, but screwing up a “should” or a “may” regulation wouldn’t get you court-martialed. I figured I’d start to answer this question by looking up everything in the supreme law of the land in Nebraska.
I wanted to know how many “shall spend money for something” is in the Constitution, so I searched for the phrase “shall provide.” That appears 21 times.
Twenty of twenty-one times the use of this phrase requires the legislature to “provide” laws to govern something.
However, Article VII-1 provides clear instruction that the legislature spend money on something:
“The Legislature shall provide for the free instruction in the common schools of this state of all persons between the ages of five and twenty-one years. The Legislature may provide for the education of other persons in educational institutions owned and controlled by the state or a political subdivision thereof.”
Why then do we spend 29% of our State Budget (about $1.22B) on just sixty-nine of the State’s two hundred forty-four K-12 school districts? “Shall provide” should mean something more than zero for the 175 school districts who receive no State Aid.
You then have to ask, why do we spend about 17% (about $723M) of the State Budget on “higher education” like the University when 72% of our K-12 schools get absolutely no funding from the State?
Shouldn’t we fully fund the “shall provide” our Constitution says our K-12 schools are supposed to get, before we decide to spend money on a “may provide?”
As it is, all the legislature has “provided” are laws that create out-of-control property taxes to fund most schools and allows it to duck it’s constitutional responsibility for “providing” for all K-12 schools. In addition to the cuts I see looming in the future, I think we need to re-think who gets what.
Please contact my office with any comments, questions or concerns. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (402) 471-2628.