Greetings from Lincoln! We spent much of this past week debating the 2012 budget bills, LB’s 131, 968, and 969; and also the annual State Claims Bill, LB 1072. The budget bills, together, provide for how the revenue which the state collects is distributed. Generally, at the beginning of each Session, the Governor presents us with a proposed budget, which, after hearings and much debate, we, the Appropriations Committee, make changes and then present our budget recommendations to the full Legislature for debate.
This year I believe we have presented an innovative budget package. We have, for the first time in several years, had a little breathing room to work with – we have not had to make the severe cuts which we have done each year since I started in this body. This year we were able to recommend a partial restoration of the Governor’s proposed Medicaid provider rate cuts. We had contact from many Nebraskans about how important this step was. We also were able to provide for the increased money that is needed for child welfare reform.
We chose to provide funding for construction projects at our state colleges and universities. The money, if approved, will be used for improvements at the Oak Bowl at Peru State College, Armstrong Gym at Chadron State College, Allied Health programs at UNK, a cancer research facility at UNMC, and a vet diagnostic center for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. All of these are much-needed projects which will help further our educational system in our great state.
During the debate we also spent quite a bit of time discussing the Governor’s tax cuts which he proposed in LB 970. I have heard from many people on this issue, most of whom do not support LB 970, and I agree. If we were to implement tax cuts at the rate the Governor has proposed, we are opening ourselves up to inflating a likely budget shortfall which is projected for the next few years. This would necessitate further budget cuts which, frankly, we cannot afford. The cuts we have made during the past few years have been so deep that there is no “fat” left to trim from Nebraska’s budget. On Friday, we debated an amendment to the budget which may solve this problem. I believe, however, we still need (and will have) more debate before the Session is over.
The most debate came on the Claims Bill. This is not a bill which generally sees this much debate, but this year it is tied into the State’s Child Welfare problem. When the Department of Health and Human Services chose to privatize child welfare services, they made contracts with several providers throughout the state. These contracts were made with estimates of numbers of children and families who would need to be served and what services they would need. The reality far exceeded the projections and these providers were losing a lot of money. They simply could not provide the services necessary for the amount of money the state was paying them. This is one of the main reasons the privatization system failed.
We, as a state, need to pay these outstanding bills. As many of you know, we have providers in our community which were greatly affected by what happened and our community was not the only one. Nebraska is responsible for these kids who were given services by these providers and it is our responsibility to hold up our end of the bargain. I know that not every Senator agrees with this position, but I want to try to make right, even in a small measure, what went so wrong in the past couple of years.