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I’m ready for a brand new year in the Legislature. There’s going to be a lot on our plate this session and very little time to accomplish our priorities.
My #1 priority as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee will be balancing the budget. The Legislature is facing another budget shortfall, this time to the tune of $200 million.
The Governor has been doing his due diligence in making sure the state runs as efficiently as possible to address the shortfall. Since last year, the Governor has put a hiring freeze on state personnel except for essential positions, reducing agency headcount by approximately 500 and eliminating another 1,500 open positions. The Governor has also been promoting process improvement initiatives in licensing divisions, the Department of Labor, and state call centers.
As we get into the session, I expect the Governor will likely promote property and income tax reform, K-12 funding, justice reinvestment programs, and fixing an ailing corrections system. As the Appropriations Committee begins its work in balancing the budget, we will have to start with these priorities as we address others in the Legislature.
One of the biggest topics this year will be property tax reform. There are different approaches with various groups proposing their ideas on how it should be done. As a state government, we must live within our means and balance the budget, but as policy makers we must also consider the implications of the decisions and cuts that we make. The work that we do always has long-term side effects.
It’s important to think of property tax reform as a comprehensive package. We have to ensure that our revenue sources are sustainable and weigh the pros and cons of the cuts we make so that we do not create more problems than we solve. One of the best ways we can do this is by giving over as much local control as possible. This is at the core of my philosophy in governance.
Two bills currently on the legislative docket that follow this philosophy are LB98 and LB496. LB98, introduced by Senator Curt Friesen, would extend the 3₵ levy authority for Natural Resource Districts which are fully or over-appropriated in their respective river basins. Currently, the levy limit is set to sunset.
Another bill following this local governance principle is my bill allowing the use of tax increment financing (TIF) for workforce housing in rural Nebraska: LB496. In rural Nebraska, lack of workforce housing presents a significant barrier to the growth of our communities. The problem is that many of these housing projects simply will not happen without TIF.
Contributing to this issue is the issue of outmigration and difficulty attracting talent to live and work in our communities because of the housing shortage. A study commissioned by the Western Nebraska Economic Development group, of which Scottsbluff City is a member, it was concluded that the Panhandle region significantly lacks supply of affordable housing. LB496 will give developers the tools they need to grow our communities.
Investment in early childhood education will be another topic of lengthy discussion this session.
Research studies indicate that quality early childhood education can lead to significant improvement down the road. The Brookings Institution published “The Current State of Scientific Knowledge on Pre-Kindergarten Effects.” This report concludes that preschool has a uniformly positive impact on Kindergarten readiness, as well as potential long-term benefits. The report recommends, “…a continued investment toward improving preschool programs…”
Earlier this year, I was part of a panel discussion on early childhood education in Nebraska, hosted by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute. During the discussion, I shared with the panel my experience on the school board in Gering. What we have seen in rural Nebraska is a significant portion of the population that isn’t ready for school upon entering kindergarten.
That’s the results of a statewide survey conducted by Gallup in cooperation with the Buffett Institute. Over 7,100 residents in Nebraska participated. Of those participants, 68% of respondents recognize the positive long-term impact of early childhood education, while only 10% felt Nebraska’s youth are adequately prepared for school when they start in Kindergarten.
I look forward to debate on legislative priorities this year and hearing from you on what those should be.
As always, I remain open to your feedback on how I may address the issues that mean most to you. Please do not hesitate to contact my office with any questions you may have. Thank you to those who have taken the time to express their views on various issues. My contact information is located on the right hand side of this webpage.