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The past couple of weeks have been productive for the Appropriations Committee as it finalized budget recommendations to the Legislature. During that time, I focused my efforts on preparing for debate and listening to the discussion on issues important to Nebraskans. Last Tuesday those efforts paid off as we advanced the $9.7 billion budget package to the final round of debate, called Final Reading.
Some of the highlights include prison overcrowding, the State’s contract with child welfare provider Saint Francis Ministries, and property tax relief. Although we initially planned to finish debate on the budget last Thursday, Speaker Hilgers rescheduled debate for Final Reading today on April 20.
Much of the discussion last Tuesday centered on the issue of whether the State should build a new prison or invest more towards programming. However, it is not simply an either or decision. A balanced approach involves all components. Addressing the issue of prison overcrowding is about more than just building new buildings, but developing programs to prepare inmates to reenter society and reduce recidivism.
One of the core agreements we came to was a proposal by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha to create the Prison Overcrowding Contingency Fund. AM962 created the Fund and transferred $15 million out of the original $115 million allocation set aside in the Committee’s original proposal. The main thrust of the amendment was to address prison overcrowding through programming before considering other alternatives.
The Legislature also approved AM963, introduced by Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, to appropriate $200,000 to contract with the University of Nebraska on an inmate classification study. The University has conducted inmate classification studies over the years to identify the needs for each segment of the prison population. The purpose of these studies is to assess the programmatic needs of inmates and appropriate staffing for each security level.
Should the budget become enacted, the Department of Corrections would be authorized to carry out a number of other actions. The first would update its correctional facility master plan. The second would conduct an engineering study on the useful life of current facilities. Another would develop a program for a halfway-back community correction center in Omaha. The last action item would build a specialty unit for geriatric and mental health patients.
In addition to the debate on prison overcrowding, we also discussed the ongoing issue of the State’s contract with Saint Francis Ministries to manage the child welfare program for Eastern Nebraska. AM968, introduced by Sen. John Arch of La Vista, was amended into the budget to ensure that Saint Francis Ministries distributes the 2% increase in child welfare aid out of their existing contract.
Also discussed during debate was the $63 million increase in property tax credits, the second largest increase next to provider rates. This brings the total to $1.45 billion in property tax relief offered in the budget, applied via an income tax credit per $100,000 of property valuation.
Finally, there were a couple of “clean up” amendments to the budget which I introduced and were approved by the Legislature. The first was AM946, which included a number of post hoc fixes to the Committee’s original budget proposal. This amendment fixed some technical errors, provided for reappropriations (which carry over unexpended funds from the previous biennium,) clarifications to the language in the budget, and a couple of other add-ons.
AM937, which I also introduced, was approved by the Legislature to clarify matching requirements for counties receiving state aid for behavioral health regions.
I am fortunate to be associated with a hard-working committee on the important function of Nebraska’s state budget and look forward to the discussion later today.
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.