LINCOLN — If history is any guide, the Nebraska Legislature will spend less time debating a $7.8 billion state spending plan than was spent arguing over the process for utility rate appeals.
Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams of York said that's likely to be true this week when lawmakers consider the budget for the first time. Debate will begin Tuesday.
“The mainline budget, I'm not sure that people are going to find a lot to complain about,” Adams said.
The debate likely will focus on smaller issues around the edges of the budget instead.
A proposed $2.2 million purchase of a new state airplane is expected to be the biggest flashpoint.
Adams attributes the general lack of controversy largely to lawmakers' respect for the work of the Appropriations Committee.
The committee members comprise a diverse mix of ideologies and spend weeks reviewing each state agency, hearing public testimony and hashing out a budget.
If all nine come together on a two-year budget plan, as they did this year, their judgment carries considerable weight.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the committee chairman, said he hopes the budget debate goes smoothly.
He said he has not heard major concerns from colleagues, although he has been asked about the airplane purchase, the University of Nebraska budget and some capital construction projects.
“We made sure our underlying budget is a very moderate, centrist approach,” Mello said.
He said the budget prioritizes education, starting with early childhood education and extending through aid for K-12 school districts and higher education.
One point of concern could be the proposal to put an additional $51 million into the cash reserve fund. The money represents the amount that projections of tax revenue increased as of the end of April.
Putting the money into the reserve fund would mean less available for new spending or tax cut measures.
Mello argues for building up the reserve to help the state weather future economic storms and to provide more leeway for any tax reform measures coming out of a planned tax study this summer and fall.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion argued in the Appropriations Committee that the money should be used to give tax relief this year. He said he is interested in measures to help ordinary taxpayers, not businesses.
However, the Revenue Committee has not advanced legislation that would fit the bill and most lawmakers are looking to next year for tax proposals.
“I think the compromise is to put it in the cash reserve,” Kintner said. “I'll certainly fight like heck to keep it from getting spent.”
Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, the Revenue Committee chairman, said he also has some concerns about taxing people so the state can put money into its rainy day fund. But he is willing to wait as long as the money is saved and not used to expand programs and services.
If lawmakers approve the reserve fund transfer and the budget plan, that would leave $50.2 million over the two years beginning July 1 for any other legislative proposals bearing a price tag.
Bills that have received at least one round of legislative approval would cost closer to $65.5 million, either by increasing spending or reducing tax revenue. Other priority measures awaiting first-round debate would add to the total.
Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, an Appropriations Committee member, said he doesn't want to see any new spending beyond the budget package but would be open to tax-cut ideas. The budget package would boost state spending by an average of 5.2 percent annually.
Larson said he hopes lawmakers will spend time examining the budget and asking hard questions about it.
“I hope there's a bigger debate this year” than in previous years, he said.
Under legislative rules, the budget must be passed and sent to the governor for his approval or veto by the 80th legislative day, or May 20.
Gov. Dave Heineman has not commented on the budget advanced by the Appropriations Committee. His spokeswoman, Jen Rae Hein, said Friday: “We are in the process of doing a detailed and thorough review.”
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July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2015
General fund total: $7.8 billion
All funds total: $19.3 billion
Agency operations: 33.9 percent
Aid to individuals: 31.7 percent
Aid to local governments: 33.7 percent
Construction: 0.7 percent
Top expenses (2-year totals):
K-12 school aid: $1.8 billion
Medicaid: $1.5 billion
University of Nebraska: $1.1 billion
The proposal would:
» Raise spending for University of Nebraska and state colleges enough that they can freeze tuition for two years
» Serve more people with intellectual disabilities who are on the state waiting list
» Increase payment rates for child welfare, child care and health care providers
» Meet requirements of the federal health care overhaul
» Set aside money to build a new veterans home in central Nebraska
» Fund construction of a new University of Nebraska Medical Center nursing college building in Lincoln
» Buy a 12-year-old airplane from the University of Nebraska Foundation