TOP PRIORITIES FOR THE LEGISLATURE

Budget shortfall

The first priority for state lawmakers will be closing an estimated $110 million budget gap for the two-year budget period ending June 30, 2017.

Likely options include cutting back on planned state spending or tapping the cash reserve fund, which is expected to reach $728.6 million by June 30. A third option, raising taxes, is off the table politically.

The budget gap could shrink or widen when Nebraska's economic forecasting board meets at the end of February to update the official state revenue projections.

Property taxes

Gov. Pete Ricketts has named property tax relief as his top priority for the session. But Nebraska's fiscal situation has dampened hopes of making a major dent in property taxes.

Instead, look for bills to slow the growth of property values and tighten budget limits on local governments. Both ideas could curb the growth of property taxes with little impact on the state budget.

Bills to cut other state taxes may be tossed into the hopper but are unlikely to gain traction.

LGBT discrimination

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage in all states, gay-rights supporters plan a new push to ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Last year's proposal was tabled in the face of stiff opposition, particularly from religious groups.

The measure has support from the Lincoln and Omaha Chambers of Commerce and more than 200 businesses.

Prison construction

Lawmakers will consider the next steps for dealing with Nebraska's troubled and overcrowded prison system.

The marquee proposal is the Ricketts administration's $26 million prison expansion plan, which aims to ease overcrowding before sentencing changes and programming reforms passed last year can show results.

Also on the table is a request to increase the prison budget by $18 million for operations, including $3.1 million to repair the Tecumseh prison following last year's deadly riot.

Medicaid expansion

Backers plan a renewed effort to expand publicly funded health coverage to low-income Nebraskans, as allowed under the federal health care law.

This year, their proposal would use Medicaid funds to buy private health insurance for about 77,000 low-income people, rather than add them to the traditional Medicaid program.

The question will be whether supporters can win over enough state senators to override a likely gubernatorial veto on the measure.

Medical marijuana

Nebraska could join the ranks of states allowing marijuana to be used for medical treatment under a bill carried over from last year.

The proposal would follow the lead of Minnesota, which prohibits smoking of medical marijuana and limits its use to patients with certain conditions.

Proponents include numerous Nebraskans seeking a new treatment options for their health problems, while opponents include Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson.

Roads funding

Lawmakers will be asked to approve a new approach to paying for long-planned expressways and other roadbuilding projects.

A proposed infrastructure bank would be created using money from the record-high cash reserve fund. The infrastructure bank would make loans for highway projects and be paid back with money from the newly increased gas tax.

The proposal, a variation on issuing bonds for road-building, breaks with Nebraska's pay-as-you-go approach to building and maintaining roads.

Driving safety

The number of deaths and injuries on Nebraska roads last year is giving new life to proposals aimed at making driving safer.

One proposal would make it a primary offense for anyone in a vehicle to not use a seatbelt. The other would make it a primary offense to text, email or use electronic devices while driving.

The infractions in both proposals are secondary offenses now, meaning that violators can be ticketed only if they are stopped for some other traffic offense.

Convention of states

State lawmakers will have a chance to call for a first-of-itskind convention of the states aimed at reining in the power of the federal government.

The U.S. Constitution allows for such conventions as a means to propose constitutional amendments.

A resolution would add Nebraska to the list of states calling for a convention. As of last year, four states had approved similar resolutions.

— World-Herald bureau

WATER QUALITY Iowa Gov. Branstad's plan is a big topic going into new session.Midlands

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