LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers signed off on a two-year, $9.3 billion state budget package Tuesday, after overcoming a pair of last-minute filibusters from fiscal conservatives.

The main budget bill passed on a 35-12 vote, with two senators abstaining. Other measures in the package passed with stronger support. The bills now head to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has until Monday to sign or veto them or make line-item vetoes of specific spending items.

Included in the budget is a $51 million annual increase in the state’s Property Tax Credit Fund, as Ricketts recommended. The credit fund may end up being the biggest property tax relief offered by this year’s Legislature.

State Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha pointed out that, with the increase, the credit fund now amounts to 5.9 percent of the total budget. The additional funds bring the total to $275 million per year.

“We are doing something for property tax relief,” he said. “Is it enough? Probably not. I hope we can find a solution to the property tax.”

Overall, the legislative budget calls for a 2.9% annual increase in state spending, less than the 3.1% increase the governor had proposed.

The budget package includes larger increases in rates paid to health care, child welfare, behavioral health and other providers than the governor had proposed, while leaving out money that Ricketts had sought for a new targeted college scholarship program.

The budget includes funds for a $49 million expansion of maximum security prison space and money for “problem-solving courts” across the state for veterans and drug offenders. The budget package provided funding for the first nine months of voter-approved Medicaid expansion.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage made no comment about the budget except to say that the governor typically takes his full five days to review legislation before making a decision on it.

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Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, a member of the Appropriations Committee, led the filibuster attempts, arguing that the budget should have cut state spending below last year’s level rather than increase it.

“It’s no secret that I’m not at all pleased with this budget,” he said. “We continue to spend more year after year.”

He proposed an amendment to the main budget bill that would have taken $7.3 million away from the University of Nebraska. He said his intent was to use that money to boost Medicaid payment rates to nursing homes.

Erdman argued that the university could stand to lose that money, while nursing homes take care of some of the most vulnerable Nebraskans. He also called for a 2 percent cut in overall spending so that money, plus increases in state tax revenue, could be put into property tax relief.

But other Appropriations Committee members said the budget represents a balance of interests and priorities for the state. The package already includes money to boost Medicaid payment rates for nursing homes, as well as changes intended to increase accountability for those funds.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the committee chairman, called the budget “austere” and noted that the increase comes after two years of belt-tightening in response to lackluster revenue.

He said the budget addresses the state’s priorities, which he listed as easing the overcrowding in state prisons, replenishing the state’s emergency fund and making progress toward adequate payments for behavioral health and developmental disability services providers. The budget boosts state school aid by $135 million over two years and provides the university a 2.2% increase for salaries and a 2% bump for utility costs.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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