The Nebraska Legislature has many capable members, across lines of party and ideology.
At times during the 2019 session, lawmakers did impressive work, reaching agreement on complex or divisive issues. But at other times, a combination of factors tripped up state senators badly, pulling the Legislature into disarray. The result was embarrassing failure on two preeminent issues: a tax policy overhaul focused on property tax relief, and a revamp of state business incentives.
First, here’s a look at some of the successes. Approval of the new two-year, $9.3 billion state budget tops the list. The spending plan features a 2.9% average annual increase and is well balanced. Its appropriate priorities include a considerable boost in school aid and strong support for the University of Nebraska. Also funded: new election equipment requested by Secretary of State Bob Evnen and significantly increased payment rates for health care, child welfare, behavioral health and other providers.
The state’s cash reserve is projected to increase to a bit over $340 million in two years — helpful, though still well short of the nearly $800 million that fiscal analysts recommend for a budget of this size. Funding for five new problem-solving courts is a positive. The budget’s main prison provision is $49 million for a 384-bed addition in Lincoln. Gov. Pete Ricketts has signed the budget bill, issuing no vetoes of individual spending provisions.
A sampling of other positives this session: A sound revamp of treasurer’s tax deeds will give people better protection against losing their property through miscommunication while enabling an efficient process for county governments. A carefully written bill meets a host of technical requirements so Nebraska can receive online sales tax from out-of-state firms. Nebraska continues to make incremental progress in easing licensing burdens while protecting public safety.
In addition, senators made needed adjustments to prevent protection-order applications from falling through the cracks and to make revenge porn a crime. The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District received a five-year extension in its bonding authority. The Omaha area will be able to pursue regional transportation coordination.
The session’s disappointments included lawmakers’ failure to approve anti-discrimination protection against LGBTQ individuals and to allow creation of land banks in communities besides Omaha, where the concept has worked well.
Because lawmakers failed to find agreement on a tax policy overhaul, the one source of property tax relief is the state’s tax credit fund. While the fund was boosted to $275 million, that provides only a small measure of relief for individuals.
Many factors came into play this year in producing stalemate on a range of issues. A central challenge was simply that lawmakers represent widely varying constituencies and interests, and finding a way to reconcile their differences can be immensely difficult. It’s generally easy for the Legislature’s factions to throw down hurdles to legislation. Such factionalism tripped up approval of the business incentives bill, for example.
A second problem: poor personal relations among some members. The sour relations stemmed from heated floor-debate brawling early in the session; some senators’ irresponsible penchant to hurl barbed comments at each other publicly; and a quick resort by some to temper tantrums and sulking.
The failure to find agreement on the tax policy and school funding issues, in particular, should spur serious soul-searching by Speaker Jim Scheer and other leaders about how this Legislature is handling negotiations on those matters.
A fatal roadblock has been a “my way or the highway” attitude by some lawmakers, thwarting consideration of new ideas and the development of a broader coalition.
The 2019 session had its successes, but it also was marred by major failures. The questions now: Will enough senators learn the right lessons to move forward, and will Scheer and others exert the leadership necessary to set the course for success next session?
For Nebraska’s sake, the answers need to be yes.