Taxes, prisons, roads surface as big issues in 2016 session

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers will convene a new session with a long priority list but significant obstacles that could undermine some of what they hope to accomplish.

With just 60 days scheduled for the session, which starts Wednesday, lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts will have to fill a projected $110 million state budget shortfall in a relatively short time. A slowdown in state revenue could widen the gap, making it even harder to pass legislation that would cost the state money.

Here’s a look at some of the priorities and dynamics of this year’s session:

MAJOR PROPOSALS

Taxes and prison reforms are expected to be major priorities for Ricketts and the Legislature. In a recent interview, Ricketts said he remains focused on reducing the property taxes that surged in recent years. Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley said he believes lawmakers must do more to address the issue.

Lawmakers will consider a $26 million request by the Department of Correctional Services to add more bed space in the state’s community corrections centers for low-level offenders. The project is intended to relieve overcrowding and could help more inmates gain access to treatment and rehabilitation programs before their release.

The session will also include debates over roads, K-12 public education financing, a proposal to allow medical marijuana and new Medicaid legislation to help cover thousands of uninsured residents.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, said he is working on a comprehensive roads bill to speed up work on long-delayed road and bridge projects.

The proposal would create an infrastructure bank, allowing the state to tap its cash reserve to pay for road and bridge projects and replenishing the money gradually with a new 6-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase that went into effect on Jan. 1. It also would allow roads contractors to design and build projects in an effort to increase efficiency.

Smith said he talked recently with Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, about ways to fit the proposal into a tight state budget.

“We want to make certain that we’re fulfilling these (roads) needs, but doing so in a very responsible way,” Smith said.

THE BUDGET

The biggest obstacle for many bills is the budget, which lawmakers are constitutionally required to balance. Mello said the projected $110 million shortfall is one of the largest he has seen in a short session, and may require lawmakers to tap the state’s cash reserve. The reserve is expected to reach a record high of nearly $729 million on June 30.

“It’s a significant hurdle that we’ll have to jump over, both the governor and the Legislature,” Mello said. “That’s exactly why we’ve taken a very pragmatic, cautious approach to building a rainy-day fund.”

TERM LIMITS AND ELECTIONS

This year’s short session will be the last for at least 11 state senators - nearly one-fourth of the Legislature - who cannot run again because of term limits. The departing senators include prominent committee leaders and Hadley, of Kearney.

Another 13 senators have filed for re-election, and though most are unopposed, a challenger ousting an incumbent would increase the number of lawmakers who don’t return in January 2017.

SAVING TIME

Nebraska lawmakers could spend a little less time debating contentious issues this year because of changes to the rules regarding the filibuster, a widely used tactic to delay votes on bills a senator opposes.

Hadley said he is reducing the time needed before a senator can seek a cloture vote during first-round debate. The Legislature has traditionally required eight hours of debate before a senator can invoke the rule and force a vote on a bill. This year, the wait has been shortened to six hours.

Hadley said he made the change in response to a recent spate of filibusters that slowed the Legislature to a crawl.

“I was concerned that we seem to be falling back on filibusters more now than we have in the past,” he said.

The amount of time allowed for discussion will remain at four hours during second-round debate and two hours on final readings.

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