September 16, 2014

Legislators restore $61M of $65M vetoed by Gov. Heineman

Appropriations Committee Chairman Heath Mello confers with other senators during an earlier budget debate

Appropriations Committee Chairman Heath Mello (center) confers with other senators during an earlier budget debate

State lawmakers have restored nearly all of the cuts made to the state budget by Gov. Dave Heineman.

Heineman on Saturday announced he would use his line-item veto power to trim $65 million from the nearly $8 billion state budget. He suggested lawmakers use $25 million from that total to increase the property tax credit fund.

On Tuesday, the Unicameral took up three budget bills (LB 905, LB 906, and LB 130) approved by the Appropriations Committee that restored $61 million of the $65 million vetoed.

The bill passed overwhelmingly; 37-11.

A relatively small item in the budget has received a lot of attention: $2.5 million to build four fountains in the courtyards of the state Capitol, fountains designed for the Capitol, but scratched when money got tight during construction in the middle of the Great Depression.

Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln told colleagues during legislative floor debate the timing is right to spruce up the Capitol in time for its sesquicentennial.

“It’s appropriate that we finish this building in time for that celebration in 2017,” Avery said. “And, if we don’t do it now, I’m afraid we’ll miss the opportunity and we never will do it.”

Also arguing in favor of restoring the funding for the Capitol was Appropriations Committee chairman, Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who said the Capitol isn’t for the lawmakers, it’s for the public.

“The public gets to utilize this space. The public gets to utilize these courtyards. Children come into this Capitol on an annual basis,” Mello stated. “They get to utilize this the same way I or any other taxpayer can come and utilize this space.”

Legislators also overrode the governor’s veto of $11.7 million as a down payment to begin replacing the heating and cooling system at the Capitol, a project that could total nearly $80 million over the next ten years.

Though the governor argued the state cash reserve fund had grown sufficiently to warrant using a portion for tax cuts, Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island argued the Unicameral shouldn’t touch it.

“We’re going to have to pay for some of these things at some point in time and to be short-sighted and charge after tax relief now with dollars that we’re going to have to come up with eventually anyway is penny wise, pound foolish,” according to Gloor.

Yet, Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, a candidate for governor, countered that the legislature should uphold the vetoes and use the money to cut property taxes.

“Those farm families, those ranch families, those small business owners, those young families that live in Omaha or Lincoln in an urban setting that might not have much of a connection to agriculture they are paying some of the highest tax burdens of anywhere in the United States,” McCoy said. “Agriculture pays the third highest property tax burden in the United States.”

Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft picked up on that theme, stating tax cuts should be viewed as more important than some of the projects funded by the budget.

“I do think that we need to look more closely at how can we bring more back, how can we re-invest, not in the facilities, not in a fountain, but in the people that we serve,” Brasch said.

The legislature let stand a few of the governor’s budget vetoes, the largest being a veto of a $2.4 million transfer from Medicaid to services for juvenile offenders.

The legislature restored $10 million for job training, $10 million for behavioral health aid, $7.3 million for maintenance of state parks, and a little over a million dollars for an Omaha sewer system upgrade that Heineman called a local project that should be funded locally.