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The State Budget, This Time It's Personal

By J.L. Schmidt

”A budget is more than just a spreadsheet of numbers and columns,” state Senator Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said during legislative debate on the state's $8.8 billion spending plan.
”It’s policies. It’s people’s lives. It’s who we are as a state, and it’s who we are in terms of how we look at taking care of our fellow farmers, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters,” he said as colleagues considered the measure (LB944), which is part of the five-bill budget package.
That hit the nail on the head in this year's debate, which seems to be more personal than fiscal.
Governor Pete Ricketts and a handful of senators want the University of Nebraska and the state and community colleges to take a 4 percent budget cut. The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee recommended a 1 percent cut in the 2018-19 fiscal year. The committee also recommended state agencies get 2 percent cuts across the board rather than Ricketts' proposed 4 percent.
Fellow Lincoln Senator Anna Wishart said she thinks "it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t have family or friends who are touched in a positive way by this (the University) institution.”
During a committee hearing on the budget, NU President Hank Bounds called the state’s financial support of higher education a moral issue. He said Governor's cuts would cost the university $11.4 million in state aid by June 30, in addition to $23.2 million next year. That would lead to cuts of programs and people and a significant tuition hike. That's personal.
The committee's recommended budget calls for a two-year cut of $17.2 million instead of the Governor's $34.6 million. Senator Steve Erdman of Bayard has offered an amendment to reinstate the $17.4 million cut to the University budget.
Erdman said the entire budget is in dire need of cuts. One can speculate that his proposal might be part of his on-going war with the university over a free speech issue in August when he was joined by Senators Tom Brewer of Gordon and Steve Halloran of Hastings in saying the university was hostile to conservatives. That's personal.
Another personal issue is Ricketts' proposal to change the use of Title X funding that would impact disbursement to health clinics that also provide abortion services.
Nebraska receives funds from the federal Title X program that are used to subsidize reproductive and preventive health services, including the diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screenings and family planning services. Federal grant funds dispersed by the state through the program cannot be used to perform abortions.
A provision included in the bill would prohibit the Title X funds from being paid or granted to an organization that performs, assists, provides counseling in favor of or refers for abortion services. An otherwise qualified organization that is affiliated with, but objectively independent from, such an organization-which the bill defines as legal, physical and financial separation-would not be disqualified from receiving funds under the bill.
"Nebraska is a pro-life state, and the state's budget should reflect those values" Ricketts has said. "Facilities that focus on providing life-giving health care, not abortion services, should receive our Title X tax dollars."
Opponents to his proposal said it appears to target Planned Parenthood and could result in a loss of other services they offer to nearly 30,000 women. To both sides, that's personal.
Several lawmakers are concerned about the use of cash reserve (rainy day) funds to plug gaps in the budget. "I'm not sure how long it's going to continue to rain," Appropriations Committee member Senator John Kuehn of Heartwell said. The cash reserve balance has been diminished to a point where it may be difficult to address major priorities and large expenses in the next couple years.
Senator Paul Schumacher of Columbus was more graphic. He said his colleagues are "in freefall with a noose around [their] necks" about the state's economic situation. Despite nearly full employment and a normalizing ag sector, state revenues are not rebounding as incentive programs and tax cuts aren't producing the growth they promised.
"There are some truths that are self-evident," Schumacher said. "And the truth that is self-evident is we are in really bad financial shape and we are making it worse."
That's sobering.
J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 19 years.