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Nebraska budget debate starts with tension

The debate on adjustments to the 2017-19 state budget started out Tuesday morning with tension, delays and opposition to spending down the state's rainy day fund to $296 million.

Much of the morning was spent in delay by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who quickly offered up a kill motion on the first of three budget bills (LB946) to allow him to talk about black-tailed prairie dogs, Gov. Pete Ricketts, just-fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a variety of other topics, as he is apt to do.

"My motions are not going to be adopted and I know it," Chambers said.

He finally made a deal that if he would get 15 of 25 needed aye votes on reconsidering his motion to kill the bill, he would back off. He got 16.

Senators then voted, close to the noon hour on the cash reserve bill, advancing it on a 34-9 vote. Those who opposed the bill were Sens. Bruce Bostelman, Lydia Brasch, Steve Erdman, Curt Friesen, Mike Groene, Steve Halloran, John Kuehn, John Lowe and Justin Wayne.

Ricketts proposed transferring $108 million from the rainy day fund to cover specific expenses and balance the budget. The Appropriations Committee reduced that amount to $100 million. Member Kate Bolz of Lincoln said the transfer ensured senators would protect K-12 education, obligations for pension funds and the property tax credit.

But a number of senators had difficulty swallowing the reduction to the rainy day fund. Erdman of Bayard said the budget was in dire need of cuts. Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell said the state had to be prepared for unexpected spending the state could encounter, such as on overcrowded prisons.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus offered the gloomiest scenario.

"There's some truths that are self-evident. And the truth that is self-evident is we are in really bad financial shape and we are making in worse," he said. "We're spending more than we're taking in."

And cutting taxes isn't helping matters, he said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld criticized those senators who wanted to "cut, cut, cut," but wouldn't look in the mirror at the their own willingness to take, for example, farm subsidies. It's hypocritical, he said.

"A budget is more than just a spreadsheet of numbers and columns," he said. "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.

A number of items in the $8.8 billion budget were expected to cause rancor as the debate continues in the afternoon. Two of those are cuts to higher education that some senators might want to increase or decrease, and an anti-abortion provision from Gov. Pete Ricketts related to federal Title X funding that some on the committee argued would hurt access to health care and family-planning services for women and men.

Bolz placed an amendment on the main budget bill (LB944) that would alter Ricketts' provision on Title X. It would say no Title X funds would be used for abortion or abortion counseling. No funds would be granted to an organization that performs, assists with or provides directive counseling in favor of abortion.

Organizations could provide neutral, factual information, nondirective counseling, or referral upon request. And an otherwise qualified organization would not be disqualified from Title X funds when it can demonstrate objective independence.

But it is the intent of the Legislature, the amendment says, that Title X funds be distributed statewide and that Department of Health and Human Services ensure a network is maintained sufficient in numbers and types of providers to assure Title X services would be accessible without unreasonable delay.

The majority of the committee has held fast over previous weeks on not changing the wording on Title X funding that Ricketts proposed.