By Grant Schulte The Associated Press
Nebraska lawmakers will kick off their 2022 session with several big questions to answer, including whether to build a new $230 million prison and how they’ll spend more than $1 billion in federal pandemic money.
The 60-day short session that begins Wednesday will have plenty of contentious issues for lawmakers to address. Unlike recent years, however, they’ll be flush with money from the federal government and stronger-than-expected state tax collections.
Here are five things to know about the session:
FEDERAL PANDEMIC MONEY
Nebraska is getting a $1.04 billion share of the federal government’s latest pandemic relief package, creating a lot of opportunities for the state and plenty of outstretched hands from organizations that want a piece.
Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, estimated that he has seen around 60 requests from senators on how to use the money. Stinner said he’s also waiting for a budget proposal from Gov. Pete Ricketts, a fellow Republican who has said such money should only be used for one-time expenses.ADVERTISEMENT
Stinner said many of the requests he has seen focus on mental health services, economic development and workforce needs to address Nebraska’s severe labor shortage.
On Tuesday, two Omaha senators announced their own proposal that calls for spending the money on public health services, housing, job training programs and neighborhood development projects in north Omaha.
Sens. Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney, both Democrats, said the pandemic has exacerbated public health disparities in their districts, which encompass many low-income, minority-heavy neighborhoods with higher-than-average unemployment.
“It is time that we, as a state, make investments in our communities hit hardest by COVID,” McKinney said in a statement.
Nebraska is in strong financial shape even without the latest round of federal money, thanks to higher-than-expected tax collections that leave the state with $412 million in extra, unallocated cash.
“The state is in terrific shape right now as it relates to revenues,” Stinner said.
Stinner said he has also received about $300 million in deficit requests from state agencies, including $115 million from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services and $117 million from the state Department of Health and Human Services.
He said one big expense he anticipates is salary increases for state employees as both wages and expenses rise nationally due to inflation.
A NEW PRISON
Lawmakers will continue to debate whether to build a new, $230 million prison to replace the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary and accommodate a growing inmate population.ADVERTISEMENT
Ricketts and state corrections officials have said the project is needed to maintain public safety, but some lawmakers remain fervently opposed to the idea.
Democratic Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said he expects to focus this year on “charting a long-term course for our criminal justice system” to try to reduce prison crowding and recidivism.
Lathrop said he’s still waiting on a master facility study to determine whether a new prison is necessary or an effective approach. He said he has some concerns about both the building and annual operating costs and wants more information.
“That’s going to be a consequential number,” he said. ”… What we need to do is step back and have a broader conversation as stewards of taxpayer dollars about how to get the best outcomes.
Lawmakers will once again look for ways to cut taxes, with a bigger expected emphasis this year on income taxes.
Republican Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, of Omaha, said she expects to see bills to reduce individual income tax rates and speed up several tax cut measures that were approved last year.
Lawmakers agreed last year to lower corporate income tax rates and phase out taxes on Social Security income over several years. With extra money in the state’s coffers, Linehan said lawmakers will try to shorten those timelines.
“If we have more revenue than we have budgeted for our needs, it’s immoral to take that extra money from people,” Linehan said. “I think there is enough that we can cut taxes and satisfy our needs.”
Lawmakers are also preparing to debate measures that would further restrict abortion access, expand gun rights and other issues that pop up every year in the Legislature, with mixed results.
The makeup of the Legislature hasn’t changed since last year, however, so it may be difficult for any issue to gain traction if it failed in 2021.
The one-house Legislature is ostensibly nonpartisan but is composed of 32 Republicans and 17 Democrats. It’s difficult for Republicans to pass the most contentious proposals, however, because they don’t have a 33-vote supermajority to overcome Democratic filibusters.