Budget Gap Smaller but Nebraska Legislature Faces Challenges


The storms clouds are lifting but Nebraska can't give up its rainy day fund just yet. Lawmakers are still worried about balancing the budget, and that work began with Wednesday's kickoff of a new session at the state capitol.
"It's all about budget," said Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island. Kicking off the 2013 session of the legislature, lawmakers are prioritizing the important pieces of the budget puzzle. Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island said, "Ultimately it comes down to the kind of dollars that are available to make the wheels turn in the state of Nebraska." Senators have 90 days to make sure those wheels will turn smoothly for the next two years.
But putting the right dollars in the right places won't happen overnight. Sen. Annette Dubas, the new chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee said, "Budget, state aid for education, any of those could take up a whole session -- we have to deal with all of them in 90 days." Lawmakers are bracing themselves for long debates on a number of critical issues this session, like funding for schools and roads, which lead right back to the state's budget. "The budget really can't move significantly until we know what we're going to do with state aid to schools," said Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids. She was elected chair of the Education Committee. They face a shortfall, but unlike the billion dollar gap two years ago, they need to cut less than $200 million in this budget, while still keeping money in the rainy day fund. Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege said, "It's pretty important that we rebuild the cash reserve first because we had to use those two years ago in order to balance the budget." Although lawmakers say the budget shortfall isn't as great as years past they say that actually creates a challenge because committees will now ask for more money.
Kearney Sen. Galen Hadley was elected chair of the Revenue Committee, which oversees taxes, while Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha will lead the Appropriations Committee that negotiates budgets.
Hadley said the picture will become clearer when a new economic forecast is released this spring, showing how much tax money the state can expect to collect.