Here’s what happened in the Nebraska Legislature where the headlines were focused on the budget, corrections and tax cuts.
A stalwart group of non-partisan senators stood up to Governor Pete Ricketts ill-advised tax plan (LB461) and sidetracked it for the session saying that this wasn’t the right time for tax cuts when the state is struggling with declining revenue.
As assigned, the Appropriations Committee delivered a budget just as the state’s Economic Forecasting Advisory Board determined that those revenues would be down an additional $56.5 million. The package of budget bills passed, but Ricketts used his line item veto power to remove $56.5 million funding for programs ranging from extra money for the probation administration to improvements to the aging HVAC system in the Capitol.
In the end, the Pete Ricketts’ Legislature sustained every one of the vetoes. That caused one senator to opine that the governor will have to own the budget just like he owns the Legislature. That recognizes that Ricketts contributed personal funds to last fall’s elections to defeat several incumbent senators (fellow Republicans, to boot) who had crossed him last session by overriding vetoes and doing other things (like supporting a repeal of the death penalty) one would expect in an independent branch of government.
The blurring of the separation of powers started in January when the Gang of 27 senators who met before the session started decided who was going to chair which committees. That coalition has hung together through the session and proven to be more puppets for the governor than representatives of the people. The slam dunk on veto overrides appears to have completed the merger of the Executive and Legislative branches and the beginning of the end of the nonpartisan system.
But that’s just politics, right? And who cares that it’s not necessarily nice.
So, here’s one of the “other” things they did in a flurry of final reading in the waning days of the session which seemed to drag early on with debate over rules and personalities and posturing. Consider the bill (LB584) they passed that will regulate the mowing of roadside ditches to prevent erosion and protect the bird population. Really.
It’s that kind of stuff that has to make you feel good about representative government, right? It prevents counties and townships from mowing ditches before July 1 each year, but does not prohibit private landowners from mowing roadside vegetation on road shoulders, intersections or entrances. Landowners will be required to mow roads and drainage ditches at least twice annually, in July and September.
Just remember, this is the same Legislature that sustained vetoes, which eliminated general funds that had been approved for Medicaid, child welfare, behavioral health and developmental disability providers. Not to mention the money that would have been spent for expansion of the probation system to keep more people out of prison and alleviate some of the overcrowding that will contribute to a lawsuit and necessitate the construction of another prison.
Appropriations Chairman Senator John Stinner of Gering argued for the override, saying that probation services provide constructive change through rehabilitation, collaboration and partnership to enhance and maintain the safety of communities. Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Senator Laura Ebke of Crete supported the override and said it’s important to keep our eyes on the big picture.
Lincoln Senator Matt Hansen of Lincoln supported the override motions, saying the governor had an unlimited number of choices in how to re-balance the budget with his line-item vetoes but chose cuts that impact individuals who cannot advocate for themselves. He said he hopes the governor is comfortable with those choices.
We’ll wait to see how those choices work out.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.