COLUMBUS — State Sen. Paul Schumacher doesn’t talk about the upcoming legislative session like a man who’s excited to rejoin his colleagues in Lincoln.
The Columbus lawmaker is entering his final year at the Capitol before term limits kick him out of office and he’s preparing for a grind until the very end.
“This is going to be a short, contentious session filled with all sorts of unrealistic expectations,” Schumacher said of the 60-day legislative schedule that begins Wednesday.
Schumacher, serving his second four-year term, said the goal at this point is to “keep my finger in the dike” until the Legislature adjourns in mid-April.
“And then run like hell for the hills before the dam breaks.”
That’s his tongue-in-cheek way of describing a dire financial situation and lack of long-term solutions that continue to frustrate the local attorney.
He expects state finances — primarily a projected $173 million revenue shortfall over the current two-year budget cycle — to dominate discussion again in 2018.
“The state has got a real, real financial problem,” Schumacher said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, who already ordered a hiring freeze for all state agencies under his control and temporarily reduced the amount of money agencies receive each quarter, said last week he’s confident the budget can be balanced without raising taxes.
In fact, he’s expected to introduce a revised version of the package he pushed in 2017 to provide income and property tax relief.
The measure that stalled in 2017 would have relied on “revenue triggers” to automatically lower the state's top income tax rate in years when the state collects more revenue than expected. It also would have changed the way agricultural land is valued so it more closely aligns with a farmer's potential income.
There will likely be other tax-cutting proposals on the table, and Schumacher believes they’re all a bad idea at this time.
“We can’t afford to conduct government, much less do tax cuts,” he said.
Schumacher, a member of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, said reducing taxes now would do “irreparable damage” moving forward unless lawmakers can find other revenue sources.
“It’s highly improbable that anything that is doable or reasonable will emerge,” he said of the tax plans.
The local lawmaker has argued that tax cuts have contributed to the state’s recent financial problems at a time when senators should be focused on preparing for an aging population that’s more dependent on government services and finding money to address an overcrowded prison system and lack of mental health services, particularly in rural areas.
“You can only reduce revenues so much before it really has an impact,” he said.
Instead of pushing expenses down the road and making drastic spending cuts, Schumacher believes the Legislature needs to look at eliminating tax incentives that drain revenue from state coffers.
The state’s business tax incentives, for instance, totaled $295 million during 2016, according to a Nebraska Department of Revenue report released in August.
The department also found that this lost revenue would outweigh potential gains from the increased economic activity through 2025.
“You can’t take those kind of hits and still survive,” Schumacher said.
Schumacher has also pushed several times in the past for expanded gambling, arguing that the hundreds of millions of dollars residents here spend annually at casinos in Iowa and other neighboring states could be kept in Nebraska.
That fight, though, likely won’t continue this year.
Given the current opposition, Schumacher said he probably won’t introduce a casino gambling bill in 2018.
“The environment will have to change,” he said.
Schumacher didn’t offer any specifics on measures he plans to introduce this session.
“I’ll have a little fun, needless to say — with realistic expectations,” he said.
Budget and tax talks will make it difficult to get anything “significant” passed during the shorter 60-day session, according to Schumacher, who will go through the process one more time before passing the responsibility along to the next District 22 representative.
“The only thing good about pounding your head against the wall is stopping,” he said.