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Nebraska lawmakers soon will take on budget, tax changes

April 21, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — With the legislative session more than two-thirds over, Nebraska lawmakers are getting ready to confront some of the biggest issues they’ll face this year, including the state budget, a contentious property tax plan and a longshot attempt to repeal the death penalty.

All the proposals are set for debate in the full Legislature between now and the session’s final scheduled day on June 6.

Here’s a breakdown of things to watch:

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PROPERTY TAXES

Many state lawmakers campaigned on promises to lower property taxes, but they have yet to agree on how to do it.

The latest plan from the tax-focused Revenue Committee seeks to ease the burden on property owners by raising the state sales tax from 5.5% to 6.25%, eliminating sales tax exemptions and boosting state funding to K-12 schools. Nebraska’s cigarette tax would jump from 64 cents to $1 per pack.

The extra revenue would then be used to lower school property taxes by an average of 20 percent — a major savings for farmers, ranchers and homeowners. It’s already proven controversial, with Gov. Pete Ricketts strongly opposed and “alarmed that senators are even considering this.”

Supporters of the plan say it could easily change but argue that senators need a plan that will offset sharp increases in property tax bills over the past several years. Ricketts’ proposal to slow the growth of local government tax collections doesn’t appear to have enough support to pass in the Legislature.

“We can sit here and stare at the problem, or we can actually try to fix the problem before we have a crisis,” said Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, of Omaha, the committee’s chairwoman.

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THE BUDGET

Lawmakers will soon consider a new state spending plan, which is now being crafted by the Appropriations Committee. The $9.4 billion budget includes extra money for property tax credits, K-12 schools and a voter-approved initiative to expand Medicaid.

Still uncertain is how lawmakers will balance the budget with other priorities, such as tweaking the state’s tax incentives for businesses.

“These next few weeks will be a heavy lift for all of us,” said Sen. John Stinner, of Gering, the committee’s chairman.

Stinner said he expects a lot of debate over how much money the state should keep in its cash reserve. It’s designed for emergencies and one-time expenses, and lawmakers have drawn from it heavily the last few years to balance the budget and pay for road projects.

The budget outlook could also change on Thursday when the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board meets to update its estimates of how much tax revenue the state will collect.

The debate may be less contentious than last year, however, because lawmakers will no longer have an argument over how to spend federal family-planning dollars. The money has traditionally gone to the state but was awarded to a private organization this year. That decision came after Ricketts inserted requirements into the budget that effectively prevented any of the money from going to Planned Parenthood of the Heartland.

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DEATH PENALTY

Three years after voters overturned the Legislature’s 2015 vote to abolish the death penalty, lawmakers will tackle the issue once again.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, has introduced a repeal bill that’s slated for floor debate this week. The Judiciary Committee advanced the measure last month on a 5-2 vote.

It’s unlikely to pass, however, because the Legislature’s membership has changed since 2015 and a larger number of senators now support capital punishment. Several Republican lawmakers who voted for the repeal in 2015 were targeted by Ricketts in the 2016 election and lost their seats.

Ricketts was instrumental in last year’s execution of Carey Dean Moore, the state’s first inmate to die by lethal injection. The Republican governor helped finance a ballot drive to restore capital punishment, and once it was back in place, his administration changed Nebraska’s lethal injection protocol to overcome challenges in purchasing the necessary drugs.

Before Moore’s execution, Nebraska last carried out a death sentence in 1997, using the electric chair.

Chambers opposes the death penalty on grounds that it diminishes the value of human life, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and is disproportionately imposed on minorities. He argues that a life-and-death issue such as capital punishment shouldn’t be left to the whims of voters.

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MEDICAL MARIJUANA

Lawmakers have yet to debate a proposal to legalize medical marijuana, despite the looming threat of a statewide ballot initiative that could usher in one of the nation’s least restrictive programs.

The bill is still in committee, but supporters say they’re trying to find a compromise that will build support for the proposal.

Even so, it’s unlikely to pass in a Legislature that has traditionally rejected medical marijuana programs. A petition drive is already underway to put the issue on the November 2020 general election ballot.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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