AP NEWS

Flooding, taxes among top priorities in new Nebraska session

January 7, 2020 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers will try to address prison overcrowding problems, approve new tax incentives for businesses and decide how to use a surplus of state tax revenue in the 2020 session that begins Wednesday.

This year’s short, 60-day session will put senators in a time crunch as they consider fresh proposals in addition to legislation carried over from last year’s 90-day session.

They’ll also have to work together if they want to pass major property tax legislation or flood-relief measures, top priorities for many lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts.

“It is difficult because we have less time,” said Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer. “It really just comes down to the number of hours in the day.”

Lawmakers will have an estimated $126.3 million at their disposal for the current, two-year budget cycle that ends in June 2021.

Scheer said he expects a lot of debate over the money, but added that stronger budget years can be more contentious because legislators all want to use the money for their own priorities. When money is tight, lawmakers are more likely to accept that their pet projects won’t get funding.

“There are a lot of needs out there,” Scheer said. “It’s just a question of which ones are ripe enough that they need to be taken care of.”

Lowering property taxes is still a top priority for many lawmakers, as is the state’s overcrowded prison system.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said he plans to introduce legislation that would lay the groundwork for a new 300-bed community corrections center in Omaha. Nebraska’s prison facilities house about 2,000 more inmates than the 3,535 that they were designed to hold, making it harder for inmates to get the rehabilitative counseling and treatment they seek before returning to society.

“I regard overcrowding as at nearly a crisis level,” Lathrop said. “Something needs to be done.”

Lathrop said he also expects lawmakers to debate the state’s largest tax incentive program for businesses, which is set to expire this year. One proposal would replace the current incentives with a program designed to be more transparent and predictable for state officials.

The current Nebraska Advantage Act program has been widely criticized as too complicated and expensive, making it hard to know whether the incentives are attracting businesses as intended.

Lawmakers are expected to seek fixes for the widespread damage caused by last year’s massive spring and summer floods, as well. Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said she’ll push for legislators to take a longer-term look at the state’s disaster preparedness.

The flood recovery “is a huge issue that we can barely wrap our arms around,” Pansing Brooks said. “I know the state has set aside $50 million for the communities that have these flooding issues, but I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Pansing Brooks, a Democrat in the nonpartisan Legislature, is co-chairing a special committee with state Sen. Bruce Bostelman, a Republican, to explore how the state can respond to future floods. She hopes lawmakers from both parties will work together on similar issues where they can find agreement, unlike past years where some new senators refused to leave their ideological camp.

“One of my greatest joys in office is the work I’ve been able to do with people across the aisle,” she said. “It’s clear that we need each other, and Nebraskans need us to work together.”

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