By Governor Pete Ricketts
Just like your family or a small business, the State of Nebraska sets priorities when we balance our budget. These priorities must be carefully considered because state government cannot simply borrow money to fund programming like the federal government. A few weeks ago, I shared some of the principles guiding my work with the Legislature to balance the budget. Balancing the budget and holding the line on spending this session were two of my top priorities, because the state was facing a $124 million shortfall due to slow growth in tax receipts. I am happy to report that we have, for the second year in a row, balanced the budget, constrained spending, and set important spending priorities while addressing the budget shortfall.
In January, I introduced a set of budget adjustments that served as the framework for the budget bills recently approved by the Appropriations Committee and the full Legislature. While I have concerns about several changes made by the Legislature, I applaud senators for meeting the 3.5 percent spending target I set. This rate of growth is almost half of the previous biennium. Constraining spending is the key to how we provide tax relief. Keeping the rate of growth in government below the rate of growth in tax revenue will allow the Legislature and I to continue to work on providing much-needed tax relief for hardworking Nebraskans in the coming years.
The concerns I have about the adjustments the Legislature made include some items that expand non-critical services, replace lost federal funds, or attempt to advantage certain organizations. For example, the Appropriations Committee added $1 million for community colleges at a time when they have increased taxes by almost 13 percent a year for the last decade. Furthermore, they also replaced lost federal funds for the ACE Scholarship Program with state dollars. As worthy as this program may be, I oppose replacing lost federal dollars with state dollars. Moreover, the Legislature also included intent language in their adjustments to appropriate an additional $5 million for the Cultural Preservation Endowment Fund in the coming years. With sales tax receipts declining, I question whether this is a funding priority, especially considering the Legislature has increased this endowment 60 percent in the last eight years. None of these are urgent funding issues, especially in the middle of a budget cycle when addressing a budget shortfall.
This summer, I will have the opportunity to start putting together the budget for the next biennium, and I will work to address some of my concerns in the budget I will propose in January 2017. In this next budget, I will continue to work to control the size and scope of state government by targeting a low budget growth rate.
In the mid-biennium adjustments, the Legislature and I worked together to address a couple of urgent priorities for our state in the mid-biennium budget adjustments. Appropriations Chairman Heath Mello and I successfully secured $13 million to fix levies near Offutt Air Force base. This is a critical investment in the future of one of our state’s largest employers, and demonstrates to the Air Force that Nebraska is committed to the future of the base. The Air Force has been considering whether to invest in resurfacing the runway at the air base, which hinges on levy repair. Additionally, the budget bills also included $26 million to expand our community corrections facilities and reentry programming in Lincoln. This investment is the next step in reforming corrections, and ensuring that we reduce the number of repeat offenders in our state’s prisons.
While we have completed our work on the budget, there is still much to be done in the final days of the legislative session. With only a handful of days left, I encourage Nebraskans to remain engaged in the discussions about important bills still under consideration including property tax relief, infrastructure, and immigration policy. If you want to weigh in on any bill, you can find information about how to contact your senator at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov. To reach my office, you can call 402-471-2244, email email@example.com, or follow me on Twitter @GovRicketts and at facebook.com/GovernorPeteRicketts.