Ballot measures, campaigns await as Nebraska session ends
By GRANT SCHULTE
Apr. 15, 2018
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers will finish a short, 60-day session Wednesday dominated by bitter disputes over the state budget, tax policy and social issues — and those battles aren't done yet.
The session's end sets the stage for new debates that will continue through the November election and into next year's legislative session.
Here are some things to watch:
TURNING TO THE PEOPLE
Frustrated that their bills stalled, some lawmakers and advocacy groups are trying to bypass the Legislature with petition drives that would take the proposals to voters in November.
One is a property tax ballot measure that would eventually direct more than $1 billion in state revenue each year into tax credits for property owners. Another possible ballot measure would expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a proposal Nebraska lawmakers have rejected six times.
Supporters of both measures said they're confident they'll get enough signatures to qualify for this year's general-election ballot.
"We've been very pleased with the level of enthusiasm we've seen from folks across the state," said Molly McCleery, a health care advocate for Nebraska Appleseed, which is working on the Medicaid expansion measure.
Organizers of the property tax petition drive began collecting signatures in February and have made good progress so far, said Trent Fellers, a former Lincoln city councilman who is managing the campaign.
"Our focus hasn't been what's going on the Legislature," Fellers said. "There's been gridlock there for two years on these types of tax issues."
The property tax measure will face organized opposition from Nebraska's largest business groups, which argue it could hinder efforts to cut income taxes.
The credits for property tax owners would increase annually if the ballot measure passes, costing the state an estimated $1.35 billion by fiscal year 2025. Nebraska's current state budget is about $8.8 billion, spread over two years. Gov. Pete Ricketts has said it would force lawmakers to make drastic cuts to state services and possibly approve a large tax increase.
It's unclear whether the Medicaid expansion measure will have organized opposition, but previous bills have drawn criticism from Ricketts and other top state officials.
Advocates for legalized marijuana are also seeking a ballot measure, but their previous attempts have failed.
BACK SO SOON?
Nebraska lawmakers could return to the Capitol in just a few weeks to debate property taxes, if some senators have their way.
Sen. Tom Brewer, of Gordon, submitted a letter last week to the Nebraska secretary of state with 12 co-signers that requests a special session to lower property taxes.
At least 10 senators were needed to start the process of convening a special session. After receiving the letter, Secretary of State John Gale sent letters Wednesday to all of the remaining senators asking if they would support a special session.
If at least 33 of the Legislature's 49 members respond favorably, state law requires Ricketts to call the session. Lawmakers have until April 23 to respond.
"This really is the last legislative tool in the toolbox," Brewer said.
Brewer acknowledged his push for a special session is a long shot, but said lawmakers need to explore every possible option. If he succeeds, lawmakers would likely reconvene in late April or early May. Ricketts and Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer oppose the idea.
MORE MONEY WOES?
Nebraska lawmakers may have balanced the state budget, but a shaky farm economy and the new federal tax law could lead to more financial problems next year.
Nebraska collected far less tax revenue than expected in March, according to the state Department of Revenue. Tax collections are still 1.6 percent above projections in the current fiscal year, and that could change in the next few months.
Much of the uncertainty comes from the federal tax law President Donald Trump signed in December. Although lawmakers passed a bill to negate many of its effects on state tax collections, state officials still don't know how the new law might change taxpayer behavior.
"It's almost impossible to put a finger on it," said Nebraska State Tax Commissioner Tony Fulton. "We don't know how all of this is going to play out."
Fulton said state officials should know more after April, traditionally the biggest month for tax collections.
Lawmakers faced a $173 million shortfall at the beginning of this year's session, forcing them to impose across-the-board and targeted cuts to state agencies, including the University of Nebraska. They also drew heavily from the state's cash reserve, which is intended for emergencies and one-time expenses.
With the session behind them, many lawmakers will shift into full-time campaign mode ahead of Nebraska's May 15 primary.
Sixteen of the Legislature's 49 senators are up for re-election, and 11 of them will have to overcome primary challengers to return next year.
Two others are running for higher office. Sen. Bob Krist, of Omaha, is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Ricketts, a Republican incumbent. Krist had previously been a Republican but switched his affiliation to nonpartisan in September. He joined the Democratic Party after he encountered major obstacles to getting on the ballot as an independent.
Krist will face fellow Democrats Tyler Davis and Vanessa Gayle Ward, both of Omaha, in the primary.
State Sen. John Murante, of Gretna, is looking to become Nebraska's state treasurer, but he faces a primary challenge from fellow Republican Taylor Royal, of Omaha. Both are vying to replace Republican State Treasurer Don Stenberg, who is leaving office because of term limits.
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