Sen John Stinner is ‘cautiously optimistic’ on current legislative session

February 15, 2019

LINCOLN – District 48 State Sen. John Stinner of Gering said he’s “cautiously optimistic” the current legislative session will get something done on property tax relief, although the state budget looks far from rosy.

Stinner spoke to local constituents during his first bimonthly conference call hosted by the Scottsbluff/Gering United Chamber of Commerce.

Stinner, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said they recently completed the first phase of a review process for all 78 state agencies and 265 different budget programs that have statutes attached to them.

“That’s how the state budget is formulated,” Stinner said. “We should have a preliminary budget probably next week as I’m currently reviewing the draft.”

In order to have more time to debate the budget, Title 10 was removed for the 2019 session. That provision, supported by Gov. Pete Ricketts, would mandate “objective independence” between family health clinics and clinics that provide abortion services.

According to Stinner, senators spent 16 hours last session debating Title 10 rather than the budget. The Speaker of the Legislature was ready to pull the budget from the agenda because no resolution was in sight.

Stinner said that for the next two years, any legislation requiring new expenditures, called a fiscal note, will probably not get passed.

One of those bills with a fiscal note would allow Nebraska farmers to grow industrial hemp, which Stinner said has the potential to become a multi-million dollar crop, especially in arid western Nebraska.

When the bill was presented to the Legislature, the Nebraska State Patrol requested $300,000 for a spectrum machine that identifies THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, so they can assure the crop really is industrial hemp.

Unfortunately, Stinner said, the legislation could be derailed because of a required expenditure of funds.

“I hope we’ll get a better revenue report than I expect from the Economic Forecasting Board in February,” Stinner said. “We’re down $80 million for the months of November, December and January. Their forecast was supposed to have us up $69 million.”

He said some of the deficit might have been caused by the Legislature’s reconciling estimates of state tax dollars to changes in the federal tax code. Senators will probably revisit the numbers once the revenue report comes in.

Other major issues the Legislature must tackle this session include Medicaid expansion for some 90,000 new recipients at a cost of $62 million in fiscal notes so far.

However, it may take until 2020 to get the federal government onboard to ramp up the program.

“We’ve got to talk about how the Medicaid expenditures will crowd out other funding, like public education,” Stinner said. “After that, we have to discuss possibly building a prison that takes money out of our rainy day fund. That could take the rainy day fund down to about $278 million, and that’s an extremely low balance given the budget trends we’re seeing.”

The main topic for discussion among senators is now property tax relief, which Nebraskans have said is the most important issue to them.

Stinner said there are four or five proposals currently being considered. He was confident senators would be able to coalesce around some ideas to generate revenue and also provide immediate property tax relief.

“I’m confident something positive will come out of this session even though there’s no extra money for us to work with,” he said.