The Nebraska Legislature has passed the halfway point in its 2013 session, and new spending ideas so far have outpaced available new revenue by about a 10-to-1 margin.
Lawmakers have put forward a lot of potentially worthy ideas — everything from giving tax breaks to senior citizens and veterans to a sales tax break for wind farms to a new central Nebraska veterans home.
Now comes the hard part. There isn’t nearly enough money to fund all of the ideas.
Add up all the spending and tax exemption proposals prioritized for possible floor debate this session, and they total in the neighborhood of $185 million.
But how much does the Legislature have for new spending and tax exemptions? Only $16 million to $18 million.
So in addition to meeting two steep challenges this year — coming up with a balanced budget overall, and wrapping things up by early June even though stall tactics and filibusters have become unusually frequent this session — Nebraska lawmakers have one other important responsibility.
They need to be willing to set priorities and make the tough budget choices.
Some of this year’s spending proposals may be enacted; others won’t — not because they’re unworthy but because the state’s funds are limited. Some of these may make it into law only after being scaled down to make them more affordable. A number of lawmakers, recognizing the fiscal restraints, have worked conscientiously in recent weeks to explore ways to reduce the costs of their proposals.
Lawmakers are considering ideas to increase subsidies to support high-quality child care ($19 million over two years) and to provide better protection against wildfires ($3.4 million). There are proposals to overhaul the state’s services for juveniles ($5.8 million) and to study Nebraska’s needs in addressing long-term water challenges ($3 million).
There’s legislation that would extend services for state wards who “age out” of the system when they turn 19 ($13 million over two years, pared down by its sponsor, Sen. Amanda McGill, last week by around three-fourths), a bill to hire 15 state troopers to ratchet up the state’s liquor control law ($2.9 million), a bill to increase payments to foster care parents ($2 million) and many more.
And all this is in addition to the difficult decision on how much to provide for K-12 school aid.
Then there are the tax exemption ideas. Some of those have been prioritized for possible floor debate even as other tax-related ideas have been put on hold until a state task force can examine overall tax policy and make recommendations later this year.
One of the proposed tax exemptions prioritized for debate would reduce state revenues by $11.3 million to promote renewable energy projects. Another proposal would reduce state revenues by $16.6 million to grant tax forgiveness for repair or replacement parts for agricultural machinery and equipment.
But again, only $16 million to $18 million — total — is available.
Deciding these matters — of saying “yes” to one idea and “no” to another — is the very definition of legislative politics: Elected representatives come together to advocate, debate, negotiate and decide.
For the process to work properly, ground rules need to be followed: Debate should be conducted fairly. Lawmakers need to pay attention and absorb information. Sponsors of individual bills need to be willing to compromise — and in many cases, accept it when they’re told there isn’t enough money for their proposal.
Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, has beaten the warning drum this session about the limited funding available. He no doubt will be do so again as cost-heavy bills continue to pop up like spring flowers on the State Capitol lawn.
The Appropriations Committee has already taken the first stab at setting priorities and paring back the spending requests.
If the Legislature as a whole does the same, lawmakers will have delivered the public with something important: a budget that’s not only balanced but responsibly constructed.