LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska lawmakers will kick off a new session on Wednesday facing a variety of issues, including another tax cut package and looming state budget challenges.
Here are five things to watch in the 2018 session:
The 60-day session will limit the time available to debate legislation, creating pressure on senators to pass measures quickly. They convene for 90-day sessions in odd-numbered years and 60 day sessions in even-numbered years.
Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer has said he wants to allow debate on priority issues, but doesn’t want to spend hours on legislation that doesn’t have a realistic chance of passing. Senators in recent years have burned through much of their sessions with squabbles over parliamentary rules, in particular a proposal by conservatives to combat filibusters.
The state’s constitution sets the Legislature’s opening date 7/8as the first Wednesday after the first Monday in January. The session is slated to end April 18.
Lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts say the state budget is a top priority. The state faces a projected $173.3 million revenue shortfall in the current two-year budget cycle, which ends on June 30, 2019.
Ricketts and key lawmakers say they intend to adjust the budget without raising taxes. The governor has ordered a state employee hiring freeze for all agencies under his control and temporarily reduced the amount of money each state agency receives each quarter. In an interview last week, Ricketts said he’s confident he and lawmakers can balance the budget, but declined to disclose his plans until after he delivers his annual State of the State address in mid to late January.
The tight budget may complicate efforts to pass new measures that cost the state money.
A NEW TAX PACKAGE
Ricketts is expected to introduce a new tax package after his previous effort stalled in the 2017 session. The proposal will likely include some mix of income tax and property tax cuts although the governor has offered few specifics.
No matter how the package looks, Ricketts will have to find some agreement between farm groups, which want to see an emphasis on property tax cuts, and business groups, which are more interested in lowering income taxes. Other senators have argued the state needs to spend more on the state prison system and other priorities instead of cutting taxes.
The measure that stalled in 2017 would have relied on so-called revenue triggers to automatically lower the state’s top tax rate in years when the state collects more revenue than expected. It also would have changed the way agricultural land is valued so that it more closely aligns with a farmer’s potential income.
The number of filibusters has risen sharply over the last few years as a way to thwart contentious bills, and more of the same is likely unless lawmakers can reach compromises.
Unlike past decades, when senators needed a 25-vote simple majority to pass most bills, many disputed bills now require a 33-vote supermajority to force an end to legislative debate. During the 2017 session, filibusters helped sink income and property tax cut legislation, an effort to eliminate Nebraska’s motorcycle helmet requirement, and a gun-rights proposal, among other bills.
Scheer said senators may be more motivated to find agreement in this upcoming session because their terms in office are expiring or they’re up for re-election in November.
TERM LIMITS AND ELECTIONS
This session will be the last for six lawmakers who can’t seek re-election because of term limits — an unusually small number compared to turnover in recent years. Another 16 of the Legislature’s 49 senators are up for re-election in the November general election.
Scheer said senators who are up for re-election often feel more pressure to show what they’ve accomplished in office, and so they’re likely to push harder for legislation that will help their chances. Those who are on the verge of leaving because of term limits sometimes feel pressure to meet a last-minute goal.
One lawmaker, Sen. John Murante of Gretna, is running for state treasurer and has announced plans to introduce new measures that would require a government-issued identification at the polls — an issue likely to resonate with Republican voters. Another legislator, Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln, has announced he won’t seek a second term because he’s moving out of state.
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