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Budget, tax, death penalty debates loom for Nebraska lawmakers in session's final days

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — With a little more than a month left in the session, Nebraska lawmakers still must take final action on some of the year's largest and most contentious issues.

The list includes the state budget, property taxes, medical marijuana and a death-penalty repeal measure that has gained more support than usual. Lawmakers also have to decide whether to grant driver's licenses to youths in the federal deferred-action program, and whether all motorists should pay a higher fuel tax.

Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley said he's trying to allow debate on every priority bill that has advanced out of committee. With time running out, Hadley, of Kearney, said lawmakers are seeking agreements on thorny issues, such as prison sentencing reform.

Hadley announced last week the Legislature will test a new scheduling system designed to limit the number of late nights near the session's end. Instead of 90-minute lunch breaks and adjourning around 5 p.m., lawmakers will get a 20-minute break over the noon hour, with food served at the Capitol, and stay until 7 p.m.

"I just think people run out of gas when we go late, and I'm always suspicious of the quality of legislation passed at 10 or 11 at night," he said.

Here are some major items awaiting action:

BUDGET, PROPERTY TAXES

Lawmakers will begin debate this week on a new budget package, but a drop in projected state revenue could require cuts.

The $8.7 billion, two-year budget proposal includes extra money for property tax relief and education, with lower-than-average spending growth. Senators are now waiting for a new revenue forecast Thursday, and early signs suggest the state could collect millions less than expected.

A dramatically lower projection would reduce the $48 million that lawmakers tentatively have available for legislation this year.

Sen. Health Mello of Omaha, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said other Midwestern states appear to be collecting less because of a slowdown in the farm economy.

"There's a likelihood that we're going to have to make some serious changes to provide a balanced budget to the Legislature," Mello said. "When you have smaller revenue growth, it requires everyone to have to prioritize."

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

Senators will debate whether to legalize medical marijuana for treatment of seizures, nausea and other ailments caused by chronic diseases.

Supporters have flocked to the Capitol and are preparing a statewide ballot measure if lawmakers fail to act. But the proposal faces opposition from law enforcement, including Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson.

A new version advanced by the Judiciary Committee would impose tight controls on where cannabis could be produced and who could receive it, and would not allow patients to ingest the drug by smoking it.

DEATH PENALTY

A bill to abolish the death penalty won first-round approval earlier this month, but its path through the Legislature isn't guaranteed.

Lawmakers voted 30-13 to advance the bill, showing just enough support to override Gov. Pete Ricketts' promised veto.

Yet even with a bipartisan majority, supporters of the bill may have to overcome filibusters by conservative lawmakers before the required the second- and third-round votes. Breaking a filibuster requires at least 33 senators, and votes on such procedural issues could prevent it from advancing.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has fought to eliminate the death penalty for more than four decades, warned after the initial vote that nothing is final.

DRIVER'S LICENSES FOR DEFERRED-ACTION YOUTHS

Lawmakers haven't begun first-round debate on a bill that would allow driver's licenses for youths who brought to the United States illegally as young children, but allowed to stay under President Barack Obama's federal deferred-action program. Nebraska is the only state that still denies licenses to such youths.

The bill by Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha has won support from a majority of lawmakers, business and agriculture groups, and man Republicans, including Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert. But it's strongly opposed by some conservative senators.

"These are hardworking Nebraskans, and I say 'Nebraskans' because they've been here their whole lives," Nordquist said. "They are a net positive for the state, and this will help strengthen our communities."

FUEL TAX

A proposed increase in Nebraska's fuel tax won initial approval from lawmakers, 26-10, but it faces two more rounds of debate before going to Ricketts, who has promised a veto. The measure would phase in a 6-cent increase over four years, raising the total tax to 31.6 cents per gallon.

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion said he introduced the bill to help pay for maintenance for the state's aging bridges and roads. Opponents say the tax increase will disproportionately affect the poor because many spend a larger proportion of their incomes on gas.

MINIMUM WAGE, LGBT PROTECTIONS

Also pending are proposed new protections for gay and lesbian employees, and an effort to freeze the state's $8 an hour minimum wage for high school students.

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