- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A University of Nebraska budget request for “economic competitiveness” projects drew scrutiny Tuesday from lawmakers who are trying to balance the state’s spending priorities.

Members of the Appropriations Committee questioned the $20 million request, part of a larger proposed budget that would boost university funding over the next two years.

The university has requested 5.5 percent increases in state aid in over the next two years, which would provide $568 million in upcoming academic year and $600 million the year after. The Appropriations Committee proposed a 3 percent annual increase in its preliminary spending plan.

University leaders said the overall request would help keep the university affordable and competitive while luring businesses to the state.

“We think it’s an investment in the state of Nebraska,” said Bob Phares, chairman of the university’s Board of Regents.

If approved, the $20 million increase would help pay for improvements at the Nebraska Innovation Campus, the Peter Kiewit Institute and the Rural Futures Institute, among other programs. Many of the initiatives were created with a focus on economic development, such as helping private businesses work with the university on inventions, businesses and technology.

Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, the speaker of the Legislature, said the projects would help grow businesses and keep young people in Nebraska.

“It’s an investment that will provide profits for the future,” Hadley said. “It’s an investment that will provide jobs, companies and tax revenue in the future.”

Hadley asked the committee to give the university flexibility in how it divides the money among projects, instead of dictating how it’s spent. Hadley said lawmakers should still have oversight, possibly by requiring the university to require its progress annually.

Additional investments could support the relocation of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Food Science & Technology to Innovation Campus, which will expand capacity for faculty and student activities and foster new opportunities for joint food science research projects between the university and ConAgra Foods, the first private collaborator at Innovation Campus.

Some lawmakers said economic development should be left to private businesses.

“If you talk to people in my district, they’ll say educate the kids and let the private sector do the economic development,” said Sen. Bill Kintner, of Papillion. “I think this would be a very tough sell to people in my district.”

Outside of their tentative $9 billion state budget, lawmakers have about $42 million available this year for additional tax cuts, prison reform, school aid and other priorities.

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The bill is LB154

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