LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A new Nebraska Legislature will kick off its 90-day session, during which it is expected to debate property taxes, prisons and the state budget, among other things.
Eighteen new senators will take their seats for the first time Wednesday, and Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts will be sworn into office the following day.
Some key things to know about this year:
TERM LIMITS, TURNOVER
The new wave of senators is the result of term limits, which prevented 17 outgoing senators from running again, if they had wanted. An 18th new member, Sen. David Schnoor of Scribner, has already been appointed to replace Charlie Janssen, who was elected state auditor.
With the incoming freshman, Republicans will gain five seats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. GOP senators will outnumber Democrats 35-13, and one independent. Nebraska’s Legislature lacks a formal party structure and leadership, and many issues are split based on regional interests, a senator’s personal preferences, or an urban-rural divide.
Regardless of party, some senior lawmakers argue that the new class will bring fresh ideas, even though state government loses some institutional knowledge.
Expect big proposals for Nebraska’s prison system, which has faced criticism for numerous management problems. Department officials have come under fire for the premature release of hundreds of prisoners, whose sentences were miscalculated; the creation of a furlough program that some lawmakers argue is illegal; persistent overcrowding; and their use of segregation for prisoners such as Nikko Jenkins.
Jenkins pleaded with prison and state officials for mental health treatment, but he was released directly from segregation in July 2013. The following month, he killed four people in Omaha during a 10-day rampage.
Nebraska lawmakers have to pass a new state budget while facing a projected $50.1 million budget shortfall, while promising to overhaul the state prison system and work to reduce property taxes.
The shortfall is relatively small, considering that the state is on course to collect about $9 billion in the next two-year budget cycle. But several state agencies have already filed multimillion-dollar budget requests, which the Appropriations Committee will have to balance. The projected shortfall can easily change, depending on budget estimates.
The Department of Correctional Services has submitted budget requests totaling nearly $23.2 million, primarily to ease overcrowding. The Department of Health and Human Services has requested $19 million to reimburse the federal government for child welfare expenses that weren’t properly documented.
State Sen. Heath Mello, the Appropriations Committee chairman, has said the prison system changes need to be a top priority this year.
Lawmakers are expected to focus on property taxes, which have skyrocketed for farmers and ranchers as land values have soared. Nebraska farmers and ranchers pay the third-highest property taxes in the U.S., according to the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Ricketts has identified property taxes as his top priority for the year.
The question for lawmakers is whose to cut, and how. Sen. Galen Hadley, the current chairman of the Revenue Committee, has said the discussion could include reducing the taxable value of agricultural land, putting caps on property taxes, or taxing land by the profit it generates rather than its market value. Each approach has advantages and pitfalls, he said, and lawmakers need to understand the consequences.
Lawmakers could also add money to Nebraska’s property tax credit fund, which offsets the taxes paid by both rural and urban residents. Lawmakers increased the fund to $140 million last year. With the additional money, a home or property valued at $100,000 gets a tax credit of $74.11.
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