- Associated Press - Friday, May 29, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers concluded a historic 2015 session Friday marked by high-profile votes to raise the gas tax, allow driver’s licenses for certain immigrant youths brought to the country illegally and abolish the death penalty.

Senators and Gov. Pete Ricketts focused on their policy agreements on spending and property tax reductions and played down the three veto-override votes on this year’s most contentious issues.

Ricketts set aside his recent defeats and congratulated lawmakers on their efforts to lower property taxes and slow state spending.

“The work we do impacts hardworking Nebraskans all across the state,” Ricketts said. “Our work here in Lincoln has real-life implications, which is why it’s so important that we keep the lines of communications open and work together to grow Nebraska.”

Ricketts and lawmakers agreed on a budget that grows state spending by about 3.5 percent annually for the next two-year cycle, compared to the average 5 percent increases in past years. They also added $64 million a year to the state’s property tax credit fund - used to offset local property taxes - for a total of $204 million annually.

The governor’s comments came days after lawmakers overrode his veto of a death penalty repeal bill and legislation to give driver’s licenses to certain young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally. Senators also increased the gas tax over his objections.

The vote to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty drew national attention because of the state’s conservative leanings. Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha had fought for four decades to abolish the death penalty, passing a repeal bill once before and never overriding a governor’s veto.

“That will probably be our legacy, for better or worse,” said Sen. Laura Ebke, of Crete.

Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley praised senators for their willingness to tackle issues such as the death penalty, gas tax and licenses bill.

“Sometimes it’s easy to duck issues, and those three issues were difficult,” said Hadley, of Kearney. “But we took them on.”

Sen. Paul Schumacher said lawmakers steered clear of the kind of “risky tax changes” that have created budget problems in states such as Kansas. But he said lawmakers fell short in their effort to plan for longer-term economic development and tax reforms.

“It’s been one of my biggest complaints since I’ve been in the Legislature,” he said. “We’re a very reactive body. Perhaps if we had more strategic planning, we would be able to do a better job in taking the state into the future.”

The session was the first for 18 senators who arrived at the Capitol in January because of term limits. The new group helped defy early expectations that the nonpartisan Legislature would tilt more conservative as Republicans expanded their majority.

Many first-year senators spent the session learning the ropes.

“The best way to describe being in the legislature is trying to learn how to swim,” said Sen. Dan Hughes, of Venango. “You can watch YouTube. You can read books. But until you jump in the pool you have no idea how to do it.”

Ricketts also highlighted the state’s prison reform efforts and a bill that minimizes the so-called “cliff effect” in public benefits, in which low-income families risk losing all of their public assistance if they receive a raise at work.


Associated Press writer Anna Gronewold contributed to this report.

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