- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 3, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers will kick off their 2017 session on Wednesday facing a push for tax reforms and a nearly $900 million budget shortfall. Both present a substantial challenge for legislators and Gov. Pete Ricketts, but they aren’t the only problems confronting the state.

Here are details about those and other issues to watch during the 90-day session:

BUDGET, TAXES

Some groups are calling on lawmakers to eliminate sales-tax exemptions and use the additional revenue to help lower property taxes. But a few leading senators want the Legislature to focus on lowering income taxes.

A similar debate flared last year, when lawmakers argued that the state was focusing too much on farm and ranch landowners and not enough on home owners and businesses.



Gov. Pete Ricketts has said he believes the state can reduce income and property taxes and balance the budget despite an $864 million projected budget shortfall. The governor has already ordered state agencies to restrict their spending with hiring freezes and a moratorium on non-essential travel.

Ricketts says he will propose budget cuts to ensure state spending stays “roughly flat,” unlike most years when spending has grown by an average of 4 to 5 percent annually. The governor hasn’t released specifics about his plan. Some senators say they’re wary of cutting too much or relying heavily on the state’s emergency cash reserve.

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CORRECTIONS REFORM

Despite the projected budget shortfall, lawmakers and Ricketts have shown little interest in cutting money from the Department of Correctional Services. The agency has requested a $15.6 million budget increase to address staffing shortages and turnover in the state’s prisons, which would boost its total budget to nearly $223 million.

Some senators on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee have said funding the prisons is a matter of public safety. Nebraska’s prisons have struggled to hire and retain employees, in part because some county jails offer better pay and benefits than the state.

The department has drawn criticism in recent years because of a series of high-profile incidents, including the escape of two inmates convicted of sex crimes and a May 2015 riot that left two prisoners dead.

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NEW LEADERSHIP

Lawmakers will choose a new speaker and committee leaders on their first day, which could set a tone for the rest of the session.

Some conservatives have called for an open vote for legislative leaders. Under the Legislature’s current rules, the speaker and committee leaders are chosen by secret ballot. Even though Republicans outnumber Democrats, the system has allowed Democratic senators to win some committee chairmanships.

Supporters of the current system say it reduces partisan pressures on lawmakers and allows them to maintain working relationships. Critics say the practice isn’t transparent, breeds distrust among senators and encourages vote-trading.

It’s unclear whether lawmakers will debate the issue on the largely ceremonial first day, when senators are surrounded by their families, but some have suggested they may raise the issue.

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LEGISLATIVE SHAKEUP

More than one-third of the Legislature’s 49 senators will be new this year thanks to term limits and a tumultuous election that forced half a dozen incumbents out of office.

Once the 17 new members are sworn into office, the ostensibly nonpartisan Legislature will have 32 Republicans, 15 Democrats, one Libertarian and Sen. Ernie Chambers, a registered nonpartisan.

But GOP dominance isn’t guaranteed. Republicans are one vote short of the 33 they would need to overcome a legislative filibuster. With no direct party control, senators can break ranks at any time.

Sometimes lawmakers defy expectations. Despite Republican gains in the 2014 election, senators voted to abolish the death penalty and raise the state’s gas tax. Some of those lawmakers later lost their races to challengers, including some backed by Ricketts.

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