- Associated Press - Thursday, March 12, 2020

LINCOLN, NEB. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers gave initial approval Thursday to a $9.4 billion, two-year state budget that shovels millions of extra dollars into the state’s rainy-day fund amid fears about the global pandemic caused by the new coronavirus.

Lawmakers had already planned to boost the state’s cash-reserve fund after three years of lagging tax collections and tight budgets, but the worldwide panic had many of them warning that the state could face more trouble.

“Our fiscal posture for our state, I think, is strong,” said Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. “With the coronavirus, it needs to be strong.”

The new budget would boost the cash reserve to $731 million by the end of the current two-year budget cycle in June 2022. The reserve had fallen as low as $296 million last year.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and nearly 63,000 have recovered so far.

The budget also includes recovery money for the 2019 floods, pay raises for state correctional officers to help fight staffing shortages, and additional funding for so-called problem-solving courts that encourage treatment over punishment for criminal offenders.

“I think the majority of what this budget does is lift the state up as a whole,” said Sen. Kate Bolz, of Lincoln, who serves on the Appropriations Committee.

Another committee member, Sen. Robert Hilkemann, of Omaha, said lawmakers tried to avoid spending too much even though state revenues have shown improvement within the last year.

“Sometimes when you have an excess, you may be tempted to spend a little more than you ought to be spending,” Hilkemann said. “I think the committee was very judicious.”

The mainline budget bill advanced despite a heated debate and a filibuster that kept lawmakers at the Capitol for several hours longer than expected.

Sens. Ernie Chambers and Justin Wayne, of Omaha, took turns stalling a vote on the budget to protest what they argued was an unfair budget that didn’t do enough to help their largely impoverished, minority-heavy Omaha districts.

The senators noted that the budget offered millions of dollars for a rural housing program and repairs to a damaged irrigation canal that serves western Nebraska farmers. But Wayne said he opposed the spending plan because it didn’t include money for a similar housing program in urban areas or funding for a proposal to help Omaha provide clean tap water to residents in his district.

“This budget prioritizes rural over urban and increases the urban-rural divide,” Wayne said.

Chambers and Wayne, who are black, lectured lawmakers about the nation’s long history of racism and said the state needs to do more to help their districts. The delay angered many lawmakers, who had expected to leave at noon for a four-day weekend, but as of 5 p.m. they still hadn’t adjourned for the day.

“For me not to stand up and fight, I would do a disservice to my community,” Wayne said.

The main budget bill won first-round approval on a 41-2 vote. Two additional votes are required before it goes to the governor.


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