When the Legislative session in the State of Nebraska started in January, the state faced a $900 million budget deficit.
The massive revenue shortfall has prompted cuts across the board at state agencies. The lack of revenue hasn’t deterred the Unicameral from looking at tax cuts, particularly as they aim to trim property taxes without shifting the burden of paying for the K-12 education currently funded by property taxes to the state budget. Agencies took cuts during the last biennium for the state budget, and proposed cuts for this year are expected to be followed by additional cuts next year.
Overcrowded and understaffed prisons are begging for reform, at least some of which likely require additional funding. And last week the University of Nebraska system unveiled its proposed cuts for the next budget cycle, hoping to stave off even deeper cuts that are being proposed. The colleges in Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney are facing a possible cut of $34.6 million over two years, a move that opponents say will be “transformational” as the schools cut programs and students decline to attend college if tuition rates spike to make up for the cuts.
“Gov. Pete Ricketts is laser-focused on tax reduction and a state budget that he says must be altered to meet the state’s revenue challenges only by reducing appropriations. No additional revenue,” says an article in the Lincoln Journal Star, written by Don Walton.
State budgets are, to say the least, complex systems with many moving parts. Cuts aren’t out of line in some areas, and smart tax reform is a fine idea. But if the State of Nebraska is serious about growing and securing its future, it’s going to have to consider options to generate revenue in addition to trimming appropriations.
In spite of all that, many of Nebraska’s lawmakers and conservative groups now believe that the state should increase pay for state senators, who currently make $12,000 a year. Voters rejected a pay increase six years ago in overwhelming fashion. A legislative panel this week will review a proposed ballot measure to change the salary structure for the Unicameral members. The plan calls for setting salaries at half of Nebraskan’s median household income. That number is currently about $28,000; the proposal calls for senators’ pay to be adjusted every two years.
Proponents say it will lead to a more diversified Legislature, because as it stands now potential candidates sometimes shy away because they can’t make a living as senators.
While I sympathize with the idea that senators need to at least be able to cover their costs, to float this proposal this year, under the financial circumstances the state is facing smacks of insensitivity. The Unicameral is asking every agency that serves the citizens of this state to sacrifice. They are asking citizens to sacrifice, whether it’s in the form of educational opportunities or limited access to other agencies or delayed highway improvements.
It seems hypocritical, at the minimum, for senators to ask for additional funding for themselves while they ask the rest of the state to tighten their belts. If the Unicameral and the governor are dead set on solving Nebraska’s fiscal crisis only through reducing appropriations, how is it respectable for senators to argue they need more revenue for their personal budgets?
Should the ballot measure move forward and voters are able to have their say on the requested pay raise, I hope the citizens follow the precedent set six years ago. Until the state gets serious about improving the lives of our citizens and tackling the complexity of the state's issues with nuanced solutions rather than the single refrain of tax cuts, our senators don't deserve to take a larger cut for themselves.