Budget debate goes into second day

LINCOLN --  Nebraska senators voted 36-0 yesterday (Thursday) to advance the state’s main budget bill after a two-day debate over several amendments related to property tax relief, railroad inspectors and funding for the University of Nebraska.The Legislature has spent more time debating the budget on the floor than in previous years.An amendment introduced by Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala would have added an additional $15 million to the $230 million allocated over the next biennium for the Property Tax Credit Program.Schilz acknowledged that the additional tax relief is a “token amount” that would only add up to about $4.50 in savings for $100,000 of property, but said it would show Nebraskans the Legislature is serious about addressing property taxes.The amendment failed on a vote of 14 to 15, with 18 senators not voting.Several opponents of the proposal argued that it would do little to relieve the property tax burden, and that a serious effort to address taxes should be taken up next session guided by the findings of a comprehensive tax study.Other senators pointed out that property tax rates are set at the local level and the state has little control over the process.Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, who chairs the Revenue Committee, said if property owners are unhappy with their taxes, “they ought to talk to the people setting the property taxes.” Another amendment introduced by Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha would have eliminated about $150,000 over the next biennium from the Public Service Commission for a state railroad inspection position.Lautenbaugh said there is no longer a need for this position because federal rail inspectors are doing the job.A few senators voiced support for the amendment, including Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha who pointed out that the position had not been filled since 2009 and asked if there had been a major spike in rail accidents since that time.Sen. Annette Dubas, chair of the Transportation Committee, said the numbers of rail accidents have remained pretty consistent but that this is a public safety issue.“We have the two most highly traveled rail corridors in the nation,” she said.Dubas acknowledged that there are federal inspectors in Nebraska, but said the size of the area they are assigned to inspect is too large and federal sequestration may lead to fewer inspections in the future.The amendment failed on a vote of 15 to 25, with 4 not voting.Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber introduced an amendment that would have reduced funding for the University of Nebraska by $16 million over the next two years.Karpisek wanted to discuss the resident tuition freeze for the University system, which will also be in place for the Nebraska State College System. Lawmakers cited estimates that the freeze could save up to $500 per student per year.“$16 million could go to a lot of things,” Karpisek said.Opponents of the amendment noted the freeze would help students and families, even if the amount seemed small to some. Tuition isn’t the only cost for college, other costs add up, said Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln. The need to have education past high school is growing, opponents also argued.Karpisek withdrew the amendment Thursday afternoon.