Budget; wind energy bills advance

LINCOLN -- Lawmakers passed the state budget and advanced several bills this week dealing with taxes, child care and wind energy, among other things. Here are some of the highlights:Budget: Senators passed a package of bills Monday that make up the state’s $7.8 billion two-year budget. The budget represents a 5.2 percent increase in spending over the previous biennium. The bills passed with overwhelming support, but Sens. Beau McCoy and Pete Pirsch of Omaha and Charlie Janssen of Fremont voted against the main budget bill and a bill to appropriate funds for state construction projects. Included in the spending package are about $2.2 billion in state aid to schools -- a 5 percent increase -- and more than $140 million over the next 10 years for various construction projects around the state, including $47 million this year for a new veterans’ home in Central Nebraska.Wind Energy: A bill to aid wind energy development in Nebraska advanced in the Legislature Tuesday. LB104, introduced by Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, would give sales tax refunds to renewable energy companies that build projects in Nebraska. It was drafted to secure the construction of a 100-200 megawatt wind farm in Dixon County by Kansas-based wind energy developer TradeWind. Lathrop said the project would generate significant economic benefits for Dixon County and the state as a whole, including $10,000-$15,000 a year for each turbine to be paid to property owners, and a personal property tax on turbines to be paid to Dixon County. Senators adopted an amendment to the bill that is a modified version of local sales tax changes proposed by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha. The amendment prevents cities of the metropolitan class, which is only Omaha, from levying a local sales tax above 1.5 percent.Child Care: Lawmakers Wednesday advanced a bill from second-round debate aimed at improving the quality and accessibility of child care in Nebraska. LB507, the Step Up to Quality Child Care Act, would create a five-step quality rating system for child care centers receiving state funds. Nebraska currently spends about $95 million a year on child care assistance for low-income working parents, with much of that money flowing to child care centers around the state. The bill would also increase the number of children eligible to receive subsidies, currently about 43,000, by raising the income eligibility level from 120 percent of the federal poverty line to 130 percent over two years. The bill advanced with overwhelming support, but some fiscal conservatives expressed concern about raising the income eligibility level, which would cost the state an additional $1.7 million annually.Job Subsidy: Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue introduced a bill that would create the Subsidized Employment Pilot Program. Nonprofits and businesses, with the Department of Health and Human Services, would collaborate to help Nebraskans below 200 percent of the poverty level get job experience. The program would subsidize the employment for six months, starting at 100 percent subsidy and ending at 25 percent in the sixth month. About 150 people a year could be employed through the program, Crawford said. The $1 million annually to fund the program comes from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families rainy day fund. Thursday afternoon, two amendments were adopted to require that no more than 10 percent of the program’s funds are used for administrative costs, which would not include cost of delivering services. The bill advanced from select file Thursday. Tax repeal: This bill, introduced by Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, would repeal the alternative minimum tax, effective Jan. 1, 2014. The alternative minimum tax was created in 1969. Schumacher said the bill was originally intended to target those making over $1 million, but now it affects those making over $75,000. Nebraska is one of nine states that still have an alternative minimum tax, according to the bill’s statement of intent. The tax has outlived its usefulness and should be retired, he said during debate. The bill advanced from select file Thursday.