John Stinner

Appropriations Chairman John Stinner speaks during a recent hearing at the state Capitol. Stinner represents part of the Panhandle, including Scottsbluff and Gering. He describes himself as "a pragmatic businessman who is fiscally conservative."

KAYLA WOLF, Journal Star

Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, says the state budget reality that lies ahead could have "a transformational impact" on the University of Nebraska.

After already absorbing a couple of rounds of budget cuts during the 2017 legislative session, the university now is facing additional proposed appropriations reductions of 2 percent this year and 4 percent next year, Stinner noted.

That's a $34.6 million gash in the university budget.

And there is no appetite in the Legislature to increase taxes in an effort to develop additional revenue to fund the university or any other state-supported agencies, institutions or activities, Stinner said during an interview in his office at the state Capitol.

"I'm open to all options," Stinner said. "I do not have a closed mind to anything.  

"But I always prefer to look at other solutions like efficiency and technology. As far as tax increases, I'll look but you'll have to drag me over hot coals to get me there."

However, Stinner said in a follow-up phone call, he is open to a number of revenue-producing options other than an increase in tax rates, including the collection of state sales taxes already owed on internet sales.

Stinner said he's also open to looking at the possibility of applying the state sales tax to some services that now are exempted and to taking a fresh look at the state's list of incentive programs, all "in the interest of good tax policy."

"Those could be places where we could enhance revenue," Stinner said.

"There's a lot of other things we can do on the revenue side," he said. 

The political reality is that Gov. Pete Ricketts has said that he would not support any increase in taxes, Stinner said during the earlier interview, "and I guess I respect that."

The budget reality, Stinner said, is that the university probably will need to "look at what they're doing, making adjustments and changes in certain areas," perhaps impacting curriculum, academic structure, priorities and professional staff.  

Additional budget reductions "also may mean substantial increases in tuition," he said, with a resulting impact on enrollment because "less people may be able to afford to come."

That, in turn, would impact the university's momentum, he said.

During an interview scheduled to discuss the personal pressures of managing legislative budget decisions during a period of stagnant or declining revenue, Stinner quickly veered to the university budget, the hottest item atop the Appropriations Committee's agenda.

The nine-member committee will hold a hearing on the university's budget Wednesday with newspaper op-eds and full-page ads already urging Nebraskans to speak up and support adequate funding. 

"I believe in the university," Stinner said. "I have a degree and a graduate degree from that university, and I respect what they mean for the state in terms of its economic base and workforce.

"And I realize that any time you raise tuition, it has an impact on the number of kids who can go to the university or to state colleges or community colleges."

Stinner did not mention that he also has athletic credentials at the university, where he was a member of Bob Devaney's two national championship football teams. He was a running back for two years and linebacker for two years.

If state revenue begins to recover, Stinner said, that conceivably could somewhat ease the budget pressure now in play. The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board will weigh in with its next assessment on Feb. 28.

"Everything I hear and see is fairly positive," Stinner said.

"I feel the weight of the problem," he acknowledged, "but what weighs most on my mind is outcomes, and it's hard to get away from that."

"We can probably deal with the 2 percent budget cut for higher education, but next year at 4 percent is more difficult," he said. 

Although the pressure of heading the committee, especially during challenging economic times, is intense — Stinner headed to the Capitol at 4 a.m. each morning during his first year as appropriations chairman last year — he says he's adjusted to the task and has a better understanding of state programs now.

"I'm glad I've had the experience," he said. "It's so broadening and I want to be a lifelong learner.

"I've learned that you have to build cooperation, coalition, collaboration, and that's new for me," he said, after a banking career centered in Gering in which he "asked questions, tried to lead them, sought buy-in, but made the decisions."

"I'm not a politician," Stinner said. "I'm a pragmatic businessman who is fiscally conservative."

The Appropriations Committee contains five Republicans, including him, and four Democrats, all with different areas of interest, he said, and all respectful of other members' opinions. 

Stinner is a candidate for re-election this year, so far without an opponent.

Serving in the Legislature has been a great experience, he said.

"It's kind of a family with some crazy aunts and some crazy uncles," he said, "and, by and large, I've enjoyed everybody."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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