A number of directors of state programs came to a hearing Tuesday to ask the Legislature to stay away from their cash when adjusting this year's state budget. 

In coming up with adjustments to the state's spending for the second half of the fiscal year, Gov. Pete Ricketts recommended moving money from a number of cash funds used by programs and agencies for specific reasons. 

Ricketts has proposed expediting 2016-17 budget changes to deal with a projected $900 million hole in state revenue in the next two-year budget, with $276 million in adjustments this year.

Those testifying before the Appropriations Committee said the money accumulating in the collection plates of several programs is needed to run programs, and to serve as a reserve for hard times down the road. 

For example, the governor wants a one-time transfer of $200,000 from the Supreme Court's Attorney Services Cash Fund to the general fund.

But Corey Steel, state court administrator, told the committee the transfer proposed by the governor isn't permissible. The fund comes from mandatory assessments and dues paid annually by attorneys in the state to practice law. The money is allowed to be used only for regulating the practice of law in Nebraska, and not to help fix a budget shortfall, he said.

Jeff Pickens, chief counsel of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, wants to keep $250,000 from leaving his cash fund. The commission represents inmates on death row and other indigent defendants so that counties don't have to provide that defense. It saves the counties money, he said, and can keep them from going bankrupt on a big case, such as a death penalty case with sometimes multiple defendants. 

This would be the sixth time money would be taken from the cash fund, Pickens said. With increasing court fees and costs of expert witnesses, losing this money would compromise the commission's ability to carry out its mission. 

"The commission is a successful government program and has provided many millions of dollars in tax relief to county taxpayers without funds from other taxpayers," Pickens said. 

The governor would also take $150,000 from the Nebraska Racing Commission's cash fund, which comes from pari-mutuel wagers on horse races. Executive Director Tom Sage has cut expenses to build up the fund ahead of problems he can see on the horizon, such as a $4 million simulcasting facility being built in Council Bluffs, Iowa, that would allow smoking. 

Horsemen's Park, the simulcasting facility in Omaha, doesn't allow smoking. 

"I feel a lot of our revenue is going to go across the river," he said. 

The racing commission would be glad to do its part, and give the state $15,000 to $20,000 from the fund, he said, but the commission could be harmed with the large amount the governor wants to take. 

Teachers sent about a dozen letters to the committee, and others testified about the governor's plan to pull $470,000 from master teacher program aid. 

"As a state, we are beginning to look at a shortage of teachers," said Mary Burke Morrow of Lincoln East High School. "The incentive for board certification will not only attract highly motivated people to teaching, but will also provide incentive to keep good teachers in the profession." 

Others testified against a proposal to transfer $500,000 from the Waste Reduction and Recycling Incentive Fund to the general fund. 

In an afternoon hearing, Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican told the committee of the impact of Ricketts' recommendations of an $8 million reduction for his branch of government in the current fiscal year. 

"The recommendations would affect every facet of the judicial branch, but more significantly would impact Community Corrections and the justice reinvestment plan outlined in LB605," he said. 

The plan aims to use tax dollars more effectively by reducing the prison population and the need to construct more prisons. 

"I recognize the judicial branch must do its part to weather this budget shortfall. I understand the governor's reluctance to cut funds to the Department of Correctional Services, given all of the issues the department faces," Heavican said. 

However, the judicial system is the front door to the Department of Corrections, because that's where offenders are sentenced, but also the back door, with the Probations Administration charged with oversight of prisoners who are released, he said. 

"The proposed cuts are not prudent," he said. 

Renee Fry, executive director of OpenSky Policy Institute, told the committee she was concerned about the process and timing of the governor's recommendations for this fiscal year. 

"We are concerned that this separate process and additional deficit appropriation bills may make it difficult to see the big picture of so many different moving pieces," she said. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

Load comments