In a surprise move, the Legislature on Wednesday elected a moderate -- some would say left of center -- senator as chairman of its powerful Appropriations Committee.
It could be a tough budget year, and Omaha Sen. Heath Mello has butted heads with Gov. Dave Heineman on a number of issues in the past four years, including budget issues.
Mello, who has served on the committee for four years, succeeds Sen. Lavon Heidemann, who was chairman for six years before leaving the Legislature because of term limits. Mello received one more vote than Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte, who also was nominated for the job.
Mello said he learned a lot from Heidemann about building consensus on budget issues.
"And I think he's going to continue to be a good mentor to me over the next two years as I serve in this role," he said.
The Appropriations Committee's job is to take the two-year budget crafted by Heineman, listen to agency proposals, and then finesse, change, add or eliminate proposals before it is offered in May to the full Legislature for a vote.
The committee makeup will change this year. Preliminarily, it appears new members could include Sens. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, Bill Kintner of Papillion and Tyson Larson of O'Neill.
Mello said he was able to work with the governor last year on a compromise on the tax reform bill (LB970), and he did not stand with the majority of senators who voted to override Heineman's veto of the city sales tax bill, which allowed a vote of the people to raise the tax by as much as half a cent.
During his nomination speech, Mello told senators he would be approachable, fair and determined to build a consensus on the budget.
The state is going into the 2013-15 budget years with a projected shortfall from revenue of $195 million, but a $442 million estimated cash reserve, or rainy day fund, by July 1.
"Until we ultimately start the official budget process next week when the governor introduces his budget, no one knows what's ultimately going to happen," Mello said.
Everyone has their priorities, he said, including the governor. Tax reform is one of the big ones for Heineman.
Mello said he hopes the Legislature and the committee can find a balance on those issues.
At times, they will agree, and at times, they'll have different priorities, he said. But Mello hopes for a good working relationship with the governor.
"For anyone to rush to judgment in regards to thinking that there's going to be significant conflict right away, I think is unfortunate," he said.
Heineman's spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein said simply that the governor is looking forward to working with all members of the Legislature to address the issues that "are important to hard-working Nebraskans."