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Political reporter

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

The approaching decision over the level of state funding appropriated to the University of Nebraska is emerging as the most consequential issue in the 2018 legislative session.

Tax policy, including major proposals for tax shifts and tax reduction, remain at the top of the legislative agenda along with continuing prison reform issues, but they are being crowded out of the top rung on the ladder now.

Reaching a consensus decision on major tax policy appears somewhere between daunting and not-gonna-happen when you consider that at least 33 of the 49 senators would need to somehow land on the same page in order to clear a filibuster mounted by opponents.

Prison reform, including in-prison and out-of-prison programming, is a consequential challenge, but this year's results are likely to look like just more of the same. 

Unlike those two big issues, a decision on the university's state appropriations cannot just be kicked down the road. This one is on a path to a showdown before legislative adjournment in mid-April.

On the table is the university's future along with, its supporters would argue, a big chunk of the state's future.

Gov. Pete Ricketts is laser-focused on tax reduction and a state budget that he says must be altered to meet the state's revenue challenges only by reducing appropriations. No additional revenue.

And so the university faces a recommended $34.6 million budget cut during the coming two years.

The university and its supporters argue that would severely diminish and damage the institution, sharply reverse its upward trajectory, price a lot of Nebraska kids out of their state university as tuition costs soar, and negatively impact the future of the state. 

Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stinner has candidly described the reductions that would result from that policy as "transformational" for the university, not only in terms of programming, but also accessibility.

Look it up: transformational is a "change in form, appearance, nature or character."

A cut that large is a game-changer.

A decision will be reached first by the Appropriations Committee and then sent to the floor of the Legislature sometime after a new estimate of anticipated state revenue lands on the desks of state senators at the end of the month.

Then legislative decisions about both budgeting and revenue enhancement options that are available, even without increasing tax rates, must be made by the Legislature and submitted to the governor for his approval or his veto.

But this is a decision that really needs to be made by the people of the state. 

If the Legislature reduces state funding for the university by $34 million or a figure anywhere close to that — on the heels of two rounds of budget cuts last year — the political reality is that the university will never recover that level of state funding support.

Not ever.

Just try to imagine a future Legislature or governor deciding to suddenly boost the university's budget by $34 million to at least restore the previous funding base and then attempt to build, or rebuild, the university from there. 

Ain't gonna happen.

What the governor and state senators determine later this session is what will happen, but this really is a decision for all Nebraskans.  This is their university, something they have built. 

Perhaps, you say go ahead and cut.  Maybe, you say no, do not do that.  Either way, it's time to say it. It's your call. 

Interesting footnote: During the last 50 years or so, the two governors who were the strongest funding supporters of the university were two very different Republicans — Norbert Tiemann, a moderate, and Kay Orr, a conservative.

* * *

Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, a former school teacher, delivered the opening prayer at the Legislature last Wednesday, urging love for one another and decrying "all thoughts of hate or prejudice."

Four hours later, high school students were being terrorized and gunned down in Florida. 

During her prayer, Walz spoke directly to the young college-age pages who assist senators and sit at the front of the legislative chamber facing them when they are in session.

"Pages, I thought about you a lot this morning and how I wish our generation would be better role models for you when it comes to showing love to others because honestly we're not too good at that," she said.  

"We have found ourselves being too selfish with our time, our money and our thoughts," she said.

"We know prejudice and hatred is wrong," Walz said.

On the next morning, she was at her microphone again.

"I'm pretty angry," she said.

The latest slaughter with a semi-automatic, military-style weapon in yet another school had her up from bed at 3:30 a.m. in Fremont.

"We have the ability to change what's happening to save lives," she said.

"Pages, at least you're here and you're listening. Young people, be courageous, stand up."

It's been more than five years since 20 little children, ages 6 and 7, were slaughtered inside their Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut.

Little kids with their lives ahead of them.

The nation gasped and mourned, and the Congress shamefully looked away and did nothing.

And the slaughter continues.

And Congress looks away.

* * *

Finishing up:

* Sen. Ben Sasse, reacting to last week's indictment of 13 Russians by Special Counsel Robert Mueller: "This ought to be a wakeup call to Washington. Putin's shadow war is aimed at undermining Americans' trust in our institutions. We know Russia is coming back in 2018 and 2020 — we have to take this threat seriously."

* The billion dollar property tax relief initiative, which entered the signature-gathering stage this week, is likely to drive turnout in November's general election in a manner that could impact some political races.

* Bill Moos will be a speaker at the 2018 Governor's Ag Conference in Kearney on March 7.

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

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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