LINCOLN — A state legislative committee approved an $8.9 billion budget package Monday that includes new funding for road construction, prison beds and levee improvements to help protect Offutt Air Force Base from flooding.
Members of the Appropriations Committee voted 8-1 to advance amended versions of two budget bills for full debate by the Legislature. The proposals map out adjustments to the two-year budget cycle that ends June 30, 2017.
State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the committee chairman, said he’s pleased with the proposals considering the challenges the state faced with prison overcrowding and a projected revenue shortfall heading into the session. He said investment in infrastructure represents the theme of the spending blueprint.
“I feel fairly optimistic the Legislature will look favorably on this budget,” Mello said.
Sen. Bill Kintner cast the dissenting vote in committee, saying he can’t support any new spending. He did, however, vote to advance a budget-related bill to create a road construction fund.
“I’m not going to war with this budget,” Kintner said. “I just don’t feel comfortable with this budget.”
The committee unanimously agreed to advance an amended version of Legislative Bill 960, which would create a transportation infrastructure bank with a $50 million transfer from the state’s cash reserve fund.
Gov. Pete Ricketts requested a $150 million transfer from the rainy day fund to kick-start one of his legislative priorities. Though committee members recommended a lower transfer, they also approved a higher level of funding from a gas tax increase lawmakers approved last year to achieve the infrastructure bank’s goals of completing the four-lane expressway system, funding bridge repairs and paying for roads projects that stimulate economic development.
The governor’s proposal sought a total of $300 million in cash reserve and gas tax funds. The committee’s amendment recommends $450 million to be spent over 17 years until the infrastructure bank sunsets in 2033.
Mello said it was important that the state accelerate highway construction while at the same time protecting the cash reserve, which is money set aside to help the state weather a recession.
The committee’s recommendation would set aside $40 million of the total for a matching grants program to help repair and replace county bridges. And $20 million of the total would go to fund transportation-related projects with the purpose of generating business start-ups or expansions.
Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who sponsored the infrastructure bank bill, said Monday that the committee’s recommendation preserves the integrity of the bill.
Ricketts said Monday evening: “We look forward to working with the full Legislature to deliver this important infrastructure initiative.”
The committee’s budget recommendation also leaves a little more than $10 million for other spending measures, which could include bills under consideration by lawmakers this session.
And the committee recommended transferring $27 million from the cash reserve to pay for the expansion of a community corrections facility in Lincoln. The project is part of a plan by the Department of Correctional Services to address prison overcrowding.
The committee also recommended a $13.7 million transfer from the cash reserve to improve the Missouri River levee near Offutt Air Force Base. The state’s contribution is supposed to help secure federal funding to rebuild Offutt’s crumbling runway and keep the 55th Wing in Nebraska.
Floor debate on the budget bills is expected to begin next week.
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