Nebraska senators optimistic for productive session with new governor, 17 freshmen members

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — With the elections over, many of Nebraska's senior senators are expressing hope the Legislature and Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts will collaborate next year on property taxes and an overhaul of two state agencies.

Lawmakers will convene in January with 17 new members — more than one-third of the Legislature — who were elected to seats that came open due to term limits.

Last week's election helped Republicans expand their majority in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. Senators endorsed by the GOP gained five seats, for a new balance of 35 Republicans, 13 Democrats, and independent Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha.

Ricketts, a Republican, cruised to an easy victory Tuesday amid promises that he would seek to lower property taxes and draw more manufacturing jobs to the state. Property taxes are set by local governments, including counties and school districts, but many have complained that those taxes have risen because of unfunded state mandates and a lack of financial aid for schools.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the chairman of the Legislature's budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he has spoken with Ricketts about budget issues and the need to reform Nebraska's prisons. Ricketts has said he will collaborate with lawmakers.

"I'm optimistic," Mello said. "There's a lot of common ground regarding the need to fix these problems. We're not going to agree on 100 percent of the issues, but I think we'll have a very collaborative approach."

Lawmakers also have to pass a new state budget. Nebraska state government is expected to collect about $9 billion in the next two-year budget cycle, but lawmakers also face a projected $62.6 million shortfall.

Senators are required to balance the budget, and the estimates — which routinely change — show the state is on pace to spend slightly more than it collects. Those projections also fail to account for possible spending to alleviate prison overcrowding, an issue many senators have eyed since the last session ended in April.

Lawmakers will also discuss reforms to the state's troubled prison system and the Department of Health and Human Services, said Sen. Galen Hadley, of Kearney. The Department of Correctional Services is under scrutiny following news that prisons officials prematurely released hundreds of inmates because they failed to follow Nebraska Supreme Court rulings.

"Obviously, we have some big issues to address," said Hadley.

Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island said he expects taxes will remain a top priority, but lawmakers should stay mindful of a legislative study of Nebraska's tax system that was completed in 2013. The report advised against sweeping changes to Nebraska's tax system.

Gloor, who is running for chairman of the tax-focused Revenue Committee, said lawmakers should take a long-term view to ensure that any cuts are sustainable. Gloor said any tax changes should come gradually.

"Slow but steady wins the race — that's the approach the commission recommended," Gloor said. "If we reduce revenue and narrow our tax base, we're going to reduce the revenue for things that Nebraskans expect us to do, whether it's education, roads, support for the university, things like that."

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