Don Walton: University funding emerges as big legislative issue | Regional Government

When the Legislature launched its 2018 session three weeks ago, tax policy, prison reform and the ongoing state budget squeeze loomed as the Big Three in terms of issues confronting state senators.

Add the University of Nebraska to the list.

Facing $34.6 million in additional budget reductions recommended by Gov. Pete Ricketts after quietly accepting two rounds of reductions last session, the university appears to have decided to strongly resist this newest package of substantial budget cuts.

First came a strongly worded newspaper op-ed authored by Regent Howard Hawks, an influential player in the Omaha business community.

And that appears to be just the beginning, the opening shot of what will be a determined, concerted, statewide effort to protect the university’s funding base and defend its future.

The university argues that its future is directly tied to the state’s future in terms of vitality, economic growth, attraction and retention of talented young people, quality of life.

And that student tuition rates must be held to a reasonable level or they will price out many Nebraska kids and families.

Looking ahead, the university probably sees the danger of budget cuts so deep that the institution will never be able to recover the state funding base it has relied on, even after the state recovers from its current economic challenges.

Count this as Big Decision time for this Legislature. 

The Legislature will embark on its storm-tossed tax reform journey this week with a Revenue Committee hearing on Sen. Steve Erdman’s $1.1 billion property tax reduction proposal scheduled for Thursday.

No time to waste — this is going to be challenging and time-consuming and the clock is ticking in a short legislative session, and Sen. Jim Smith and his committee are ready to set sail into a steady head wind.

Erdman’s bill is laser-focused on substantial property tax reduction provided by offsetting 50 percent of local school property taxes paid by Nebraskans with state income tax refunds and credits.

How to “pay for it” with a compensating nourishment of lost state revenue from other tax sources or by reduction of spending for state services, or a combination of both, is a different topic, a challenge separate from what Erdman is attempting to achieve.

Other big tax bills are ready to follow in Erdman’s tracks.

One is the package supported by Gov. Pete Ricketts and sponsored by Smith to enact a range of personal income, corporate income and property tax reductions.

And now there is a new proposal introduced by Sen. Tom Briese that winds down a different path, garnering support from those who are fearful about the consequences of the other two bills.

The Briese proposal would raise the state sales tax rate by 0.5 percent, increase the state cigarette tax and eliminate more than two dozen sales tax exemptions in order to fund substantial property tax relief while protecting funding for local schools. 

That bill has enough moving parts that it’s certain to engage virtually every lobbyist in the Capitol Rotunda.  

It’s already a big player with a variety of major ag and education interest groups quietly aboard and a startling mix of state senators signed on.  

Look at the co-signers: Erdman along with Sens. Tom Brewer, Mike McDonnell, Roy Baker, Carol Blood and Sara Howard. 

Meanwhile, there’s a ton of other tax proposals waiting in line.

This will take awhile; bring body armor and provisions.

Finishing up

* Facebook will ask its 2 billion users to rank their trust in the news media.  What could go wrong?

* A detailed summary provided by the state tax commissioner’s office of proposed changes in Nebraska tax law needed to neutralize the impact of federal tax reform on state taxpayers was another sharp reminder that I should have paid a lot more attention in math class.

* Chuck Hagel’s critique of the Trump presidency published in the Journal Star was picked up by CNN, Newsweek, the Huffington Post and several other national news outlets. But when the New York Times White House correspondent posted the story on Twitter, Hagel’s description of Trump as “an embarrassment” may have come close to the president’s eyes.

* CHIP is not supposed to mean bargaining chip and neither is DACA. When children and vulnerable young people are used as pawns in a congressional wrestling match that shuts down the federal government, the evidence is clear that Congress is more focused on seeking partisan advantage than governing. 

* Politico reports that Vice President Mike Pence will be coming to Omaha in February or March to campaign for Rep. Don  Bacon, who represents a marginal congressional district that will be in play in November during what appears likely to be a challenging election year for Republicans. 

* With Nebraskans pumped about the future of Husker football as Scott Frost takes charge, it must be tempting for the university to revive that old line that we need a university that the football team can be proud of. 

* The Husker basketball performance against Michigan last week was really big-time impressive; keep that up and there are cool nights ahead. And probably a contract extension.

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