Lawmakers pass state budget, make few adjustments from governor’s plan

Senator lays out ways to reduce prison population, possibly avoiding building a second prison

By: - May 18, 2023 7:19 pm
Nebraska State Penitentiary

The state plans to replace the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln with a new, 1,500-bed facility, but a consultant says it won’t solve the state’s chronic prison overcrowding. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — State lawmakers gave a final OK Thursday to a two-year budget that calls for about $5.3 billion a year in spending, with an average increase of 2.2%.

The austere budget sets aside a generous amount for cuts in state income taxes and increases in tax credits for property taxes, as well as allocating the final funds for a $366 million state prison and reserving $574 million for the Perkins County Canal.

Also created under the budget is a $1 billion “education future fund” intended to pay the $1,500-per-student foundation aid to K-12 schools proposed by Gov. Jim Pillen.

Few changes in overall budget

The legislative budget made very few changes to the spending proposal from the governor. Major changes include upping the yearly budget for the University of Nebraska system by 2.5% a year rather than 2%, and allocating an extra $80 million for increased pay for providers of social services, who are struggling to keep and hire staff.

State Sen. George Dungan of Lincoln  (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

During debate Thursday, Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney and Lincoln Sen. George Dungan urged the state to do more to reduce the state’s chronic prison overcrowding and to prevent repeat crimes by inmates.

Otherwise, the two senators said, Nebraska will be faced with planning to build  a second, expensive prison by 2030.

McKinney has been calling throughout the session to postpone construction of any new prison until alternatives to incarceration are adopted.

Dungan, a former public defender, said study after study shows that incarceration isn’t any more effective at preventing repeat offenses — called “recidivism” — than alternatives, such as probation or diversion programs.

Recidivism hasn’t fallen

In Nebraska, about 30% of released inmates return to prison within three years, a recidivism rate that hasn’t improved in a decade, he said.

The state budget does transfer $10 million over two years to increase spending on a vocational and life skills program that prepares inmates for life after they are released, but Dungan said that isn’t enough.

Nebraska’s prisons are among the most overcrowded in the nation, holding about 1,500 more inmates than they are designed to hold. It  requires dozens of inmates to sleep on floor cots each night, and requiring suspension of recreation and rehabilitation programs.

Over the past decade, the state’s prison population has risen by 21% — while most states saw a decrease — and a consultant projected that by 2030, Nebraska prisons will still have 1,300 more inmates that it can house, even after building the 1,500-bed facility that is part of this year’s budget.

Terrell McKinney
State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

McKinney was able to get a couple of concessions added to the budget, requiring the state prison system to complete studies on inmate classification, staffing needs and whether the agency’s rehabilitation programs work.

Other proposals suggested by McKinney have not been advanced, including allowing “geriatric” parole of some old inmates, reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of drug residue and reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentencing.

Dungan said that statewide standards for diversion programs — which allow someone charged of a crime to get the offense excused if they meet certain behavior and program requirements — could also reduce the flow of inmates into prison.

Criminal justice reforms coming

Some of those proposals are included in Legislative Bill 50, a criminal justice reform bill being crafted by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that is scheduled for debate Monday.

Last year, a bill that drew ideas from a review of Nebraska practices by the Crime and Justice Institute went down in flames. It was the second time ideas generated by a national review were rejected, in large part, by state lawmakers.

LB 920, had it been adopted last year, was projected to reduce the increase in state prisoners by 750 by 2030. A fiscal note hasn’t been generated for the new LB 50, but its projected impact would be less than that.

In the end, the mainline budget bill, LB 818, was given final-round approval on a 41-3 vote.

It leaves a cash reserve of $780 million at the end of the 2024-25 fiscal year.

State Sen. Rob Clements of Elmwood. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

It also leaves $891 million this year to be spent by state senators on their priorities, which Sen. Rob Clements, who chairs the budget-producing Appropriations Committee, said would be totally consumed by proposed tax cuts.

Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who led drafting of the proposed tax cuts, has said that the proposals will likely need to be pared back to fit within the budget.

Some state lawmakers have said the tax cuts are unsustainable and may require cuts in state programs in the future, but very little was said about that Thursday during floor debate.

Discussions mainly focused on continued grievances about the advancement of LB 574, the controversial bill that restricts abortion and certain transgender care for minors, and spending on the new prison and the Perkins County Canal.

Some interesting spending items in the state budget:

  • $10 million in cash reserve funds will aid a sewer project in Sarpy County designed to open up more farmland to housing development.
  • $2 million to help transform the former Dana College campus in Blair into a facility to help youths exiting the foster care system.
  • $20 million in cash reserve funds for Metropolitan Community College to prepare workers in the event Nebraska lands a computer chip manufacturer.
  • $5 million to provide grants to first responders to upgrade portable and mobile radios.
  • $30 million in shovel-ready infrastructure funds to Creighton University for a new health sciences building and baseball/softball fields that could be used for the College World Series.
  • $14 million to transfer over two years from the Nebraska Environmental Trust to a water fund managed by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to enhance flows in streams and recharge groundwater. Environmentalists have objected to what they call a “raid” of funds normally granted to small groups for conservation projects to a water fund typically funded in large part with state tax funds.
  • $20 million each to programs that build “workforce” housing in rural and urban areas.
  • $10 million, matched by a similar amount of private donations, to help rebuild the 4-H Camp at Halsey, which was destroyed by fire last year.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

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