Straight Talk From Steve
April 27, 2022 | View PDF
Last week the 107th Legislature came to an end. This year was the shorter 60-day session. For the past four years I have served on the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee; however, this year proved to be the most difficult year so far.
What made this year so difficult was that the Appropriations Committee had to appropriate $1.04 billion of federal funds from the American Recue Plan Act (ARPA).
In previous years the number of bills assigned to the Appropriations Committee never surpassed 50, but this year we had more than 120 bills to consider due to ARPA. These ARPA bills made requests totaling more than $4.3 billion. The members of the Appropriations Committee spent over 125 hours listening to testimonies from the introducers of these bills.
I used two criteria for determining which bills should be considered for ARPA funding. The first criteria asked if the request was a one-time expenditure? Almost every introducer would open his or her comments by saying this is a one-time appropriation. However, very few of these requests actually fit that criteria.
The second criteria I used asked if the bill created an ongoing obligation for the State. If the bill was necessary considered it; otherwise, I did not want to create any future obligations for the State. Almost all of the ARPA bills that came to us obligated the State down the road in some way, and I was not interested in bloating future State budgets.
There were several examples of ARPA bills that were not one-time expenditures. One such bill asked for significant wage increases for employees of one particular state agency for the next three years. The bill’s introducer insisted that this would be a one-time appropriation. So, I asked him if he really expected the Legislature to take back their raises after the three year period ran out? Obviously, this bill would have obligated the State to honor their wage increase down the road after the ARPA money ran out.
Another category of erroneous one-time expenditures came in the form of new buildings. New buildings are never one-time appropriations. A case in point is how we designated $60 million for the building of a new medical training facility which was supposedly a one-time expenditure. Two weeks later we had an emergency Appropriations Committee meeting to approve $3 million for start-up money, and another $12 million for equipment, and another $15 million for ongoing operations. Add to this the costs associated with building maintenance, and anyone should be able to see how the creation of new buildings never comprises a one-time appropriation.
So, herein lies the rub. If just one half of this year’s $1.04 billion of ARPA funds ends up obligating the State down the road, it will result in raising the State’s annual budget by $500 million per year. That is a 10% increase in the State annual budget. I may never have to deal with the shortfall that these decisions will create in future years because I may be termed out of office before we begin to feel the effects. But, when the federal money stops coming in and the State’s revenues decline as they always do after events like we just experienced with these ARPA funds, the burden will fall on the taxpayers to meet the budget shortfall.
The vote to approve this year’s State budget was a very difficult decision for me. I seldom ever vote for budget bills because they generally spend too much money.
But this year’s budget had several significant implications for Western Nebraska that I felt compelled to vote for. Included in this year’s budget is 23.1 million for the tunnel repairs on the Gering/Fort Laramie irrigation canal. There is also $50 million for improvements at Lake McConaughy. Also included was another $50 million for surface irrigation repairs in the western part of the State. For these reasons it was very important that this year’s budget pass.