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Talks on controversial committee appointment could clear way for final vote on state budget

Talks on controversial committee appointment could clear way for final vote on state budget

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Nebraska lawmakers could approve the $9.7 billion, two-year state budget yet this week after giving it second-round approval with only a few tweaks Tuesday.

Senators are on track to vote on final passage of the budget bills Thursday. Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers of Lincoln has said he plans to move on to debating a series of tax cut measures next week. 

The schedule depends in part on resolving a controversy about membership on a special investigative committee. 

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, District 6 (copy) (copy)

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha has slowed the legislative progress since last week, when the Legislature's Executive Board left her off a special committee investigating the state’s problematic contract with Saint Francis Ministries, the Kansas-based nonprofit managing Omaha-area child welfare cases.

The board passed her over, even though she had pushed through the resolution creating the committee and has done extensive research into the issue. The decision to leave her off the committee she created was extremely unusual. She accused colleagues of bowing to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has defended the contract signed by his administration. 

The nine members chosen for the committee include five Republicans, like Ricketts, and four Democrats. Only four senators are from Douglas and Sarpy counties, the area covered by the Saint Francis contract, and one voted against creating the committee. 

On Tuesday morning, Cavanaugh vowed to "keep talking until there's a shift." But she relinquished the microphone by afternoon, following promising negotiations involving Hilgers and others. Both she and Hilgers declined to comment until the agreement was solidified. 

Saint Francis won its initial $197 million, five-year contract by offering to oversee the care of abused and neglected children in Douglas and Sarpy counties for about 40% less than the bid from PromiseShip, the Omaha-based agency that had been managing cases for nearly a decade. 

During Tuesday's budget debate, senators voted to split up the $115 million earmarked to “address prison overcrowding," with $100 million remaining in the capital construction fund and the other $15 million set aside for prison alternatives and programs. Lawmakers also approved a $200,000 study of the inmate classification system.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln said the changes mean it will be easier to fulfill promises, but that the Legislature is not committing to building the $230 million new prison being pushed by the governor.

In addition, the budget package would put almost $15 million toward planning for a new prison to house 1,512 inmates and $18 million toward adding three units to the reception and treatment center in Lincoln for mentally ill, geriatric or other special-needs prisoners.

As advanced, the budget package would put $1.45 billion into direct property tax relief over the two years ending June 30, 2023, and provide 2% increases in payment rates for health and human services providers. The package would leave about $210 million for other legislative priorities, while beefing up the state’s cash reserve fund.

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