Same tough choices are needed every year

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Nebraska lawmakers are expecting to have to make some tough choices this session, and with good reason.

In October, a state economic forecasting board projected a $1.4 billion budget gap over the next two years. Last month, a group of legislators trimmed that projection to $986 million -- still a sizeable chunk of change.

A large part of the problem amounts to a simple need to "pay the piper." More than 40 percent of the problem amounts to replacing federal stimulus money that won't be coming from Washington any more. (Keep that in mind next time you hear a state official brag about balancing the state budget -- are they doing it with federal deficit spending?)

And, as Gov. Dave Heineman points out, $1.2 billion of the gap is created by an assumed 10.4 percent growth in projected spending. "That is unrealistic, and it's not going to happen," he said. But even Heineman, who has opposed tapping into the state's $325 million cash reserve in the past, expects some of that money to be spent in the next budget.

Like Willie Sutton, however, lawmakers looking to balance the budget will have to go where the money is. In the state's case, that means Health and Human Services, which spends 35 percent of the state's general-fund budget on welfare and Medicaid, and the Department of Education and University of Nebraska.

Legislative committees have already been looking for ways to cut 10 percent of state general-fund appropriations for agencies under their control, but some laws will have to be changed to react to elimination of federal stimulus money.

But we have a feeling that, after all is said and done, most of us won't be able to tell the difference after the cuts are made.

If that's the case, that mean's there is slack in the state budget that shouldn't have been there in the first place; our lawmakers should have been making the same types of tough choices every year.

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