Working toward a shared purpose
Last week at the governor's fly-in we heard a lot about "Nebraska Grit" and how now is the time for belt-tightening. I grew up in Grant and have worked in Big Springs, Cozad, Lincoln, and McCook. I love this state; it's a special place. We do have grit in Nebraska and that does help us succeed here in the middle of the country.
But after thinking about this topic a little more, I realized what makes Nebraska even more special than our grit comes from the Nebraska Fight Song: "We'll all stick together, through all kinds of weather." What makes Nebraska work is a shared purpose and sacrifice in making this the Good Life for us and an even better life for our kids.
As I look back on the accomplishments of George Norris, I see a couple things that stand out. First, with the Rural Electrification Act, it was a public undertaking to expand electricity to all Americans. It probably didn't make business sense, but it did increase the standard of living for thousands of Americans. The legacy of this exists in our public utility that provides some of the lowest electrical rates in the nation and doesn't worry about pleasing shareholders. Second, Norris's tireless efforts to establish a unicameral state legislative branch gives us an open, nonpartisan form of government where we can elect the best person to represent us in the way he or she feels best. It is not dictated by party politics and backroom deals. Unfortunately, today this seems to be under attack.
This shared purpose and working together that has been passed down to us has provided us with one of the best K-12 school systems that has one of the top graduation rates in the nation. This shared purpose has made us one of the top fiscally responsible states in the nation. This shared purpose has made Nebraska one of the top states in the nation to do business. This shared purpose has created a strong post-secondary education system with a university system, state college system, and community college system that we can be proud of, which attract individuals from outside the state and help prepare the workforce we need from students who are from this state.
I feel we are at a crossroads right now. Low commodity prices have hurt the ag economy that is vital to our area. The lower demand for coal hurts the railroad that has always played an important part in our history and economy. With close to a $600 million shortfall for the next biennium, it is time for us to be conservative with our spending.
I believe the Gazette article last week misquoted the governor when it said community college budgets have gone up 13 percent a year every year for the past decade. Property tax revenues, which is only one part of community colleges' funding formula, may have gone up 13 percent on average per year every year for the past decade. When one sees this fact in isolation, it can be enraging, but it is important to analyze the context.
At Mid-Plains we have not had this same increase. During this span, the Legislature gave community colleges additional levy authority to address deferred maintenance lists and even with those incremental increases over the past four years, MPCC's levy rate has stayed the same or decreased every year since 2008; the last five years have been a decrease over prior year. When including state aid and this additional Capital levy authority, MPCC's increase has been about 8.5 percent per year during this period. MPCC was the only Post-Secondary Institution to freeze ALL tuition and fees, room and board when asked by the governor in 2013 to try to keep higher education affordable for all.
In the past couple of years, we have eliminated a senior level leadership position, made consolidations during retirements, and cut our operating budgets. It is important that we are good stewards of our resources, but it is also important to look at that path we are heading as a state and how community college funding will affect our state's future.
Unlike the state colleges and University system, community colleges do not receive capital appropriations from state funds for deferred maintenance projects. This has shifted us to fund more of our projects locally. We have done this responsibly by also lowering our levy rates at the same time. We have done some needed construction projects, including the new Peter and Dolores Graff Events Center. Money from the college and generous donations received allowed us to build our new events center to replace True Hall, which the college had been using since 1939. Upgrades were also made to Brooks Hall to make it accessible for all and to improve the place where students live and eat. These upgrades have moved us from around an 80 percent capacity level to more than 100 percent full this fall. These are the first significant upgrades to Brooks Hall in more than 20 years. This summer we made upgrades to the Student Union, which hadn't seen a lot of work done since it was originally constructed in 1966.
Another place funding from the state hasn't kept pace with the determined formula is K-12 funding. Even though the governor is proposing K-12 to grow by 2.7 percent when the rest of state spending is only growing by 1.7 percent, it still leaves funding short of the 5.4 percent promised through the state's formula. Our local schools are also good stewards of their finances, but it is tough to attract and retain quality teachers, provide the facilities needed, and meet the increasing state and national requirements if the funding isn't there.
I've recently heard State Chamber of Commerce say the biggest need indicated by their membership is a trained workforce. That is what K-12 schools and community colleges provide. We work to form partnerships with our area employers and K-12 schools to try to attract and train students to meet the area's needs. We provide the opportunity for many students to complete the first two years of their bachelor's degree for little or no debt. We look to serve our 18-county region and help provide the workforce and economic develop help we can.
We're ready to make adjustments for the next biennium. We're ready to explain the rationale for our spending. My biggest fear is this isn't a three-year cut, but a longer trend of reduced state support in an effort to reduce income taxes for the wealthiest Nebraskans. We need a reasonable approach to improving our tax environment, leading with the effort to reduce property taxes with state help. The governor's proposed income tax decrease provides the greatest relief to those who make the most by cutting reimbursements and decreasing spending on the organizations who serve the poorest Nebraskans.
I have a fear we aren't working toward a shared purpose, but working toward an environment where I'm going to do what it takes to get mine, no matter what it does to you. Kansas has been a great example on how not to run a state government. They have gutted their public institutions in an effort to provide income tax relief. In turn, this has led to slower growth for Kansas than its neighbors, including us. The bonus is we've gotten a lot of great Kansas educators moving north to take education jobs here. I'm willing to provide Nebraska Grit and tighten my belt in the next few years, but I hope for the future of our state we still believe we're at our best when we are working toward a shared purpose of strong public education institutions that will make Nebraska better for our children than it is for us.
McCook Community College Vice President