State senators will convene in Lincoln on Wednesday to launch what appears destined to be a politically charged legislative session.
It’s an election year, Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts is seeking re-election, gubernatorial challenger Sen. Bob Krist will be actively engaged in the legislative chamber and several senators who are candidates for re-election might be moving into the governor’s political crosshairs despite their own Republican identification.
Meanwhile, an initiative petition drive proposing substantial property tax relief is hanging over the legislative session as senators debate a tax reform package supported by Ricketts that is weighted more toward personal and corporate income tax reduction.
Krist, a former Republican who has changed his voter registration to nonpartisan, is forming a new political party and will challenge Ricketts in the November general election.
Another member of the Legislature, Sen. John Murante of Gretna, will also be on the 2018 statewide ballot as a Republican candidate for state treasurer.
Unlike Krist, he is in the midst of a new four-year term and his election as state treasurer would prompt the gubernatorial appointment of a successor as state senator.
Krist will be term-limited out of the Legislature at the end of the year and a successor will be elected in November to fill Omaha’s 10th District seat.
This will be a legislative session that appears likely to center on taxes, prison reform and further reductions to the 2017-2019 state budget prompted by continuing revenue shortfalls and projections.
A key component in the budget discussions will be the University of Nebraska and the impact of another round of budget cuts on an institution in the midst of aspirational and actual growth.
Early predictions, however, often fall apart as each session takes on a life and energy of its own as events intervene and new initiatives and priorities emerge.
Ricketts will present his own legislative agenda in his State of the State address to senators on Jan. 10.
Already, the governor has made it clear that his priorities are additional spending cuts and additional tax relief.
One of the underlying political tensions that may be flowing through the legislative session is the prospect that Ricketts might actively oppose the re-election of some senators who are Republicans that have opposed him on key issues.
In 2016, the governor actively supported challengers who defeated three incumbent senators who were Republicans.
Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, a former Republican who now is the nonpartisan Legislature’s sole Libertarian Party member, already is opposed by the governor this election year. He has endorsed Republican challenger Al Riskowski in this year’s 32nd District election.
A number of senators who are Republicans have opposed Ricketts on motions to override some of his vetoes, with Sens. John McCollister and Robert Hilkemann, both of Omaha, generally viewed as the most likely potential gubernatorial targets this election year.
However, neither senator faces such a challenger as the new legislative session begins with the electoral clock ticking toward a March 1 filing deadline and the May 15 primary election.
Additional budget cuts appear to be a slam-dunk certainty this year, with prison reform funding emerging as the likely exception that will be protected from spending reductions. Some senators are likely to argue that prison funding in the 2017-2019 budget actually should be increased.
Agreement on tax reduction might be more difficult to reach.
Proponents of the property tax initiative are seeking $1.1 billion in annual property tax relief by effectively reducing the local school property tax load by up to 50 percent. If they place the issue on the ballot, voters would decide its fate in November.
In 2017, a tax package (LB461) promoted by Ricketts and Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, chairman of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee, was trapped by a filibuster at the first round of floor debate.
Senators voted 27-9 to invoke cloture and end debate, but that count fell six votes short of the 33 votes required to halt a filibuster.
Thirteen senators were recorded as present and not voting.
While centering on income tax reductions, that bill would have provided property tax reduction through a revised formula for valuation of agricultural land.
Ricketts and Smith have engaged in discussions to amend the bill as they seek a path forward this year. Revisions are expected to address the property tax component in an effort to add more legislative support.
The new legislative session convenes at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, with a largely ceremonial launch of a 60-day session that is scheduled to end on April 18.
New bills are expected to begin flowing into this year’s legislative stream on the first day.
A meeting of the Legislature’s Rules Committee is scheduled on Thursday, and that could begin to test the legislative appetite for another wrangle over the filibuster rule.
Senators who want to reduce minority power by making it more difficult to hold up and effectively block legislation mounted a concerted effort last year to make it easier to end a filibuster and that battle raged for virtually one-third of the 90-day session.