Flood's Effects on State Budget Dicussed; Senators Debate Paid Family Leave

by Fred Knapp

March 19, 2019, 5:39 p.m.

Repairing flood damage may force the state of Nebraska to dip further into its cash reserve, or cut spending on schools and other programs, the chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee said Tuesday. And senators debated paid family leave.

No one yet knows how much repairing damage to public property from the current flooding will cost. But when the bills come due, about 75 percent will come from the federal government; 12.5 percent from the state, and 12.5 percent from local governments, says Sen. John Stinner, chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

That means if there’s a billion dollars in damages to public infrastructure, the state’s share will be $125 million. And where would that money come from? “We have a rainy day fund, obviously, and the other thing would be to look at certain categories where we’re going to have to cut back and use those dollars for emergency dollars,” Stinner said.

Stinner said that rainy day fund is projected to contain $278 million under Gov. Pete Ricketts’s budget recommendations. Stinner has previously warned about withdrawals that have reduced the fund from the nearly $800 million it used to contain – roughly two month’s worth of state spending. The alternative of using budget cuts instead of the reserve could hit some high priority areas, Stinner said. “We group things into priorities, whether it be higher ed – that’s a priority – K-12 is a priority, so we start to chip those back a little bit – roll ‘em back.”

Stinner said it could still be a month or two before the state has a full accounting of damages.

Meanwhile, the Legislature debated paid family leave. A proposal by Sen. Sue Crawford would require businesses to contribute up to one percent of employee wages to a fund that would provide up to 12 weeks paid leave for a new parent, and six for personal illnesses or taking care of a family member.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who’s made the bill her priority, said it was a way to help Nebraska deal with its shortage of workers. “We don’t have enough people to fill jobs because we don’t have good policies for workers,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Julie Slama suggested the bill is an unnecessary mandate on businesses, some that could afford it and some that couldn’t. “Nothing is stopping businesses which want to offer their employees paid medical leave from doing so. That’s how the free market works. They can offer that already to employees if they would like,” Slama said.

Currently, only California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, Washington and the District of Columbia require paid family leave. Sen. Mike Groene suggested those states weren’t a good model for Nebraska. “They’re all on the Left and West Coast, folks. They’re on the East Coast. Is this who we are? Maybe the East Coast of Nebraska might lean that way. But we aren’t Washington. We are not Rhode Island. We are not New Jersey. We are not New York. We are not California,” Groene said. “I hope we still have a work ethic here. The people work with their employer when they’re sick, when they have family sick, they’ll work with ‘em. They’ll be honest and upfront and use their vacation time and their sick leave. You don’t need this,” he continued.

And Groene put his criticism in a larger context. “This is progressive socialism at its worst, and you’re forcing (it) on employers, forcing it on employees,” he said.

Sen. Anna Wishart suggested Nebraska should be looking beyond this bill, and beyond this country, for models. “If it were up to me, I would think we as a state should actually look even broader than LB311 to what Sweden has done. For example… Swedish parents can get access to 480 days of paid parental leave, and one or the other parent has to take at least 90 days,” Wishart said.

Senators adjourned for the day before reaching a vote on the bill. At times during the debate, the sound of conversations around the room indicated few people were listening to the speakers. That prompted Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, himself a former senator, to try and tamp it down as he presided over the debate. Banging his gavel, Foley declared “Senators, this is a senator priority bill. could we please be respectful of the senators when they’re giving their speeches.

That request was only partly successful, because Tuesday was the deadline for senators who had not already done so to pick their priority bill.

Each senator gets one priority bill, and each committee gets two. Priority bills go to the top of the list of measures to be debate. So senators were moving around the legislative chamber, talking to their colleagues about what should be chosen, and become some of the major topics of debate for the rest of the session.

For a list of priority bills, click here.