State budget picture gets cloudier after new revenue forecast; lawmakers will have to tighten budget

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s fiscal picture turned a bit gloomier Thursday when a state panel lowered its prediction of state tax revenue by $110 million through the end of the next budget period.

The new revenue forecast means lawmakers will have to tighten the state budget for the two fiscal years ending June 30, 2021. It also makes the road tougher for property tax relief measures.

State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman, had anticipated that the news could be even worse. When presenting a preliminary budget plan to colleagues on Wednesday, he emphasized the “preliminary” designation.

“The world may change on Thursday,” he said.

The preliminary budget plan proposed a balanced budget based on the previous revenue forecast. The new one means lawmakers will have to revisit some of their budget decisions.

The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board’s revenue predictions are used by both the Legislature and the governor in crafting state budgets.

The board last met in October, at which time they raised their projections of this year’s revenue by $69 million and made their first projections for the two-year budget period. The board will meet again in late April, shortly before lawmakers begin debating the Appropriations Committee’s final budget package.

In the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, state tax collections have fallen short of projections for four straight months. Through January, net receipts were running about $80 million less than the October forecast.

Bill that would end private wind farms’ use of eminent domain fails in Legislature

LINCOLN — A bill portrayed as stifling private wind energy development fell two votes short of advancement Wednesday during a sometimes hot and personal debate.

State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon promised repercussions after his Legislative Bill 155 failed to advance from first-round debate on a 23-8 vote, two short of the needed majority to advance.

The measure would have prevented public power districts, like OPPD and NPPD, from using their eminent domain power to obtain right of way for “feeder” transmission lines from private wind farms.

Brewer said he introduced LB 155 on behalf of his constituents in Nebraska’s Sand Hills, who he maintained have been threatened with the use of eminent domain if they didn’t lease some of their property for such connecting electrical lines. He said it was unfair that a neighbor to a wind farm could be forced to accept a feeder line across their property, calling LB 155 a “landowner rights” proposal.

“Private companies should not have the power normally reserved for government to use against their neighbors to make money,” Brewer said.

During debate, the decorated military veteran accused supporters of wind energy of being shills for that industry. He said there would be repercussions for senators who voted against his bill, or registered as “present but not voting.”

“It’s not going to be a very pleasant experience,” Brewer said, when their bills get to floor debate.

Under current state law, public utilities like NPPD and OPPD can use eminent domain to obtain right-of-way for such feeder lines, which are needed to link private wind farms to the electrical grid. The utilities said that the power has never been used. But OPPD opposed LB 155 because it could stifle wind development.

About 50 people from the Sand Hills and other rural areas affected by wind farms came to the Legislature on Wednesday to support the bill. They applauded when North Platte Sen. Mike Groene blamed “Omaha and Lincoln” for supporting wind farm development in rural areas.

 

Opposition to wind farms, as well as a high-power transmission line, has been fierce in the Sand Hills region of north-central Nebraska, and has grown in other areas as well. Opponents say wind farms are unsightly and kill dozens of birds, including bald eagles.

Opponents of the bill, led by Omaha Sen. John McCollister, said that wind farms have brought nearly $3 billion worth of investment to the state, as well as other benefits, such as lease payments to landowners and property tax payments. He added that if people don’t want wind farms, their local county board can easily enact zoning restrictions to ban them.

McCollister called LB 155 “useless legislation that simply gives the message that Nebraska is not open to business.”

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