In a democracy, government by definition draws on the input of the people. Society consists of many different interests, each with a legitimate right to explain its needs and stand up for them.
The Nebraska Constitution anchors that in Article I, Section 19: “The right of the people peaceably to assemble to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
A group called Nebraska Parents for Public Education, for example, recently formed to advocate greater state financial support for K-12 public education, joining efforts by other school-focused groups. The all-volunteer parents group has members in about a dozen school districts across the state.
The new group is standing up for a key interest. At the same time, it seems doubtful that the group’s call for a 10 percent boost in K-12 state financial aid will be possible.
The demands on the state budget come from every direction and constituency, each with the same right to petition state leaders.
Some current proposals: Medicaid expansion, which would cost an extra $123 million over six years. A tuition freeze for the University of Nebraska and the State College System, more than $46 million over two years. A new veterans home in central Nebraska, $47 million. Services for young people aging out of the state foster care system, more than $6 million over two years (with the program’s total costs growing by 40 percent by 2017).
Plus, details are still being worked out on expected increases in the state’s contributions to retirement funds for teachers, judges and state troopers. And Gov. Dave Heineman’s proposal to eliminate the state income tax has spurred discussion and uncertainty about the possible effects on the state government’s long-term revenue stream.
Given limited state dollars, lawmakers have a responsibility to strike a reasonable balance among the state’s many needs.
It’s encouraging and impressive to see that the parents group, rather than representing just one side, has rural as well as urban members. That’s notable, since there has been considerable concern in the Legislature about a possible collision between urban and rural interests over school funding this year.
With higher property valuations in rural counties, many districts across the state are no longer receiving state aid other than special education funding. Indeed, state aid no longer goes to about 100 of the state’s 249 school districts.
As rural lawmakers at the Legislature can confirm, though, the pressures on rural districts are often great. A report by World-Herald staff writer Julie Anderson cited the example of the Chadron school district. Last spring it had to cut its budget by $1.8 million, including the closing of four schools.
Meanwhile, an increasing portion of state aid has been going to urban districts. Flat or depressed property valuations in some urban areas helped spur the increase, given the mechanics of the state aid formula. At the same time, urban districts point to their own budget challenges.
Sen. Kate Sullivan, chairwoman of the Education Committee, has made clear that she intends to approach Nebraska school issues in a responsible, balanced manner. That’s commendable leadership.
Sullivan and the Education Committee ultimately will vote on the amount of K-12 aid. School districts, the new parents group and other interests are calling for a 10 percent increase as part of “full funding” under the current state aid formula.
Funding at that level would mean an increase of $87 million for the 2013-14 school year and an additional $53 million the following year. Lawmakers are indicating that a lower level of funding is more likely.
For the upcoming two-year budget, Gov. Dave Heineman has proposed a 5 percent increase for each year. That would bring the total to $895 million for fiscal 2013-14 and $939 million for fiscal 2014-15. State aid for fiscal 2008-09, the last budget approved before the recession, was $839 million.
Federal stimulus dollars boosted Nebraska’s school aid for three years during the recession, with state aid peaking in 2010-11 at $950 million. Lawmakers made clear at the time, however, that funding at such a level could not be sustained once that federal funding ended.
Heineman also has proposed a 5 percent increase ($29.6 million the first year) in special education funding for each of the next two years. All public school districts in the state receive those funds.
Adjusting the state aid formula is done every biennium, once the lengthy discussions in the Legislature’s Appropriations and Revenue Committees produce a consensus on the overall budget levels. Former Sen. Lavon Heidemann, who headed the Appropriations Committee through last year, says adjusting the formula for each two-year budget cycle is “the thing that makes the budget work or not work.”
Unlike the federal government, the Nebraska state government does not engage in deficit spending. Add all this up, and it means Nebraska lawmakers must divide the budget as fairly as possible, then tell the various interests across the state to be prepared to receive a partial loaf, not a whole one.
That is the responsible approach when faced with so many competing, legitimate demands.