Neb. lawmakers hear 2 sides about budget crunch

AP News
Posted: Nov 06, 2009 7:00 PM

To hear directors of some state agencies tell it, managing Nebraska's worst fiscal crisis in recent memory isn't that big of a deal. Others tell a totally different story, one of significant cutbacks in services.

It's easy to predict who will say what: Just look at who hires them.

Agency directors who are hired by Gov. Dave Heineman have largely been telling state lawmakers that the governor's plan to trim $334 million from the two-year budget is fair and won't affect the core services they offer.

Those who direct state agencies but are hired by commissions that govern their agencies, however, sometimes describe big problems and suggest that Heineman's proposal be changed.

The two tales of the same budget make it tough to measure how the cuts proposed by Heineman will affect state agencies and the people they serve. But some lawmakers aren't complaining.

The lack of complaints from so-called code-agency directors who report directly to Heineman "should make it easier," to pass budget cuts, said Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte. He is a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, which has been listening to testimony from state agencies that will face cuts.

"They accept the cuts as fair and reasonable and the governor told them what to do," Hansen said of agencies where directors work directly under Heineman.

A fellow member of the committee, Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, said agency directors' tendency to downplay the effects of the cuts will make it harder for lawmakers because "it doesn't give the committee a full picture of what the actual effects of the governor's budget proposal will be."

Monty Fredrickson, director of the Department of Roads, told members of the committee on Friday that Heineman's plan to cut the large agency's budget was fair, reasonable and wouldn't cause a deterioration in essential services. With the exception of state colleges and universities, all state agencies would see their budgets decreased by 2.5 percent this fiscal year and 5 percent next fiscal year under Heineman's plan.

After Fredrickson spoke to lawmakers, The Associated Press asked him if he was told by the governor to describe the budget-cutting consequences as he did, or if they were his own words. He first refused to answer, then paused and said "both."

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Director Rex Amack, who is hired by a board and not Heineman, gave a vastly different description of how the budget cuts might affect the agency, telling lawmakers the cuts will come at the same time agency is already struggling.

"People go to state parks and they have expectations and we're not meeting them."

The different stories agency directors are giving shouldn't be chalked up to who works for whom, said the governor's spokeswoman.

"I wouldn't tie the difference between the two to who hires or fires," said Jen Rae Hein, the spokeswoman. "I'd tie it to who's been better prepared for the reductions."

Hein declined to answer whether she was suggesting that directors who work directly under Heineman are better managers.