As Nebraska lawmakers slash government-agency budgets, which could reduce services and lead to layoffs this year and next, they may be sparing their own arm of government similar consequences.
Tucked inside a large package of budget cuts that got second-round approval is a measure that would allow the legislative branch to keep more than $1 million that Gov. Dave Heineman had instead proposed be used to help close the state's $334 million budget gap.
The protection lawmakers are giving to their own branch of government and the 266 employees who work in it, including themselves, was not given to most other state agencies. The few other agencies that will have some of the so-called carry-over money from previous fiscal years shielded from cuts Heineman had proposed are not getting nearly the break the legislative branch is.
"I think we need to be very careful that we are not exempting ourselves when we are asking other parts of state government to make sacrifices," Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha said after he and other lawmakers gave the budget-cutting bills second-round approval on Wednesday.
State senators haven't mentioned the change during debate on the massive package of budget cuts quickly sailing through the Legislature. They are expected to get final approval on Friday.
One of the lawmakers who suggested that the legislative carry-over dollars be mostly off-limits to cuts defended the plan. Without it, said Sen. John Wightman of Lexington, legislative staff such as lawmakers' aides may have been subject to layoffs.
It's harder to layoff legislative staff than employees in other areas of state government, Wightman said.
"I don't think that many agencies are spread out among almost 50 people who have people working for them that have been in place for so long," Wightman said of staff of 49 senators. He added that it would be "impossible" to cut staff without a change in policy.
He acknowledged that there is no statutory requirement, however, that lawmakers each have two staff members as they do now.
It is unclear how many employees in other areas of state government may be laid off due to the budget cuts, but it could reach a few hundred.
Of the 266 employees in the legislative branch, about 150 are senators and their staff. The rest help analyze state finances and programs, research state laws, perform audits, and draft bills. It also includes the office of the Clerk of the Legislature and the Ombudsman's Office.
Despite having most of its carry-over dollars protected, the legislative branch, like other state agencies, will have its overall budget cut by 2.5 percent this year and 5 percent next year. The cuts will not go unnoticed by employees.
A 2.5 percent raise for employees planned for next year, for example, will be nixed. Also, a planned, $7-per-day increase in senators' per diem for expenses they incur while working will probably not be implemented next year.
The $12,000 annual salary each senator receives and is one of the lowest in the country can't be touched, however, because it is required by the state constitution.
A legislative fiscal analyst defended the decision to allow the $1 million in unused dollars from the prior, two-year state budget to be kept by the legislative branch instead of going into the state general fund to help close the budget gap.
Unlike all other areas of state government, said Tom Bergquist, the legislative branch historically has been allowed to shift unused dollars from one budget cycle to the next. Doing so allows it to ask for less new money to keep operations afloat, he said.
While it has a roughly $20 million budget, for example, the Legislative Council that encompasses the legislative branch asks for just $17 million in new money _ and the $3 million gap is covered by year-to-year carry-over dollars.
The approach, he said, has been used for about 20 years almost exclusively by the Legislature.
Information from the state Department of Administrative Services, however, shows that about a dozen state agencies and offices typically carry money over from one budget cycle to the next.
They include the Department of Natural Resources, which isn't getting the same break as the legislative branch and will have nearly $4 million less carry-over money than it expected for soil and water conservation projects, among other things.
Early this year when the budget was approved, many state agencies were encouraged to carry-over money because of small increases in new state funding.
Lower-than-expected revenues prompted Heineman to call a special legislative session earlier this month so spending could be cut. And reducing the amount agencies could carry into the current, two-year budget by 30 percent to 50 percent so more dollars would stay in the general fund was a linchpin of his plan.
Lawmakers have mostly signed off on it with the exception of the legislative branch.
Heineman proposed cutting the amount the legislative branch could carry over by about $1.4 million, to $2.1 million. Lawmakers instead changed the carry-over cut to less than $100,000.
Sen. Lavon Heidemann of Elk Creek, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee that made the change, got upset when The Associated Press asked him why the legislative branch was being treated differently.
"To take the cut would put an undue burden on the Legislative Council," he said.