By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska lawmakers voted Tuesday to override several of the governor’s vetoes and restore $61 million to the state budget, including $2.5 million to erect four bronze water fountains in the state capitol’s courtyards.
MAKING A SPLASH: Pencil rendering of a Capitol courtyard with one of the proposed water fountains.
Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy tried, and failed, to convince his colleagues to uphold Gov. Dave Heineman’s vetoes of the fountains and nearly $12 million to update the capitol’s heating and cooling system, which is expected to ultimately cost $77 million. McCoy portrayed the fountains and HVAC upgrade as wants, not needs.
“This is a $2.5 million expenditure in my mind that ought to be ranked in a priority list near the very bottom,” he said of the fountains. “Long after tax relief and a whole host of other worthwhile priorities.”
The governor vetoed $64 million worth of line items, saying he was freeing up money for more property tax relief. McCoy pushed that cause, saying lawmakers should approve more than the $25 million they added to a property tax credit program.
“We have the money to do more with property tax relief,” McCoy said. “We can and we should.”
Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist said it was hypocritical and laughable for the governor to sign off on a $3.5 million plane purchase for the state officials and then chastise lawmakers about their spending priorities. The state could charter or lease airplanes instead of buying a new one, he said.
“He was saying that a new airplane was more important than years of deferred maintenance at our game and parks,” or increased payments to providers of services to developmentally disabled people, Nordquist said.
He and other lawmakers also said the governor lectures lawmakers for not approving more property tax relief even though he didn’t budget any money for it in his spending proposal.
Omaha Sen. John Nelson introduced the water fountain bill to finish the capitol architect’s original 1920s design. Construction of the capitol was halted in 1932 due to the Depression. Nelson said by his calculation, the fountains would cost each income tax-paying Nebraskan about $2.86.
“We can afford to do this at this time,” he said. “The capitol building is a state treasure. It belongs to our people.”
But Imperial Sen. Mark Christensen said he hasn’t had a single constituent express support for the fountains and $2.5 million is a lot of money. While a number of them have “jumped” him about the plane purchase, he reminds them that the governor isn’t as likely to visit their area if he has to drive five hours one way because he can’t fly.
Lawmakers defended the HVAC upgrades, noting the snow and water that comes through some capitol windows and difficulty keeping the capitol warm and cool.
Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner also defended the governor’s vetoes, saying he was trying to instill some fiscal discipline on lawmakers. Kintner was the only Appropriations Committee member to go against tradition and vote against the budget. He opposed the all-or-nothing approach to the vetoes, where lawmakers voted on them as a package rather than one by one.
McCoy warned that the heating and cooling upgrades could cost much more than the $77 million projection over 10 years, because cost overruns are common on such projects. The fact that some say the current system, which dates to the late 1950s, is “held together with baling wire and chewing gum” sounds like what many farmers and ranchers have for equipment, he said.
Sen. Dave Bloomfield said comparing water fountains to a dependable plane for the state’s chief executive officer “is insane.” Very few Nebraskans will ever see the fountains, he said, which are in outdoor courtyards accessible only from the inside of the capitol.
“The governor is charged with traveling the state and sometimes beyond, and it’s our obligation to keep him safe as we possibly can,” Bloomfield said.
Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, who is the appropriations chairman, said the heating and cooling system is the equivalent of a car with 500,000 miles on it that could die any day. And he noted that the money for the fountains is coming from the state’s rainy day fund, one-time funds that shouldn’t be used for ongoing expenses like tax relief.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said he had a car with 510,000 miles on it, and he was attached to it but ultimately knew it was not worth the money he was putting into it. He framed the issue as the “governor versus the Legislature” scenario, with the governor making “his last hurrah” and sticking his finger in the Legislature’s eye and laughing.
Lawmakers also overrode vetoes to restore $7.4 million for state parks, $10 million in job training and $400,000 in funding for the state auditor’s office.
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