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Senators to face challenges with prisons, budget
2016-12-02      Jerry Purvis

Nebraska State Senator John Stinner

Kendell Henderson
With a six-month session coming up in the Nebraska Legislature, some of the challenges senators will face include overcrowded prisons and a budget shortfall that could go as high as $900 million over the next biennium.

Necessary budget cuts in all agencies could have an impact on the operation of the state prison system, which has had its own challenges in recent years.

The Lincoln penitentiary, the oldest in the system is now at 200 percent capacity. This year alone there have been 13 inmate assaults on staff. This past summer, two inmates escaped the Lincoln Correctional Center in a laundry truck. They were recaptured soon afterward.

A similar situation exists in Tecumseh, where a 2015 prison riot left two inmates dead, leading to a legislative committee investigation.

The Legislature passed LB 605 during the 2015 session to address some of the problems with the prisons. It was based on an outside analysis of the system and its resulting recommendations.

“LB 605 talks about non-violent offenders being retained in their home communities to keep them closer to home and serving their sentences there,” said State Senator John Stinner of Gering. “Violent offenders will obviously need to go to other facilities.”

The legislation also provides for more programming such as drug rehab, anger management and mental health services to help inmates eventually make a successful transition back into society. Stinner said about a third of those up for probation haven’t been through that programming.

“The prison system is asking for about $20 million from the general fund,” Stinner said. “Most of that will be for programming and the lack of staff they have. There’s about a one-third turnover of staff, so they always seem to be in training and hiring mode for new people.”

He added the Legislature is trying to be proactive about the prison system and it will be a priority in the upcoming session.

Prisons are only one part of the overall state budget, but the Economic Forecasting Board has projected that for the next biennium, revenues will come in about $900 million short of expenditures. However, that number breaks down to about $172 million over the current biennium, which ends June 30, 2017.

Governor Pete Ricketts has already implemented steps to withhold four percent of the budget for agencies under his supervision. He’s also talked with other agencies to see what’s possible for trimming their budgets.

“The governor’s budget reduction request should square the current budget,” Stinner said. “Any adjustments he makes could also affect the next biennium, depending on how the cuts are made. So the $900 million number could be much less.”

Stinner said the Legislature will also consider revenue enhancements by moving cash generating funds into the general budget. Other revenue bills could possibly be moved into the next biennium.

Two forecasting reports are still to come, in February and in late April. “Those could either help or hurt or even stay the same, depending on how the forecast looks at the economy and where the tax flows are,” Stinner said.

The 2017 session of the Legislature in the long one, commencing on Jan 4 and ending in early June.

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