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State budget bills moved to final reading after two days of debate
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State budget bills moved to final reading after two days of debate

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State senators moved two budget bills to final reading Tuesday, but the conversations surrounding them were long and hard.

And it took cloture votes, after two days of debate on both, to force the votes to advance.  

During extended debate on the mainline bill, senators voted down an amendment by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh that would have provided a guide to spending federal coronavirus dollars to help people and businesses impacted by the pandemic. That included money to purchase personal protective equipment, sanitizing products and other COVID-19 medical supplies by state agencies, and funds for counties, cities, villages and utility districts related to COVID-19.

It would have allowed dollars for charitable organizations and providers to cover operating expenses related to the pandemic, and to help children, families and communities.

Senators voted down that amendment on a 28-16 vote. 

Then Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson introduced an amendment that would cut out of the budget dollars proposed for a variety of programs and services. It targeted Medicaid provider rates, child advocacy centers, public health, EMS training, corrections career skills, community college dual enrollment, backlogged sexual assault kit testing and rural workforce housing.

"I think this is an opportunity to look at those items that we are spending money on and see if it's appropriate in today's environment," he said. 

That raised the ire of a number of senators.

If the theory is, said Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stinner, that these budget reductions would provide the money for property tax relief, Friesen needs to understand that property tax relief, too, is an expenditure that comes out of general funds. 

On the provider rate increases, Omaha Sen. Sara Howard said if the state does not fund them, it will have to return about 5% of the funds already received in federal match money. 

"I'm certain Sen. Friesen didn't mean to put in an amendment to harm our general fund and cost us more money and cause harm to people with disabilities," Howard said. 

On child advocacy centers, which do the forensic interviews after a child has been sexually assaulted or sexually abused, she said, those crimes are increasing in this state. Take money away, and that reduces staff, medical experts and therapists there.

"So $250,000 seems like a small price to pay to make sure that that child who has been molested or abused has the opportunity to feel safe," Howard said. 

Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart said there's a theme that ran through Friesen's amendment that is disappointing: He seeks to balance the budget on the backs of victims of sexual assault and violence. 

She fought hard for a bill to spend $250,000 to end a backlog on testing sexual assault evidence kits, she said, which reports a 13-month delay in testing more-recent cases.

Jurisdictions across the country have taken this action, and have found "staggering" numbers of sexual offenders, she said. In an Ohio county, they tested more than 7,000 kits and found 838 serial offenders. One rapist had been linked to 17 victims. 

Friesen said his proposals were not financial cuts to programs but just wouldn't increase their money.

He appreciated the discussion on the proposals, he said, and withdrew the amendment. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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