Property taxes, state parks eyed in Nebraska budget

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) โ€” Property owners could get a tax break, state parks could get new cabins, and Nebraska could see new flood- and drought-mitigation projects if a series of budget bills become law.The Legislature's Appropriations Committee is expected to finish its work this week on changes to the state budget. The tentative package includes $25 million for a state fund that offsets property taxes, $17.5 million for deferred park maintenance and $32 million for water projects by the middle of next year.Sen. Heath Mello, the committee chairman, said lawmakers avoided tapping the state's cash reserve for long-term expenses. The rainy-day fund is traditionally used for construction projects and to pay the state's bills when revenue drops unexpectedly. Mello says he wants to end the current budget year with at least $643 million in the fund."In developing a state budget, it's about balancing priorities," Mello said.Lawmakers were given more leeway with the budget on Friday, when the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Board predicted that the state will collect an additional $99 million in the current two-year budget period. State revenue was expected to reach $4.1 billion in the fiscal year that ends on June 30, and $4.2 billion the following year.The committee has agreed to support an additional $25 million per year for the state's property tax credit program, which is used to offset local property taxes. State tax officials calculate the credit by dividing the total amount available by the total value of taxable property in Nebraska. The fund has held steady at $115 million over the last several years, even as property values โ€” and property taxes โ€” have increased.The initial water projects include Omaha sewer upgrades, shoring up levees around Offutt Air Force Base and funding to take some irrigated cropland out of production in central Nebraska.Taking the land out of production will help recharge the groundwater supply and ease pressure on the Platte River in dry years, said Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, who led a state water-funding task force last year.Carlson said the proposed budget bills would generate about $32 million for water projects by mid-2015. The Nebraska Department of Natural Resources will designate future water projects, he said."This is a really good start," Carlson said. "We've never had this kind of a commitment before from the state, and I'm really pleased with it."Nebraska's state parks could also receive new funding for upgrades to ensure they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to build new bedroom-camper cabins at Ponca State Park. The cost of deferred maintenance in the state parks has risen to $43 million, according to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission."I am convinced that we can no longer ignore the problem, which is very serious now," Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said in a committee hearing last month.