In the week and a half before the election, we gave two presentations about Proposed Amendments No. 3 and 4 on the Nebraska ballot, which would have extended the term limits for Nebraska State Senators Nebraskans voted into the State Constitution in 2000 and would have increased their salaries from $12,000 to $22,500 per year.
We decided to focus on those two Amendments because we knew, based on our research and direct experiences, that our State Legislators consistently seek very wrong solutions to some big problems in our Unicameral. We focus on just one of those problems here which just keeps rearing its ugly head.
I’ll be as gracious in labeling this problem in language as kind as I can muster…
LEGALLY QUESTIONABLE actions
To wit, I submit for readers’ consideration, a very interesting Committee Meeting transcript from July 20, 2012.
What it proves:
- A Special Legislative committee (see footnote[1. The Nebraska Legislature website has a Committees page which explains that there are Standing, Select, and Special Committees within the Nebraska Unicameral. Standing committees are "regular" committees which have jurisdiction over particular subject areas of the Nebraska Revised Statutes (NE law). There are 14 Standing Committees. The Legislature website defines the types of committees in more detail. While there are a number of Select and Special Committees listed on the Legislature site, as already reported, the Tax Rate Review Committee is not listed there or on any of the lists of Committee Assignments on any of the State Seantors' District pages, either, despite the fact that a number of Special and Select Committees are both listed on the Committees page and on individual District pages.]), the Tax Rate Review Committee, which existed for 30 years, was never authorized under Nebraska law
- After operating without legal authorization, the Committee received legal legitimacy in April, 2012
- The Committee decides whether or not tax rate adjustments – increases or decreases – are necessary
- The Committee has the power to petition the Governor to convene a Special Session of the Legislature to make tax rate adjustments, a power granted which is, in and of itself, questionable under the Nebraska Constitution, see footnote[2. The only provision regarding the calling of a Special Session of the Nebraska Legislature in the Nebraska Constitution is included in the powers granted the Executive under Article IV, Section 8. The only other mention of the two-word phrase "special session", are in two places having to do with expense compensation and freedom of travel by Senators to and from all sessions.]
- The Tax Rate Review Committee meets twice per year
What it also reveals…
Quality of State Senators
- A unelected career bureaucrat is looked to by Legislators as the authority figure, not the other way around
- A State Senator who is the Committee’s Chair…
- Doesn’t even know how often the Committee is supposed to convene
- Doesn’t know what its powers are
- Doesn’t seem to understand the information conveyed, so he looks to the bureaucrat to interpret the information for him AND to direct the outcome
- An unelected career bureaucrat spends the majority of the time talking during an incredibly brief meeting (a 4 page transcript is VERY short)
- Senators asked very few questions besides those that would allow very quick adjournment
Willful Budgetary Blindness
- Another example of the perpetual portrayals of the state budget as healthy, when it’s clear there’s trouble on the horizon
- A future shortfall of $600 million is noted
- “Potential legislative actions” aren’t / can’t be calculated in projections, so even the projections are particularly unrealistic
- Nebraska Retirement Systems is perpetually underfunded but not identified as a shortfall, Medicaid costs have done nothing but grow and saw yet another expansion which undoubtedly isn’t properly quantified in projections, health care law implementation is not factored into projections, etc., etc.
Questions raised by these facts:
- Why isn’t this committee listed on the Nebraska Legislature website as others are?
- How many other committees exist within the Nebraska Legislature which are not authorized by law and/or are not listed on the Legislature website?
- Who decided to create this committees?
- Why hasn’t anyone serving in the Unicameral blown the whistle on this committee’s existence?
- Why is the Tax Rate Review Committee necessary?
- Does the Tax Rate Review Committee only exist to provide legal cover – a rubber stamp – for decisions made by bureaucrats?
- Is the Tax Rate Review Committee essentially a 50th legislative seat provided for Mike Calvert?
- Don’t tax rate adjustments fall under the legal jurisdiction of the Revenue Committee?
- What provisions exist for the ethical violations involved?
Helpful information to note before reading the transcript pages:
John Wightman, Committee Chair, is Senator for District 36. Note that the Tax Rate Review Committee is not listed under “Committee Assignments” on his Nebraska Legislature District page.
Abbie Cornett is the term-limited Senator for District 45. The Tax Rate Review Committee is not listed on her District page, but note, her page will be changing soon to reveal the change in office holder. I have archived a snap of her page here.
Mike Flood is the term-limited Senator for District 19, and the Speaker of the Legislature. The Tax Rate Review Committee is not listed on his District page, either. Here is a link to the image snap of the page as of November 13, 2012.
Doug Ewald is the Tax Commissioner, who is the head of the Nebraska Department of Revenue. He spoke once at the hearing, very briefly.
Mike Calvert holds the title of Legislative Fiscal Analyst. He is the individual who spent the lion’s share of the time speaking while the Committee was in session. He is the individual who was defacto leader of the Committee hearing, to whom the Chair “turned over” the meeting and to whom the Senators clearly deferred for direction. We had specific opportunity to observe Mike Calvert in 2010, when the Unicameral faced a second year of significant budgetary shortfalls, which State Senators chose to handle by a special budgetary process for which we attended a hearing in June, 2010. Our article, NE Budget: Senators Hope Feds Will Bail Us Out, describes some statements by Calvert, and the raw notes from our attendance at the hearing which include more detailed information, can be read HERE.
The Constitution of the State of Nebraska, full text is available HERE. (Note that an updated version, which reflects the additions to the text resulting from the passage of Proposed Amendments No. 1 and No. 2, has not been released, but this version is otherwise up to date as to the best of our knowledge. Article III, starting on page 6, lists the powers of the Nebraska Legislature.
Note: If you want to download and/or print the four-page transcript, click any one of the images below, to visit on Scribd, OR click HERE to download the four-page PDF directly from our website.