State Fiscal Briefs

November 2020

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Nebraska’s budget basics

According to the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), Nebraska’s total expenditures in fiscal year (FY) 2020 were $12.9 billion, including general funds, other state funds, bonds, and federal funds. NASBO reported that total expenditures across all states in FY 2020 were $2.3 trillion, ranging from $4.7 billion in Wyoming to $337.7 billion in California.

Each state allocates spending and taxes differently among different levels of governments, and local governments often administer programs with state funds, so combined state and local government data show a more complete picture of individual benefits and contributions when comparing states.

Per the US Census Bureau, Nebraska’s combined state and local direct general expenditures were $17.6 billion in FY 2017 (the most recent year census data were available), or $9,177 per capita. (Census data exclude “business-like” activities such as utilities and transfers between state and local governments.) National per capita direct general expenditures were $9,446.

Nebraska’s largest spending areas per capita were elementary and secondary education ($2,455) and public welfare ($1,475). The Census Bureau includes most Medicaid spending in public welfare but also allocates some of it to public hospitals. Per capita spending is useful for state comparisons but is an incomplete metric because it doesn’t provide any information about a state’s demographics, policy decisions, administrative procedures, or residents’ choices.

Nebraska’s combined state and local general revenues were $17.7 billion in FY 2017, or $9,237 per capita. National per capita general revenues were $9,592. Nebraska uses all major state and local taxes. Nebraska’s largest sources of per capita revenue were property taxes ($1,958) and federal transfers ($1,802).

Nebraska’s politics

Governor Pete Ricketts, a Republican, was elected in 2018 with 59 percent of the vote. The next gubernatorial election is in 2022.

Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature. While referred to as the “legislature,” the state Senate is the legislative body that remained after a 1937 reorganization created the unicameral structure. Republicans control Nebraska’s Senate with a veto-proof majority (30 Republicans to 18 Democrats and 1 independent). Members of the Senate serve four-year terms; roughly half the Senate seats are up for election in 2020, and the other half are up for election in 2022.

Nebraska’s budget institutions, rules, and constraints

Nebraska uses a biennial budget. The legislature is not required to pass a balanced budget, nor is the governor required to sign one, and deficits may be carried over into the following year. However, the state has budget rules that require lawmakers to balance revenues and expenditures. There are no further tax and expenditure limits in Nebraska, but there are limits on total authorized debt and debt service incurred by the state.

(Note: Some states have informal budget institutions that constrain overall spending growth or a specific expenditure’s growth.)

Nebraska’s recent fiscal debates

  • Property taxes, specifically property tax relief, have dominated the past few legislative sessions in Nebraska. Governor Ricketts called property tax relief an “insuperable monster.” Most tax reform proposals would reduce property tax payments and replace the revenue with higher general sales tax revenues (by either hiking the tax rate or expanding the tax base). However, Governor Ricketts strongly opposes these plans and derided one as “the largest tax increase in Nebraska history.” Legislators from urban areas also typically oppose the reforms because the tax relief would mostly benefit farmers and ranchers while the tax increases would mostly fall on urban residents. The legislature approved $51 million in additional property tax relief in 2019, but many legislators “grumbled” that the state is still not doing enough to assist farmers, ranchers, and homeowners. As the state enters 2020, a legislative committee is again preparing reforms that would lower property taxes and increase sales taxes (in consultation with the governor’s office), while an advocacy group is attempting to get a $1.5 billion property tax cut (with no revenue offset) on Nebraska’s 2020 ballot.
  • Despite strong opposition from the governor and most Republican legislators, Nebraska voters approved expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in a 2018 ballot initiative. The state approved funds for Medicaid expansion in its FY 2020–21 budget, but advocates for the program are criticizing the administration’s slow rollout of the program.

Nebraska’s current budget

Governor Pete Ricketts announced his proposed FY 2020–21 budget in January 2019. Both the governor’s budget and 2019 state of the state address focused on tax relief, including creating a 3 percent growth cap on property taxes levied by local governments and increasing the state’s property tax credit relief fund. The budget also included funds for the Medicaid expansion approved by voters in 2018.

The legislature passed its budget in May. The enacted budget generally followed the governor’s recommendations. The legislature approved more funds for the property tax credit relief fund but not the cap on local property taxes.

Governor Ricketts released his proposed FY 2020 and FY 2021 budget adjustments and gave his 2020 state of the state address in January 2020.

For more on Nebraska’s budget, see