LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska state agencies are bracing for a possible budget crunch that could mean less maintenance at state parks, fewer law enforcement officers and a slower response to livestock disease outbreaks.
The potential consequences are outlined in a series of budget requests submitted to lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts, who have said they may have to cut spending as state revenues dwindle.
Ricketts announced in July that he had ordered state agencies to analyze how they would handle an 8 percent budget cut so that he and lawmakers would know where to trim if needed. Traditionally, agencies are only asked to identify cuts totaling 5 percent.
The state collected roughly $4.3 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30, which is $95 million less than expected. Ricketts said the situation was “not a crisis,” but noted it was important to identify places to cut in case the budget outlook worsens.
The Nebraska State Patrol said an 8 percent budget cut would require it to eliminate an estimated 28 sworn officer positions over two years. Some smaller duty stations would have to close, forcing officers in rural areas to travel father when responding to emergencies. Fewer officers on the road could also lead to more traffic violations and a resulting increase in fatalities, the agency said in its budget filing.
In a statement, the patrol’s superintendent said the information submitted is intended to help the governor and lawmakers as they craft a state budget.
“We’ll look to make any potential adjustments without jeopardizing public safety,” said Col. Brad Rice.
The Department of Agriculture said an 8 percent cut in the general fund money it receives would reduce the number of field employees who inspect livestock for diseases. Department employees would have to travel more and wouldn’t respond as fast to an outbreak such as recent instances of avian flu, pseudorabies and tuberculosis, according to the department’s budget request.
“This could result in additional economic losses to producers,” the department said in its budget filing.
The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission said it would cut back on basic maintenance at 19 state recreation areas and historic parks by not mowing lawns, cleaning restrooms or removing trash. In some cases, the commission said it might try to negotiate maintenance agreements with communities and local property owners.
“Reductions will negatively impact … the agency’s ability to provide quality park experiences and services as well as have negative impacts to tourism opportunity and localized economies,” the department said in its filing.
Many departments said they would eliminate some jobs and leave others unfilled. Among other changes, the Department of Health and Human Services said an 8 percent cut might force it to reduce funding for service providers, which could affect as many 3,000 people with mental health or substance abuse problems.
“The process of finalizing the budget will be a long and deliberative process and we’ll speak to specific issues when those decisions are made,” said department spokeswoman Kathie Osterman.
Some agencies could see more cuts than others. Lawmakers and Ricketts have identified funding for the Department of Correctional Services as one of their top priorities in next year’s legislative session, casting it as a matter of public safety. The department has faced numerous problems in recent years including a high-profile escape, inmate assaults on employees and a prison riot.
Ricketts has also directed department leaders to look carefully at whether new hires are necessary, limit travel when possible and delay computer hardware and software purchases.
No one knows whether revenues will continue to fall short of projections. The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board is set to provide new estimates at its next meeting in October.
The lists of cuts were requested “in an abundance of caution” and may not be necessary if state revenues recover, said Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.
“It forces agencies to prioritize,” Mello said.
Nebraska State Budget Administrator Gerry Oligmueller said the state’s lower-than-expected revenue collections illustrate the need for continued fiscal restraint. Right now it doesn’t appear agencies will need to propose additional cuts, “but that could change quickly if revenue trends downward,” he said.