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Nebraska budget bills win first-round approval

Grant Schulte, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- A proposal to buy a twin-engine airplane from the University of Nebraska Foundation was put on hold Friday, after lawmakers chose to seek more information while pressing ahead with the state budget.

The vote to remove the $2.2 million airplane from a budget request came during debate on the seventh and final budget bill of the session. The $7.8 billion spending package includes money for K-12 schools, child services, the university, and requirements of the federal health care law.

Lawmakers spent most of the week debating pieces of the budget and questioning expenses. Various senators took issue with a $12 million earmark for a nursing college in Lincoln, $6 million for history-museum renovations, and $16 million to allow a two-year tuition freeze at the University of Nebraska.

The request to buy the 12-year-old airplane, a Beechcraft Super King Air, was included in the state's proposed budget after the foundation decided to sell it. Gov. Dave Heineman and state agency officials use the plane through a lease agreement.

Lawmakers voted 26-14 Friday on an amendment to a state budget bill that withdrew more than $2 million for the purchase. In its place, lawmakers authorized an independent study that will explore what type of plane the state should use, and whether buying a new or different plane is more cost-effective.

Some lawmakers questioned whether the plane is necessary or if better deals are available through charter flights, leases or time-share agreements. Others said buying a new plane with a warrantee could be more cost-effective.

"We're the ones who write the check, at the end of the day," said Sen. Annette Dubas, of Fullerton. "We're the ones who have to go home and explain to our constituents why we did or didn't take a particular action."

The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board predicted in April that the state will collect roughly $53 million more than anticipated during the next two-year budget period. Sen. Pete Pirsch of Omaha introduced a proposal that would have kept that projected revenue available for a one-time tax rebate. Lawmakers rejected the idea, opting instead to put the money into the state's emergency cash-reserve fund.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who heads the Appropriations Committee, said the money wasn't guaranteed. Mello said keeping the money in the cash reserve could help the state in the event of a drought-induced economic downturn. It also might be needed to enact the recommendations of a state tax study, he said.