Axing Neb. State Treasurer’s Office proposed

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — In another sign of Nebraska’s deepening budget woes, politicians are going after politicians as they try to save money.

Earlier this week, a Republican state senator in the officially nonpartisan Legislature proposed that the State Treasurer’s office — currently, and normally, filled by a Republican — be eliminated.

It didn’t sit well with the man who occupies the office now, even though he’s not running for re-election.

“I don’t believe that combining the treasurer’s office into … departments will provide a cost-savings to the state,” said State Treasurer Shane Osborn.

The lawmaker from Hastings who introduced the proposed constitutional amendment disagrees, and says the move could save the state roughly $1 million annually. The proposal to eliminate the office in 2013 faces a long road: It must be approved by a legislative committee, the full Legislature and finally, voters in a statewide election.

“We’ve been giving a lot of lip service to downsizing and streamlining state government,” said Sen. Dennis Utter of Hastings. “We could easily pass some services in the treasurer’s office onto other areas of state government.”

The proposal to ax an entire office could be a sign of things to come as state government struggles to keep its head above water financially and projections show difficulties for months, and even years, to come.

Lawmakers eventually may have to cut more from the current, two-year budget after slashing $334 million during an emergency session in November. And projections for the next two-year budget, which begins in July 2011 are grim: Fiscal analysts say the deficit could be around $640 million and maybe up to about $1 billion.

At that point, government may have to “get out of the business of doing something,” Michael Calvert, the Legislature’s chief fiscal analyst, told the budget-writing Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Putting the state treasurer out of business could make government more inefficient, Osborn said, and leave residents in the dark about how their tax dollars are spent. Osborn recently posted all 1.76 million payments state agencies made last fiscal year on a searchable Web site and has returned a record amount of unclaimed property such as uncashed payroll checks and gift cards — $42 million worth — during his tenure.

“The state treasurer serves a vital role as an independent elected official who is accountable to the citizens of Nebraska, and a check to the power of the governor and Legislature,” Osborn said.

A state senator running for state treasurer, Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln, said that by having state agencies rather than elected office perform the duties, “we would be taking an element of control away from the people.”

“I have seen how something gets shuffled away to a different part of government and it gets forgotten about,” Fulton said.

Utter argues that a main function of the office — returning unclaimed property — could be placed in another elected office, the Secretary of State. Management of the state’s college-savings plan could be handled by the Nebraska Investment Council, he said, and other duties of the office could be passed onto the department of revenue and department of Administrative services.

Utter said revenue officials already have told him they could handle some of the work without making many changes.