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Debate on the budget bills consumed most of this past week for the Legislature. The mainline budget bill, which contains the appropriations for the expenses of the Nebraska State Government over the next biennium, warranted the most discussion. A dozen amendments were offered to LB 195, but only the Appropriations Committee amendments, which became the bill, and two amendments offered by the Appropriations Committee chair were adopted. These amendments revised the amount appropriated to the state aid formula for K-12 school districts, based on the latest compromise on the state aid bill, and increased the revolving funds for the Nebraska Statewide Radio System, to allow for three additional towers to address necessary improvements and enhanced coverage. Unsuccessful amendments included efforts to reduce funding for the learning communities, for climate change studies, for the nurse visitation services program and for a railroad track inspector position, as well as attempting to increase funding for the property tax credit program. I was supportive of efforts to reduce the funding contained in the budget bill because if all bills pending are passed, it will result in a 5.5% increase in spending. The historical growth in revenue over the last 30 years is 5%. I do not think it is wise to increase spending by a greater percentage than the average increase in revenue.
In addition to advancing the budget bills to the second stage of debate, senators gave final approval to LB 553. This bill deals with the retirement system for school employees. Due to the recent recession, the plan has experienced a significant pension shortfall. Under LB 553, a new benefits tier is created for school employees hired on or after July 1, 2013, which averages the final salary over 5 years rather than 3 years and reduces the maximum cost-of-living adjustment from 2.5% to 1%. The sunset date on the increased employee contribution rate of 9.78% is eliminated and the state’s contribution rate is increased from 1% to 2% of total compensation. I support these efforts whereby the schools, teachers and the state share in resolving the shortfall. Furthermore, the legislation takes the initiative to adjust the current retirement system for future employees. However, I still have concerns about the sustainability of a defined benefit program.
Two years ago, legislation was passed to encourage companies to establish internships in an effort to retain our graduates in Nebraska, as research showed that interns tend to stay in the region after graduation. Under the Intern Nebraska program, grants are available to companies creating qualified new internships to help offset some of the cost and risk businesses incur when hiring interns. By the end of 2012, 229 companies had taken advantage of the program and had filled 361 positions. Of the interns who graduated and provided information about their future plans, over 50% were offered a full-time position with the company where they interned. An additional 25% were hired on full-time with another company.
LB 476, introduced this year by Senator Tom Carlson of Holdrege, amends the Intern Nebraska program. It opens eligibility up to any college student instead of just those in the upper classes. Grant amounts are increased to the lesser of 75% of the cost of the internship or $5,000, and can go up to $7,500, if the intern is a Federal Pell Grant recipient. The Department is to develop an action plan that will be marketed to high schools and higher education institutions, encouraging students to pursue internships. LB 476 was passed by the Legislature this past week.
We got our first taste of a late night session, adjourning at 11:05 p.m. on Thursday night. As we continue to work long hours, I encourage you to inform me of your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.