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This past week the Legislature passed and the Governor signed the budget adjustment bill for the current year. Governor Ricketts noted his appreciation of the Legislature’s swift action and that LB 22 is an important first step toward addressing the gap between appropriations and revenues. LB 22 contained $137 million in budget cuts, thereby lowering the $900 million budget gap projected for the end of the next biennium. The Appropriations Committee, on which I serve, is currently working on the budget for the next two years.
A controversial bill to allow school vouchers was heard before the Education Committee this past week. LB 608 would allow K-12 students to qualify for a scholarship to enroll in a private school if the student resides in a public school district which is at the lowest performance level established by the Nebraska State Board of Education’s accountability system. There are currently 86 school districts in the “needs improvement” category. The scholarship amount would equal 75% of the anticipated revenue per student the resident school district would receive. The resident school district would also be responsible for transportation. Resident school districts are to establish property tax relief funds with the other 25% of the anticipated revenue per student. If 10% of students participated in the scholarship program, approximately $23.5 million would be transferred annually from public schools to private schools for the education of these students.
Proponents of LB 608 testified at the public hearing that the bill would give students from lower income families the same opportunities that exist for wealthier families. Although students already have the option to attend a different public school than their resident school district under the option enrollment program, examples were given of school districts that were at capacity and wouldn’t accept additional students. Opponents warned that the program would harm our public school system, questioning whether school expenses would drop proportionately with the lower enrollment. They also questioned the constitutionality of the proposal, as it relates to using public funds for private schools, as well as the use of public money in private schools without the same accountability requirements. Furthermore, opponents pointed out that the bill would allow any student, regardless of their family’s income level or whether they were already attending a private school, to qualify for the scholarship.
Craft breweries are gaining popularity across the country, as well as in Nebraska. They produce their product locally and offer great potential for economic development across the state. Last year, a compromise was reached, allowing a licensee to operate up to five retail locations (or taprooms). Among other things, LB 632 would require that there be production at each of those five locations. The legislation also requires craft breweries to transport their beer to a distributor’s warehouse before delivery, as is the requirement for other types of beer such as Budweiser and Coors. This causes a hardship for locally produced beer. Craft brewery owners and supporters appeared in full force at the public hearing and are working to overcome the influence of the beer distributers. Senator Tyson Larson, the sponsor of LB 632 and the chair of the General Affairs Committee, stated that this change was necessary in order to avoid a lawsuit from out-of-state beer companies for unequal treatment.
I introduced a bill before the Judiciary Committee this past week, on behalf of Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, Mike Heavican. LB 544 would provide for a local option for consolidation of administrative duties when a vacancy occurs in the Office of the Clerk of the District Court or when an incumbent Clerk of the District Court decides not to seek re-election. Instead of requiring a general election vote of the people to eliminate this office, which doesn’t work well logistically with the election process, LB 544 would allow the county board to make this decision. If the county board would decide to eliminate this elected position, the county board would enter into an agreement with the State Court Administrator to allow the Clerk Magistrate to fulfill the duties of the Clerk of the District Court. The employees of the Clerk of the District Court would become state employees. Nebraska was awarded a State Justice Institute Technical Assistance grant, allowing the National Center for State Courts to conduct an evaluation of county and district clerk’s offices. This report was the basis for LB 544.
Corey Steel, the Nebraska State Court Administrator, testified that Nebraska currently has a two-tiered clerk system. The majority of the court operations have been moved from the county to the state, with only the Clerk of the District Court’s office remaining as county employees. He testified that several counties have asked for the ability to consolidate, in an effort to operate more efficiently and effectively. Although this consolidation would remain a county decision and no person currently serving as Clerk of the District Court would lose their job, many Clerks of the District Court testified in opposition to LB 544.
The Legislature has passed the one-third mark of this legislative session. As we begin the next two-thirds, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions on legislation before us. 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 email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.