Week nineteen of the first biennium of the 105th Legislature consisted of days 78 through 81 of this 90-day session.
On Monday and Tuesday the Legislature took final action by adopting the state’s biennium budget. This session took place during an exceptionally low revenue growth in our state, primarily caused by a sharp ongoing decline in commodity prices in the agricultural economy. The budget adopted by the Legislature authorizes $8.9 billion of spending over the next two years, averaging about 1% annual growth in state budget expenditures. While this budget slows the rate of growth in state spending, and includes about $700 million of general fund reductions from the initial budget requests by state agencies, other senators and I believe that perhaps we should have made additional budget reductions to prevent the need for a special session later this year.
To balance the budget, the four budget bills call for drawing down the state cash reserve fund and only provides for a 2.5% cash reserve rather than the normal 3% cash reserve. During the final round of debate, the Legislature again debated the same amendment I discussed in my previous column that would have taken the budget back to amounts in the 2016-17 budget and utilized the cash reserve fund to accommodate increases in the salaries of state employees and health care costs. Another amendment, introduced by Senator Albrecht, was debated that would have made a one percent across-the-board reductions to general fund amounts. Since both amendments were withdrawn the Legislature did not have the opportunity to vote on them, but the amendments provided an opportunity to highlight additional needed reductions in state spending. The next step in the process will be for the Governor and his staff to go through the budget passed by the Legislature to determine if they would like to make any line-item vetoes.
On Thursday we debated LB 651, also known as the Nebraska Reading Improvement Act. Due to all the misinformation about this bill, it generated much undue controversy. Contrary to popular belief, this bill would not require a student who has failed a single test at the end of third grade to be retained in third grade regardless of disabilities, a lack of proficiency in English, or many other reasons that might explain why the student is struggling. If a third grader is not reading at third grade level, as demonstrated by a multitude of tests, the bill – with the amendments – would require that retention be seriously considered by the parents (or guardians), teacher, and principal.
Many people have asked why this bill is even necessary? According to the Nebraska Department of Education, 23% of third graders across the state were not meeting Nebraska state assessment (NeSA) standards in 2012. Some improvement was seen in 2016, as that number dropped to 18%. While some schools are continuing to improve because of increased attention on reading beginning in kindergarten, many others are not. In some schools, as many as 70% of third graders are not reading at grade level. There is little evidence that a child who is unable to read at grade level but is allowed to advance from third grade to fourth grade, ever catches up. Sad to say, nearly 90 percent of students who fail to earn a high school diploma struggled with reading in third grade; almost 85% of teenagers in the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate; seven out of ten adult prisoners cannot read above a fourth-grade level; and high school dropouts make up 90% of Americans on welfare and 75% of food stamp recipients. The ability to read and write well is a very necessary and fundamental skill to function in our lives today, and it is important that we instill reading skills at an early age. Implementation of LB 651 seeks to chip away at illiteracy and its ill effects, which are borne by all of us.
Please contact me, or our staff with questions or concerns at (402) 471-2728 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org; or stop by Room 1022 if you are in the State Capitol. If you would like to follow the Legislature online please visit http://netnebraska.org/basic-page/television/live-demand-state-government. Live broadcasting is also available on NET2.