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It has been a year since the devastating school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Across the nation, lawmakers have spent the year devising ways to prevent a similar tragedy, but only a fraction of the laws proposed in the immediate aftermath of the school shootings have been enacted.
Families and schools across Nebraska are looking to their lawmakers for leadership. We need to show our commitment to keeping our students and their schools safe. As an educator for over 40 years and the founding principal of Millard West High School, I know what kind of security it takes to run a school, especially a school of over 2,000 students. That number of students exceeds the population of many towns in Nebraska. Just this year alone, Millard spent over $20 million on school security improvements.
When I talk about school security, I am referring to: infrastructure (doors, locks, cameras, walls); security staff (school resource officers, guidance counselors, mediators); and school culture (anti-bullying resources, positive behavior models for teachers, reduced class sizes, and conflict resolution programs). All of these measures require funding and they are crucial to maintaining a safe school that is free of violence, abuse and fear.
These expenses and experiences are not unique to Millard. Regardless of geography or size, superintendents across Nebraska are facing the same dilemma of keeping students, educators and parents safe, without taking resources away from their student’s education, teachers’ salaries, or maintenance of their buildings.
So what can we do in Nebraska to improve our school security? Last session I introduced legislation (LB 346) to allow school boards, with a 2/3 super majority vote, to raise their maximum levy 1 cent to use for school security improvements. This legislation is at the moment stalled in the Revenue Committee with 4 yes votes, 3 no votes and 1 undecided.
This interim, I have been working on resolution (LR 208) to further explore the need for funding school security improvements, and see if there is a way to do so through the Education Committee. I believe one immediate option would be to create a state grant program in which schools could apply and receive funding for school security improvements. Long term, the Legislature may want to consider a school security adjustment to the state aid to schools formula.
The first step is to have the Nebraska Department of Education conduct a statewide assessment of school security – needs as well as costs. This would be used to create a state minimum standard of school security and help us target money to schools that need the most help. I plan to introduce legislation this year that will require us to take this first step.
I will continue to put pressure on the Revenue Committee to advance my school security bill (LB 346) out of committee. I ask that you help me by reaching out to the four Senators who refuse to advance this important and timely piece of legislation: Senators Charlie Janssen, Beau McCoy, Paul Schumacher and Pete Pirsch. Tell them to let us debate this legislation with the full legislature.
If the lawmakers in this state don’t do anything, and God forbid we have more school violence and tragedies, then all eyes will be on us for not taking bigger steps to protect Nebraska’s youth.
LINCOLN (AP) — Lawmakers will consider a bill next year designed to help low-income families participate in Nebraska’s state-sponsored college savings plan.
Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha said Tuesday that he will introduce the measure, which would remove a barrier for low-income families.
“If students save for college, no matter how small that amount is, they’re more likely to go to college,” Kolowski, a retired high school principal, said Tuesday at a legislative hearing. “The earlier they start to save, the earlier they get on that track.”
The measure would exclude the college savings plan, scholarships and work-study income from the formula that determines whether a person qualifies for public benefits. The formula disqualifies applicants who have too many assets or too much income.
The Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee convened the hearing as part of a legislative study of the state plan. Kolowski said his measure would also exclude Aid to Dependent Children, child care subsidies and a home energy program for low-income residents.
Nearly half the families participating in Nebraska’s state-sponsored college savings plan make at least $100,000 per year, according to the State Department of Revenue. Families with an adjusted gross income of more than $100,000 accounted for nearly 45 percent of the plan’s participants. Families who made less than $50,000 per year accounted for less than 7 percent.
Nebraska’s “529 plan,” named for a provision of the federal tax code, allows families to save for education expenses in a tax-advantaged investment account.
More than 12 percent of minors in Nebraska are enrolled in a savings plan, said State Treasurer Don Stenberg. He said his office has already worked to promote the savings plan statewide. The Treasurer’s Office uses drawings and a series of scholarships to promote the plan, he said.
Reaching out to low-income families “is part of the challenge,” Stenberg said. “It’s important to note, though, that not every low-income family will stay a low-income family throughout their lifetime. A lot of folks are getting out of college. I think you have to take into account that some of the folks who may not be able to put money into a savings account now may be able to five years from now.”
The plan charges a 0.30 percent fee on investments — a 0.27 percent management fee for First National Bank, which manages the plan, and 0.03 percent that goes to the state for staff and operating expenses.
Nationally, the cost of higher education has increased faster than incomes have, said Aubrey Mancuso, a policy coordinator of the advocacy group Voices for Children. The average cost of tuition and fees at a public, four-year institution in Nebraska has increased by 16 percent over the past five years, while median income increased by 2.2 percent without accounting for inflation.
Mancuso said saving early in a child’s life has been shown to increase the odds that the child will want to go to college.
“It’s harder for people to get through the door, and those who are getting through the door are increasingly paying for it with loans,” Mancuso said.
“One thing that’s become clear on this is that interventions at the high school level are starting too late.”
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
As the anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., approaches, a number of people testified Wednesday on the need for enhanced school security.
For many, it’s about being able find ways to afford technology and building changes while not taking money from instruction.
For others, such as Faith Hutcherson, a freshman at Lincoln East High School, it is about looking deeper for the true cause of school shootings — bullying and harassment of students and society’s celebration of violence in the media and video games.
Hutcherson said it would cost nothing, and require no legislation, for people to raise standards of how they treat one another.
Sarah Forrest, with Voices for Children in Nebraska, suggested more comprehensive approaches to school violence. What has been shown to be effective are approaches that take into account children’s developmental needs and home experiences, she said.
Building relationships is important, as is access to mentors, counselors, therapists and behavioral health services. So are implementing new disciplinary approaches and conflict resolution, and providing training for school resource officers.
“Nebraska really needs to think holistically about the safety and security issues,” Forrest said.
Joseph Wright, director of security for Lincoln Public Schools, said the issues schools face are nontraditional and will be difficult to solve with traditional funding sources.
Schools are faced with having to replace doors, windows, steps and offices that haven’t worn out to create safer entries and hallways. The public expects camera systems in buses and buildings, and radio networks for better communication, Wright said.
“The cost for the above improvements as well as added personnel who would staff threat management teams, or be extra eyes and ears at athletic events, is well outside standard school budgets,” he said.
More than 10,000 school and community functions are held each year at Lincoln schools after the last bell rings. That means security is a community issue, not just a district issue, he said.
LPS would include money in its proposed bond issue to enhance security in schools. Officials say about 30 public schools in Lincoln still do not have secured entrances, although they have people who check visitors in as they arrive.
The district would like each school to have visitor check-in areas separated by locked doors, security cameras and communication tools for crises, such as radios or phones in classrooms.
The interim study resolution (LR208) was brought by Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski. In the 2013 session, he introduced a bill (LB346) to allow school boards with a two-thirds super-majority vote to raise their maximum levies by one cent to be used for school security improvements. The bill is stalled in the Revenue Committee.
Kolowski said the needs are great and the money usually short. The Legislature could help.
Steps that can be taken include creating a state grant program for security improvements, adjusting the school aid formula to allow schools to pay for security upgrades, and having the state Department of Education conduct a statewide assessment of school district security needs and their costs.
A state standard of school security could be developed from that assessment to be used as a target for state support.
One of the nearly 50 shootings at schools, colleges and on school buses that have taken place in the past three years was at Millard South High School. An assistant principal and the student shooter died in the early 2011 incident, and the principal was seriously wounded.
Angelo Passarelli, administrator with Millard Public Schools, said the district has implemented more security measures since then, including a door buzzer system that locks doors during school hours.
A bond issue recently passed there includes $5 million for upgrades to the district’s security, including a unified security system. A typical high school has 40 to 50 doors to monitor, Passarelli said.
“All of these systems will help us, probably not totally make us impenetrable,” he said. “It won’t stop events like happened in 2011, but certainly will add to the layers of security that we have in our school system.”
Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or email@example.com — You can follow JoAnne’s tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.
I am pleased to hear that Governor Heineman supports property tax relief for Nebraskans by increasing funding for the Property Tax Credit Act, which gives state property tax rebates to every landowner and homeowner. (article included below)
But we could do better. Currently the rebates are spread thin because they include big box stores (Walmart and Target) and out-of-state landowners.
I am crafting legislation that creates a separate rebate program for only residential homeowners that puts real money back into the hands of hard working Nebraskans.
Lawmakers welcome Gov. Heineman’s shift to include property taxes in tax-relief push
PUBLISHED THURSDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2013 AT 1:00 AM / UPDATED AT 4:16 AM
LINCOLN — Complaints about high property taxes in Nebraska appear to be sinking in at the State Capitol.
Gov. Dave Heineman on Wednesday signaled that any tax-relief push needs to include reducing local property taxes, and not just cuts in state income tax rates.
It was a shift in focus welcomed by some state senators, who have long said that the biggest tax problem in the state is ever-rising property taxes. Such gripes dominated last week’s public hearings by a legislative panel studying state tax changes.
“This is a change,” said State Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, who is leading the Legislature’s Tax Modernization Committee. “Maybe our hearings have given some other information for the executive branch to look at.”
Heineman had been aiming darts at Nebraska’s state income tax rates, which he says scare away good-paying jobs because they are higher than all but one neighboring state, Iowa.
High property taxes, the conservative Republican has said in the past, were an issue for someone else: local school boards, county boards and city councils that levy property taxes.
At a press conference Wednesday, the governor called on the Nebraska Legislature to work with him to pass a “balanced” plan of income tax cuts and property tax relief during the 2014 session — the last session for Heineman before he leaves office because of term limits.
“Rural Nebraska wants property tax relief and urban Nebraska wage earners need income tax relief,” he said. “This is going to be priority No. 1.”
State Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte, a member of the tax modernization group, applauded the governor’s new, dual focus.
“We found out that (high) property taxes are a pretty big item out here,” Hansen said, of public hearings held in Scottsbluff, North Platte and Norfolk.
Other reaction was more cautious.
Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, who is chairman of the state budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he’s glad that the conversation now includes property tax relief. However, Mello said he also wants to make sure that any tax proposals are “fiscally responsible.”
Earlier this year, Heineman pitched a plan to eliminate state income taxes and to pay for it by rescinding several sales tax exemptions.
A stampede of business, agriculture and nonprofit groups descended on the State Capitol to oppose Heineman’s plan. The groups said that losing their tax exemptions would make products made or grown in Nebraska uncompetitive and would force jobs out of the state.
The governor said Wednesday that he has backed off that plan but remains convinced that the state offers too many sales tax exemptions.
He said the state should dip into its cash reserves to finance tax relief. That rainy day fund now stands at $679 million, or about 17 percent of annual state spending.
Mello said he anticipates that the Legislature will be cautious about using the reserve funds because there’s still uncertainty about the economic future of the state and because such cash reserves are more wisely used for one-time expenses, not the ongoing costs of a tax cut.
The state’s cash reserves helped sustain state services during the recent recession. Nebraska, unlike some states, didn’t have to raise taxes.
“My taxes are high, just like everyone’s taxes are too high,” the senator said. “However, the challenge we have is reforming a tax code to ensure fairness and stability, while generating enough tax revenue to fund state priorities into the future.”
The governor’s comments come as the tax committee is midway through a series of public hearings across the state on how to modernize the state’s tax system to better reflect today’s economy.
The group’s final hearings will be held Oct. 17 in Omaha and Oct. 18 in Lincoln. But those testifying at the initial hearings, including several farmers and ranchers, complained mainly about high property taxes. Few griped about high income taxes. Several said that sales taxes should be raised to offset reductions in property taxes.
Heineman, in comments this week, said he would support increasing the state property tax rebates now offered to land- and homeowners through a program launched in 2007.
This year, that credit returned $115 million to taxpayers, the same amount since the program began. The tax break amounted to about $107 for the owner of a $150,000 home. If that home was in the Omaha school district, the credit reduced the homeowner’s total property tax bill by 3.3 percent.
At his press conference Wednesday, Heineman displayed a handful of posters indicating that Nebraska’s property taxes are 13th-highest in the nation and that state income taxes rank in the top 16. Other charts showed that Nebraska, unlike most other states, still levies a county tax on inheritances and doesn’t offer extra tax breaks for retirees. Another showed that the state was among the 10 “least friendly” states for retirees.
“Our citizens don’t even need these charts,” the governor said. “They know our taxes are too high.”
Other recent rankings have placed Nebraska among the top five best places to start a new business. But Heineman said those were about business climate, not taxes.
The governor, when pressed, said it was too early to provide details on whether tax cuts would require cuts in state spending. The tax committee is scheduled to issue its recommendations by Dec. 15, and the 2014 legislative session doesn’t begin until Jan. 8.
“It’s only October,” the governor said. “I want to work together with (the Legislature). I don’t care who gets the credit.”
Legislators on the Education Committee will begin a statewide tour this week to discuss K-12 school financing and look for methods to bring more property tax relief to Nebraskans.
Wanted: your best ideas for funding Nebraska schools
By Martha Stoddard / World-Herald Bureau
LINCOLN — Round two of Nebraska’s great tax debate kicks off Wednesday.
Last week the Tax Modernization Committee toured the state to collect ideas and opinions about revamping property, sales and income taxes.
This week it will be the Education Committee hitting the road for a series of public hearings.
The official topic of the hearings is state funding of K-12 schools.
But State Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, who is chairwoman of the Education Committee and sits on the tax committee, expects to hear many concerns repeated from last week to this one.
In some ways, she said, this week’s hearings will be an extension of the tax committee hearings.
“There aren’t very many places we can look for revenue,” she said.
Schools are the top users of local property taxes, accounting for more than $1.9 billion of the $3.2 billion in property taxes levied for 2012.
That means discussions about reducing property taxes inevitably bring up talk about school finance.
Providing property tax relief is a key goal of the state school aid formula. The formula also aims to equalize educational opportunities for students from property-rich and property-poor districts.
Nebraska’s 249 school districts now share nearly $1 billion in state aid, which comes largely from state sales and income tax revenues.
School aid is the largest-single item in the state budget, and small increases in the aid total can mean big headaches for legislative budget writers.
In anticipation of the public hearings, the Education Committee floated the idea of reducing property taxes through the use of “local option income and/or sales taxes.”
The idea was deliberately scarce on details and definitions because committee members wanted to encourage broad discussions on the concept.
Sullivan said committee members hope to hear pros and cons of various policy directions where the concept could lead.
“We want to see if it’s something educators and the public think is worthy of digging deeper,” she said.
The committee members also hope to hear from people with new ideas about school finance or who can point out problem areas in the current formula.
The Education Committee study grew out of pitched battles during the recent legislative session over how to divvy up state school aid.
The committee is working to develop recommendations for the next legislative session.
Sullivan said the committee has not yet endorsed any particular plan or reached consensus on any recommendations.
She said any proposal for 2014 legislation likely will be modest. Bigger changes would be considered over a longer period.
It would not be “fair or realistic” to expect that any proposed revamp of the formula could be introduced, considered and passed that quickly, Sullivan said.
In Nebraska, the largest portion of school aid aims to fill the gap between what schools need to educate children and what they can get from property taxes and other resources.
The idea of using local option income and sales taxes addresses the resources side of the formula.
Other concepts put forth by the committee address the way school needs are calculated. Changes in those calculations could affect the total amount of aid required for schools, as well as how the aid dollars get divvied up.
Currently the state determines need based on past spending by school districts.
One suggestion would base the need calculation on a per-student figure. Another would include a minimum amount to cover fixed costs, such as the cost of a principal and a school building.
A third proposal would use some measure of the state’s economic health to set school spending limits. The Legislature sets the limits now.
The Education Committee hearings are set for Hastings, McCook, Dunning, Omaha, Crete and Macy.
PUBLISHED TUESDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2013 AT 1:00 AM / UPDATED AT 2:48 AM
As Omaha school districts complete their strategic plans, the Legislature’s Education Committee embarks on two weeks of public hearings across Nebraska to seek input on the future of education in this great state.
From Hastings to McCook, Lincoln to Grand Island and Omaha to Crete, I look forward to hearing from the people of Nebraska.
Don’t hesitate to call my office for more information if you are interested in attending any of these hearings: (402) 471-2327.
PUBLISHED MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2013 AT 12:30 AM / UPDATED AT 12:19 AM
Call them strategic plans, master facilities plans or visioning processes.
No matter the nomenclature or the emphasis, there’s a whole lot of planning going on in school systems across the metro area — and probably will be for some time to come.
Part of the planning surge stems from a relatively new crop of superintendents — and in the case of the Omaha Public Schools, a mostly new school board — seeking to draw a road map to the future. Eight of the metro area’s 12 public school superintendents started their jobs within the past four years.
OPS is not alone. Several other metro area districts — from Bellevue to Elkhorn and Springfield Platteview to Westside — have recently completed or are in the midst of planning processes. The Archdiocese of Omaha’s Catholic Schools Office is working on a plan, too.
While schools routinely engage in planning, pushes for accountability through standards and assessment tests have created a need and a means to measure progress.
“Without a clearly identified direction and prioritization, it doesn’t mean people aren’t working hard and aren’t making progress, but we don’t really know where we’re making progress,” said Mark Evans, OPS’s new superintendent.
Here is some of the planning and goal-setting that is going on in the metro area:
OPS is about to launch a top-to-bottom needs assessment and begin work on a four- to five-year strategic plan. The district has been working from a document based on school board goals from more than a decade ago.
Efforts underway or imminent in metro-area school districts:
» OPS is about to begin a top-to-bottom needs assessment and four- to five-year strategic plan.
» Elkhorn updated its master facilities plan, including buildings needed to meet expected enrollment growth.
» Westside is working to update its vision and analyze facilities and programs.
» Papillion-La Vista is preparing to review plans and goals, bringing district stakeholders together by next summer.
» Bellevue’s school board will discuss, Oct. 7, whether the district is ready to move to long-term planning.
» Ralston has completed a three- to five-year technology plan and is working on plans in two other areas, aiming to have all three in place by next fall.
» Springfield Platteview is in year two of five-year plan, out of which grew the district’s new name, a one-to-one iPad initiative and proposed $35.7 million bond issue.
» Douglas County West has launched review of educational programs and facilities.
» Millard developed a strategic plan in 1990 and updates it frequently, most recently last year. The evolving plan led to successful bond issue in May.
» Omaha Archdiocese’s Catholic Schools Office is preparing strategic plan and ensuring that each of its 70 schools has one.
Evans said he expects to hear feedback on matters ranging from school security to building upkeep. The input from staff, parents and students will be used to craft clear goals, such as benchmarks for ACT scores, narrowing the achievement gap among ethnic groups or creating a technology plan for schools.
“Identifying a direction and course will be critical for us to show and demonstrate success,” Evans said.
The school is also conducting a study of its buildings. The district has built several new schools and renovated its oldest buildings, but those built in the 1950s or ’60s are starting to show their age, Evans said.
The initial plan should be completed by late January or February. But the district’s three-year deal with Cross & Joftus, a Bethesda, Md., consulting firm, includes periodic follow-ups and help implementing changes.
The total cost — a little more than $653,000 — will be shared equally by OPS, the Peter Kiewit Foundation, the Sherwood Foundation and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Andy Rikli, who became superintendent July 1, said there is an increased emphasis on planning in education, driven in part by the accountability movement.
“If a school’s going to adequately address all those pressures, they have to have a road map,” he said.
Papillion-La Vista, he said, has a number of well-crafted plans in areas such as human resources and curriculum and instruction. Now the district wants to bring them under one unified plan so it can start talking about long-term goals and aligning resources with those goals.
He plans to start discussing planning with the school board today and spend the school year getting ready. He hopes to bring in someone to lead the discussion. Sometimes it can be difficult for people within an organization to take a truly objective look, he said.
Patrick Slattery, superintendent of archdiocesan schools, said strategic planning is just good practice, and the kind of thing that businesses have been doing for decades. The archdiocese has been going through the process over the past two years, with the help of a Wisconsin-based company. Now his office is refining its response to that vision and providing a template for schools to prepare their own.
Brett Richards, Springfield Platteview’s superintendent since July 2012, said it’s too easy to get distracted without a plan.
With accountability, he said, districts are getting good at looking at data and seeing where they need to improve and at setting goals and determining how to measure them.
The district, once known as South Sarpy, went through a strategic planning process several years ago. Its current name was one result of it.
The district’s mission calls for creating 21st century learners, Richards said. An initiative to provide each junior and senior high school student with an iPad grew out of that. The district also is looking to increase college credit offerings.
It also is looking at its facilities. Science labs and media centers aren’t meeting today’s needs, Richards said, and safety features are lacking. Earlier this month the school board agreed to put a bond issue before voters to fund building renovations and additions.
Douglas County West recently began assembling a steering committee to launch a review of its educational programs and facilities.
Most of the district’s buildings date from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, said Superintendent Dan Schnoes, now in his second year. They weren’t built to accommodate today’s technology or programs such as special education.
The study also will look to see whether programs need updating and at enrollment growth, which has picked up in recent years. The district’s nearly $42,000 contract with BCDM Architects, an Omaha architectural firm, will take the district through the study to a bond issue, if it goes that far.
The rapidly growing district did its first plan at least 25 years ago and has updated it about every five years. At first the plans largely dealt with growth, said Superintendent Steve Baker. Over the years, however, they’ve become more closely tied to curriculum and educational programs. The availability of student achievement data has aided that shift.
“It’s gone from ‘It feels like we’re doing a good job’ to ‘Either you are or you aren’t,’ ” he said.
The DLR Group this year updated the district’s master facilities plan for less than $20,000.
Blane McCann, superintendent since July 2012, said the district’s vision-setting process will look at enrollment trends, education programs and building functionality.
Westside’s facilities study will explore how educators will teach in the future and whether buildings are geared to meet that. It will focus in particular on the district’s elementary schools, the newest of which dates from 1975.
Its middle and high schools have been updated within the past decade, and the high school’s design already fits the school’s college-like modular schedule. The study will be conducted by the DLR Group and two other firms for a total of $223,000.
The district, led by longtime Superintendent Keith Lutz, has been guided by a strategic plan that was written in 1990 but is updated frequently. The most recent update came last year.
The $79.9 million bond issue voters approved in May emerged from an earlier version of the constantly evolving plan.
The school completed a three- to five-year technology plan and is working on plans in two other areas. It aims to have all three in place by next fall.
It has had an annual goal-setting process the past few years. On Oct. 7, the school board is scheduled to discuss whether the district is ready to move on to more long-term planning.
Forums offer chance to give feedback on your school
Is your child struggling under a too-heavy homework load?
Do you want to know how the district will phase in new technology in coming years?
Are you concerned that too much money is spent on administrators instead of classroom instructors?
If you’ve got opinions about those or other school-related subjects, Omaha Public Schools officials want to hear them.
“I’m of the mindset you have to look at the whole picture: the good, the bad and the ugly,” OPS Superintendent Mark Evans said.
As OPS crafts its first strategic plan in years, parents, staff and community members will get the chance to comment on the district’s strengths, weaknesses and future direction at a series of community forums scheduled the week of Oct. 20.
The forums will include a short presentation explaining the strategic planning process. Then participants will break into small groups to identify what the district has done right or gotten wrong and what future direction it should take. Anonymous surveys will be available to allow participants to weigh in without identifying themselves.
“We want to make sure we’re processing this in a way that doesn’t make mom, dad, staff members or community members feel uncomfortable,” Evans said.
Those who can’t attend the October forums can still weigh in via those anonymous surveys and the community forum website MindMixer.
Community forum dates are:
» Oct. 20, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., Teacher Administrative Center board room, 3215 Cuming St.
» Oct. 22, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., North High School, 4410 N. 36th St.
» Oct. 23, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., South High School, 4519 S. 24th St.
» Oct. 24, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Burke High School, 12200 Burke Blvd.
Do you know a young person who would like to learn about the legislative process as a Page in the Nebraska Unicameral? The Clerk’s office is currently accepting applications. Applicants must be high school graduates and be enrolled in a post-secondary institution. The position is paid. Please contact my office for additional details about this unique opportunity.
firstname.lastname@example.org or (402) 471-2327
It is officially the last day of session. 90 days have flown by! Here is a great editorial on this year’s legislature.
World-Herald Editorial: Legislature adapts to an era of flux
With the 2013 session ending today, it’s a good time to look at some of the key lessons for future state senators in the term-limits era. Drawing on our observations and interviews with lawmakers, three key lessons are apparent:
>> Churning. The dynamic at the State Capitol is fundamentally changed because the two-term limit produces regular turnover in the Legislature’s membership, ideological makeup and policy knowledge of individual lawmakers.
>> Need to adapt. To deal with the recurring turnover, the Legislature is adopting new habits.
>> Attitudes. Nebraska can’t afford for the Legislature to bog down in congressional-style indecision and stalemate. That means lawmakers need to approach their work with the appropriate vision and energy, plus a willingness to engage in compromise.
Term limits pushed out 10 lawmakers last fall, and the 2014 elections will push out 17 more, including the legislative speaker, six committee chairmen and the chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board.
The 2012 elections, notes State Sen. Galen Hadley, produced a significant increase in the Legislature’s number of moderate swing votes — this, in a body that already de-emphasizes partisanship and promotes independent-mindedness. Sen. Amanda McGill says the Legislature this session was led by an “independent, moderate majority.”
But with term limits now taking a bite every two years, expect to see fluctuations over time in the ideological mix at the State Capitol.
In this new era, lawmakers tend to be in leadership positions, such as committee chairmen, for only a short time. Says Speaker Greg Adams, who stepped into the Legislature’s top leadership post in January and is term-limited next year: “You no more than get your feet on the ground than you’re gone.”
In response, the Legislature has begun an ongoing effort to prepare its next set of leaders. Freshmen lawmakers, in a major break from the past, are being encouraged to engage early on.
Two committee vice chairmanships this year went to freshmen (Sens. Jim Scheer at Education and Dan Watermeier at the Legislative Performance Audit Committee). The Legislature specifically voted to require that the new special commission studying Nebraska’s tax policy include two freshmen senators.
Mentoring of freshmen has taken on greater importance. Freshman Sen. Sue Crawford says the chairpersons of two of her committees (Sens. Kathy Campbell at Health and Human Services and Mike Gloor at Banking, Commerce and Insurance) have done an excellent job in mentoring her about procedures and effectiveness at the committee level.
With each new wave of freshmen elected, the Legislature needs to help newcomers understand the habits and values that help things run efficiently and produce significant legislation for the state.
Glibness and partisan swagger may win cheers on the campaign stump, veteran senators emphasize, but once elected, a senator needs more than that to prevail in debates and pass legislation. That includes attention to detail, a depth of knowledge on issues, preparedness and the ability to reach out and communicate with colleagues of all philosophical stripes.
When a legislator isolates himself in a small political circle and fails to develop relationships with a breadth of colleagues, says Sen. Bill Avery, he undermines his ability to get things done.
Adams, the legislative speaker, also emphasizes the need for communication. One of the key questions he asks lawmakers about their proposals is, “Did you sit down and talk to the other side?”
Lawmakers also need a breadth of vision, Adams says. They’re state senators, he says, and if the Legislature is going to avoid stalemate on divisive issues such as state aid to K-12 schools, lawmakers must look to what’s best for all of Nebraska. Sound policy-making at the Legislature often comes down to a sense of balance, he says.
“It requires you to step up to a different level and look with a broad perspective,” Adams says.
Veteran senators readily acknowledge that with term limits, there are benefits to having fresh eyes look at issues and existing laws. At the same time, they say, it’s important to draw on the institutional memory of legislative staff and lobbyists.
With regular turnover, the temptation to reinvent the wheel is understandable, says Sen. Bob Krist, but “knowing the history of how the state got where it is is as important as having the fresh idea” on individual issues. “It helps you avoid the pitfalls.”
Lawmakers, Adams says, need to understand how to draw on the knowledge of lobbyists and staff — but then step away and exercise their own judgment. It’s a key ingredient of leadership, he says.
In this new era, the lineup of lawmakers will change and the philosophical makeup will fluctuate. But the principles that make for a well-functioning, forward-looking Legislature need to endure.
It will be the duty of each new group of lawmakers to safeguard those principles and carry them into the future.
PUBLISHED WEDNESDAY, JUNE 5, 2013
This morning, the Legislature will be discussing taxes, specifically a Tax Modernization Study to review and make recommendations for an overhaul to Nebraska’s tax code for the first time since 1967.
I am fully supportive of this initiative as we need to examine tax policies that work best for the citizens of Nebraska.
Here is a link to the bills we will be discussing:
The wind farm bill (LB104), by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, passed 38-2 and would would remove a barrier to the development and export of wind energy in Nebraska. It would offer tax incentives that could lead to Nebraska getting a $300 million to $400 million wind farm project by TradeWind Energy of Lenexa, Kan.
There is speculation that Gov. Dave Heineman might veto the measure because he says tax breaks should go to Nebraska taxpayers first. But he also supported a concept that was rolled into the measure that took away Omaha’s ability to raise its sales tax.
It takes 30 votes to override a veto.
Lawmakers rejected a second attempt by Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala to gut Lathrop’s bill and replace it with a version of another (LB402), by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, that would encourage more local ownership of renewable energy projects. It would have allowed a sales tax exemption on materials used in the projects, as long as a percentage of gross revenues went to Nebraska businesses or individuals. The exemptions would start at 10 percent for the first year, go to 15 percent the second year and 20 percent in the third year.
Some groups, such as the Nebraska Farmers Union and Center for Rural Affairs, have said they support LB402 because it would create more economic development in rural areas by requiring purchases from Nebraska to qualify for tax breaks. The Sierra Club supports both bills.
Schilz noted that because Nebraska is a public power state, TradeWind would be required to offer 10 percent of the power it generates to Nebraska utilities while shipping 90 percent out of state.
Nebraska lags in the production of wind energy. Iowa, for example, generates more than 11 times as much wind power as Nebraska — 5,137 megawatts to 459, according to the American Wind Energy Association. And Nebraska ranks last among its neighboring states.
Proponents of LB104 said the state needs to act now if it wants to develop its abundant wind resources, because a major wind-energy incentive — a federal production tax credit — is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.
Lathrop’s bill would fall under the Nebraska Advantage Act, which took effect in 2006 and is meant to encourage companies to expand and create jobs by offering them tax incentives. To date, some 320 companies have applied for Nebraska Advantage credits and created 20,500 new jobs.
The measure would provide a sales tax exemption for the purchase of turbines, towers and other wind-farm components, which Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma have used to create a wind-energy boom. Meanwhile, Nebraska has lagged behind, ranking 26th of the 39 states that generate wind energy, despite having the fourth-best wind resources in the country.
The juvenile justice overhaul (LB561), by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, commits $14.5 million to help reorganize the juvenile justice system to focus on mental health treatment instead of punishment.
The mission of juvenile offender centers at Kearney and Geneva would change under the plan. Nebraska will be spending $44 million per year for juvenile justice services once the new system is up and running. Ashford said the bill emphasizes working with the families of juvenile offenders.
The $21 million spent each year at the youth treatment centers would go to the court system to help set up treatment programs.
Ashford’s bill will create an Office of Juvenile Assistance under the court system to oversee juvenile probation, a statewide expansion of the Nebraska Juvenile Service Delivery Project, coordination of work with local and national experts in the delivery of evidence-based services, the Office of Violence Prevention and the newly created Office of Juvenile Diversion Programs and Detention Alternatives.
The measure, co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Krist of Omaha and Kathy Campbell and Amanda McGill of Lincoln, passed 44-1.
Other bills passed Wednesday included:
* DESIGNER DRUGS: A bill (LB298) by Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha to update laws passed two years ago aimed at compounds used to make synthetic drugs, such as K2 and bath salts. In what has turned into a game of leapfrog, the bill bans the newest generation of substances used to make so-called “designer” drugs. McCoy’s bill updates Nebraska’s Uniformed Controlled Substances Act to include third and fourth generation synthetic cannabinoids used to make the drug commonly known as K2 or Spice. It also would include synthetic phenethylamines used to make Blue Mystic, 7th Heaven and Smiles, and synthetic tryptamines commonly known as Foxy. The vote was 44-2.
* PUBLIC RECORDS: A bill (LB363) by Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln will help to ensure the public can access government records and data at a fair cost. The bill will close a loophole in the public records law that some public entities took advantage of to make public records so expensive to acquire that they, in effect, discouraged public access, Avery said. It says that a public agency or political subdivision can charge a fee for making copies of public records, but it can’t exceed the actual, reasonable cost of making the copies. No charge for searching, identifying and copying the records can be added to the cost until the time would go beyond four hours. And no charge can be added for legal review of the public records when seeking a reason to withhold the requested information. The vote was 44-0.
* EMPLOYMENT PILOT: A bill (LB368) by Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue to create a subsidized employment pilot program for low-income Nebraskans that allows small businesses to grow, while minimizing risks involved in hiring new employees. The program would last four years, beginning July 1, 2014, and would subsidize employees at 100 percent the first two months, 75 percent in month three, 50 percent in months four and five and 25 percent in month six. The subsidy would end after the six months, with the hope that the employer would keep the recipient on the job after that. The vote was 34-7.
* ENLIGHTENED TERMINOLOGY: A bill (LB23) by Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney replaces the antiquated and pejorative term “mental retardation” with a more enlightened and contemporary expression “intellectual disability” in state laws. The amendment for the terminology change, offered by Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, became a part of LB23, which is intended to revise and improve the operation of the provider tax for intermediate care facilities for people with developmental disabilities. The vote was 46-0.
* FOSTER CARE: A bill (LB216) by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill would help support young people who age out of foster care up to age 21 with Medicaid, postsecondary education assistance, living expenses, placement in a foster home, institution or independent living; and continued case management to help access additional supports. The program would be voluntary, and eligibility limited to former state wards age 19 to 21, excluding those who entered the foster care system through the Office of Juvenile Services. Youth in foster care would receive information about the program at age 16. The program would not begin until the Department of Health and Human Services state plan amendment receives federal approval. If the state plan amendment is denied, a state-only version of the program would be implemented as a pilot project. The transition program would cost $2 million in state general funds over two years and $2.6 million in federal funds. The vote was 44-2.
* ALTERNATIVE MINIMUM TAX: A bill (LB308) by Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus eliminates the state’s alternative minimum tax. It also allows businesses to spread out their losses over 20 years on their state tax returns instead of the current five. The alternative minimum tax was created to make sure that people who invested in tax shelters paid at least a minimum amount of income tax. But Schumacher said that tax shelters are seldom used any longer and the tax, which was aimed at high-income earners, was affecting more middle-income earners. The vote was 48-0.
* CHILD CARE: A bill (LB507) by Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell would require quality standards for providers who get the largest share of state assistance money. It would require a five-step quality rating and improvement system for centers caring for children whose parents qualify for assistance. Other child care providers could participate voluntarily. The cost of the bill over the two-year budget would be $4.3 million. Income of those eligible to participate could not exceed 125 percent of the federal poverty level in 2013-14 and 130 percent of the poverty level in 2014-15. The vote was 42-1.
* CHILDREN’S MENTAL HEALTH: A bill (LB556) by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill creates a pilot program to offer behavioral and mental health screenings to children, using computer technology to connect them remotely with mental health professionals. The program, to be run by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, would include three health clinics, with at least one in an urban area and one in a rural setting. Optional behavioral health screenings could be offered by physicians at the time of childhood physicals. The results of such behavioral health screenings and any related documents would not be included in the child’s school record or even provided to the school without the express consent of the child’s parent or legal guardian. The cost to the state of the pilot project would be $903,000 in 2013-15. The vote was 42-0.
* CLIMATE DATA: A bill (LB583) by Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm provides the governor and other interested persons with information and research on the impacts of cyclical climate change in Nebraska, including impacts on physical, ecological and four economic areas, and attempts to anticipate the unintended consequences of climate adaptation and mitigation. It facilitates communication between stakeholders and the state about cyclical climate change impacts and response strategies. By Sept. 1, 2014, an initial report on cyclical climate change in Nebraska and possible impacts to agriculture, water, wildlife, ecosystems, forests and outdoor recreation would be prepared. A final report would be given to the governor and Legislature by Dec. 1, 2014. The vote was 32-12.
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