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As public hearings for introduced legislation wrap up in the 2nd session of the 104th Nebraska Legislature, the focus is shifting toward the priority bills and upcoming budget discussion for the remaining half of the session. Full day floor debate will soon commence. Each senator can designate a bill as a priority bill, and each standing committee can designate two priority bills. The priority designation will be critical for bills to be debated during the limited time remaining.
As committees wrap up their work in public hearings, their focus turns toward the executive functions of committee work. Committees will consider amendments to the introduced copy of bills based on information obtained during the public hearing process and vote to advance bills to the floor, indefinitely postpone them, or take no action. The more complex and important a bill, the more likely the committee process will involve advancing a “committee amendment” with the bill when it advances to the floor for debate.
The Education Committee has prioritized LB 959, introduced by Education Committee Chair Senator Kate Sullivan on behalf of Governor Pete Ricketts. As introduced, the bill increases transparency in school budgeting and restricts growth in school district budget authority to 2.5% plus student growth. This bill will serve as the “vehicle” that will likely contain the best elements of several bills that were heard by the education committee.
Following years of soaring ag land valuations paired with relatively stagnant growth in the valuation of other classes of property, most rural school districts no longer qualify for state “equalization aid” under the current school funding formula. Without equalization aid, the bulk of the burden for funding rural schools has fallen on the shoulders of local ag land owners. It is indisputable that the mechanism for funding K-12 education in Nebraska is in need of reform. Providing a fair and equitable base level of state aid for every student educated in Nebraska is the long term goal. The challenge lies in the complicated process for achieving that reform.
I must emphasize several points. First, I wholeheartedly support the work of our schools and local school boards. The discussion of funding reform and budget limitations is not an indictment of the work of educators, who are working in increasingly complicated educational environment. That said, the growth rate of per pupil spending is unsustainable. District 38 encompasses 15 school districts, who have had an average growth in per pupil costs of 58% between 2006 and 2015. The average cost per pupil is $15,101, with a range from $10,357-20,426. The current rate of growth in costs is simply outpacing the ability of taxpayers to pay.
Second, the core of my political philosophy is increasing transparency and participation in the policy process. The more information voters and taxpayers have about how their dollars are being used, the more engaged they are in the decision making process. Local government requires full participation of residents and taxpayers. Local communities should have the choice to spend as much as they wish on education in their schools, but local voters should have the opportunity to make an informed decision about those choices. Asking for a vote of the people for exceeded budget growth limits is not punitive, but rather a critical piece of local engagement in education decisions.
Third, there is no single fix, silver bullet, or single year solution to restoring parity among districts with regard to school funding. The process will be incremental as policies are implemented that attempt to minimize abrupt changes to both local and state budgets, as well as ensure state dollars sent to local districts are used to reduce the property tax asking of local landowners. Simply appropriating more dollars is never a solution. Greater accountability for how those dollars are spent is essential. As with any policy shift, some fixes may need to be changed and adapted over time.
Effective school finance policy provides adequate resources to provide effective instruction without placing an unreasonable tax burden on any single group of taxpayers.There will always be tension in the process of balancing those interests. I encourage you to closely monitor the property tax bills as they progress through the legislative process. If you have any questions or concerns regarding property taxes or any other matter before the Legislature, do not hesitate to contact my office at 402-471-2732 or email at email@example.com. For daily updates during the session, please follow me on Twitter at @JohnKuehnDVM.
Senator John Kuehn, District 38