NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE
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Sen. Mike Groene

Sen. Mike Groene

District 42

The content of these pages is developed and maintained by, and is the sole responsibility of, the individual senator's office and may not reflect the views of the Nebraska Legislature. Questions and comments about the content should be directed to the senator's office at mgroene@leg.ne.gov

Home District Column 10/25/2018

October 25th, 2018

I have recently been contacted by constituents concerning the Nebraska Advantage Act (NAA). It seems its value to Lincoln County is being misrepresented to them. It is a complicated issue that when explained, is easily understood.

The Act was created in 2005 to replace Nebraska’s first major economic development effort, LB775, which was passed in 1987 primarily to keep ConAgra from moving its headquarters out of Nebraska; it did keep them in Omaha another 30 years before finally moving to Chicago. I am not a fan of the present Advantage Act. It is not rural friendly, it involves prohibitive paperwork that discourages smaller rural companies from applying and it has not done what it was supposed to do: create high-paying jobs.

Some facts from its first 11 years in operation: 408 projects were in effect at the end of 2017 with a handful more having been completed. All projects combined have received $905.4 million in tax-credits; of those, businesses have so far claimed $415.1 million against their tax-liability ($52.5 million in 2017). It has created only 16,337 jobs, amounting to a taxpayer cost of $25,413 per job. No one in the economic development arena believes the Advantage Act has delivered a good return on taxpayer investment. In Lincoln County over the same 11 years, only two projects that could claim to have created jobs have used the economic incentive: Greenbrier in Hershey and the ethanol plant in Sutherland. The reality is that the NAA is a badly written, rigid economic development tool that favors large corporations who have the legal and accounting staff to wade through the requirements. The idea of the NAA was to attract good-paying factory and technology jobs to Nebraska. Instead, a large percentage of applicants are retail in nature and the largest users of the investment credit portion of the Act have not been manufacturers, but companies that are heavy in infrastructure with limited job creation, for example: windmill farms and data centers (Facebook).

The NAA was set to sunset last year. My second year in Lincoln, 2016, a bill was introduced to extend the sunset to 2020; at that time, rural senators were in the midst of a floor campaign to draw attention to the fact that excessive property taxes were harming rural Nebraska’s economy so we used the NAA extension as a bargaining tool. That strategy worked and there is now a clear (sunny) understanding in the Legislature that property tax reform and the development of a new statewide economic development plan must go hand in hand.

I am an appointed member of the Legislature’s Economic Development Task Force. Everyone involved from the State Chamber of Commerce, Nebraska Economic Development Department and members of the Legislature agree that the present Advantage Act should be allowed to sunset in 2020 and most agree we need to create a new, simpler economic development plan. The biggest complaint from businesses interested in locating in Nebraska is the over-complicated NAA application process followed by the burdensome reporting requirements. As a member of the Task Force, I plan to concentrate on making sure any new plan includes opportunities for small rural Nebraska businesses and gives added benefits to large companies that locate in rural areas. It must concentrate on new job creation in business areas that attract peripheral economic growth in retail and service businesses. It must also include provisions that are free-flowing, which allow the Governor and his Department of Economic Development room to react to large projects that may require inputs that cannot be foreseen in legislation. Finally, workforce development is another aspect of any economic development effort; as you all know, I am a huge proponent of encouraging our youth to pursue an education in the hands-on trades of electrician, plumber, welding, transportation (CDL drivers), etc. That means more rural blue-collar workers and more students in our community colleges.

It is easy to be trapped into believing that the status quo is good enough and attack those who seek a better answer. I believe the future of Lincoln County is bright; my job is to get the government out of your way and deliver the right economic tools for you to get the job done.

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

Home District Column 9/27/2018

September 27th, 2018

I continue to be a critic of cities misusing Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for solely economic purposes because I understand that high property taxes are the “cause” and TIF abuse is the “effect”. This past year, special interest groups won as I unsuccessfully fought the passage of LB496 which added private housing construction costs to expenses that developers could recover by the diversion of TIF tax dollars. We need to pause and be concerned when builders are telling us that avoidance of high property taxes are the deciding factor if building homes is profitable or not.

Our freedom is protected by the rule of law. Without it, a society fails. When does “the end justify the means”? Is it ok to speed because you’re late for work? Is it ok to steal because your family is hungry? Is it ok to bend the use of TIF for purposes unrelated to urban renewal? Where do we stop and how minor a cause is defensible? I prefer not to start.

I drove by the proposed Philips and Dixie area being considered for designation as blighted and substandard. I fail to see how it fits into the constitutional or statutory language defining such an area. The area has been developed over the last 20 years, infrastructure is in place and the only reason it is not fully developed is that the present owner originally had plans other than residential use.

Building new homes is a desirable economic activity, what means are used to encourage it is the debatable question. The final answer rests with an elected city council and mayor; the appointed members of the Planning Commission and Community Development Authority can only recommend what they deem to be allowable under state statute and city ordinance. Without clear guidance from elected officials, they cannot be blamed for the conclusions they come to. The buck stops with the elected officials.

I am a firm believer in defining the problem and fixing the cause. Here are some facts I hope the city council will consider:

1)      Since the 2010 Census, North Platte’s population has declined by an estimated 845 to 23,888. The county has declined 1,008 to 35,280. With simple math and using a family of four, over the last seven years there should be well over 200 additional housing units available.

2)      Recent news stories have noted that between three large local employers there are over 300 good paying jobs going unfilled. Based on what I have heard from other employers, the total countywide is closer to 500.

3)      Of the top 25 cities by population, North Platte has the 6th highest property tax rate in the state. When I talk to citizens who leave the area, property taxes is the second major reason for doing so behind following extended family members to where they have relocated. It must be remembered that the family who buys a TIF’d house will receive none of the benefits, they will pay market price and they will pay high property taxes on their home.

4)      Hard working North Platte area citizens rely on the value of their homes being part of their retirement equity. When government injects a stimulant into a market, it drives down the price of existing homes and hampers those contractors who choose to build on free market principles. Is one of the city council’s goals to improve the housing market by lowering home prices at the expense of existing homeowners?

TIF is meant for urban renewal. A recent housing study pointed out what is already known: poor housing quality exists in our oldest urban areas, yet there has never been a TIF project north of B Street. Could a better approach be to give contractors of all sizes an opportunity to use TIF in an older neighborhood to replace, one at a time, homes or small business properties in poor condition?

There are many reasons why people live where they do: job, taxes, lifestyle, family, climate, shopping and educational opportunities, but I have yet to meet someone who moved to a city for the perfect home in which they can watch TV and sleep.

Column 8-30-18

Over the last year I have watched the debate unfold between Senator Steve Erdman, University of Nebraska (NU) President Hank Bounds and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Chancellor Ronnie Green.  It all started with a public, verbal and obscene gesture attack by UNL English Department Graduate Student-Lecturer Courtney Lawton on sophomore student Kaitlyn Mullen while she was recruiting students for the student organization “Turning Point USA”.

Green suspended the grad student from lecturing and, eventually, didn’t renew her non-tenured position.  I agreed wholeheartedly with his decision; a position of a grad student-lecturer is an audition for someday being hired as a tenured professor. Character and behavior inside and outside the classroom should be considered in any future hiring decision. Lawton failed the test.

The hiring decision landed the University on a list of 56 universities that are censured by the “American Association of University Professors” (AAUP) a national organization of college faculty with 42,000 members.  The National Center for Education Statistics shows there are 4,627 American institutions of higher education employing 1,551,000 faculty members. When contacted, AAUP’s Nebraska Conference refused to divulge how many of UNL’s 1,349 faculty members belonged to the UNL Chapter; using the national average of 2.7%, an estimate would be 36.  Why is the NU Administration so worried about pleasing a small special interest group?  Wouldn’t seeking the advice of Nebraska’s citizens and faculty that are not AAUP members be a better course of action?

Senator Erdman’s frustration is legitimate.  We’ve all heard President Bounds’ demands for more and more tax dollars to maintain the University, but see him turn around and create a six-figure position for a Diversity Vice Chancellor and bachelor’s degree programs in women’s, gender and ethnic studies on the Kearney campus.  While at the same time, he proposed cuts in a basic “Land Grant College” program by eliminating the Haskell Agricultural Laboratory in Concord or cut the Geography graduate program at UNL.

Senator Erdman’s indictment of the UNL English Department’s bias against those who hold conservative viewpoints reflects the sentiment of many Nebraskans who are frustrated with the perception that some University staff do attempt to indoctrinate students (social engineer) with their worldview. But first, we must put the issue in perspective.  The University system is made up of 32 colleges and 754 departments and programs.  Overall, the majority of the University’s faculty just does their job to prepare students for their future occupations.

The epicenter of Nebraskans’ mistrust does not lie within the Colleges of Agriculture & Natural Resources, Business or Medicine, etc.  It lies within the English Department in UNL‘s College of Arts & Sciences where Lawton was employed.

As a non-scientific gauge of political bias, of the Department’s 45 professors, state voter registrations show no clear evidence of any registered Republicans. Therefore, we ask: Does this indicate the Department lacks diversity of ideas and purposely has a hiring prejudice against those who hold conservative-leaning thoughts?

Since Medieval Times, the idea of a Liberal Arts education was defined by a pursuit of diverse thought to expand the understanding of universal principles that guide the human condition. It was ironic that President Bounds professed his common-sense belief “that we are stronger when we serve alongside people who don’t look and think like us” but then followed up with a foolish contrary comment attacking Erdman for not thinking like he does. If the University wishes to pursue diversity, it needs  to focus on the original Latin meaning of a Liberal Arts education, liberalis–“free” and ars–”art or principled practice” concepts of reasoned thinking, instead of trying to create the false perception that we are somehow diverse in thought by pursuing only a failed policy of diversity of one’s outer appearance.  Wasting tax dollars on a new administrative position won’t fix the problem.   Bounds and Green should examine the hiring and grad-school application process of each department and reform those whose outcomes have shown to have an obvious political bias.

The vast majority of Nebraskans care not the chemical makeup of one’s flesh or their ethnic heritage, nor do we care the form your flesh takes. What we care about is the makeup of your character, including personal responsibility, work ethic and respect for others.

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

WE’VE MOVED!!!

August 21st, 2018

Senator Groene’s office has moved to Room 1306 which is located on the east side of the Capitol Building.

Our phone number has not changed.

Senator Mike Groene
Room #1306
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2729
Email: mgroene@leg.ne.gov

Column 8/16/2018

August 16th, 2018

The adage “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” could easily be adapted to the folly of government spending gone astray; perhaps the adapted phrase should say “the road to high taxation is paved with the good intentions of elected officials”.

What brought this to mind is the recent announcement by the county and city to seek a 33% increase in the city’s sales tax rate along with a local paper’s recent story on property taxes pinning most of the blame for their rapid rise on sky-rocketing property valuations. That is partly true, but spending on issues outside of government services and abuse of interlocal agreements by local boards to avoid lid-limits have also played a large part in your excessive tax bill.

The truth of the matter is we do not pay our taxes in valuations or levies, we pay in dollars and every dollar is doled out by those local governments.

The problem is statewide. Some local examples of squandered tax-dollars:

The Iron Eagle Golf Course: it was to be a tourist attraction, bringing golfers to a new destination golf course and their fees would pay off the municipal revenue bonds at no cost to the taxpayers. We all know the history, a broken promise; within three years the taxpayers were put on the hook by the conversion of the revenue bonds to general obligation bonds, 25 years and $11.5 million tax-dollars for bond payments later the taxpayers now own a golf course, but not the land under it. To make sure this scenario never happens again to taxpayers in Nebraska, our LB378 passed in 2015. In the future, any attempt to change the funding source of a voter-approved project must also be placed on the ballot.

The Golden Spike: a well-intended celebration of our heritage. A normally general fund enhancing 2 cent occupation tax on hotel rooms was enacted to pay for the construction of a private organization’s tourism project.  Somehow late in the process, operation costs were added as a use for the new tax revenues. A well-documented million dollars was squandered by mismanagement and $86 thousand disappeared from an account managed by the Lincoln County Community Development Corporation (LCCDC) all before a shovel of dirt was turned. From 1999-2017, $6.9 million of taxes have gone to the privately owned Spike – approximately $2.7 million has gone to pay the USDA loan payments and the remaining $4.2 million has disappeared into the bowels of the Spike. That $4.2 million could have repaired a lot of streets!

The N-CORPE project: a frustrating but necessary tax-dollar-funded NRD groundwater to surface water augmentation project. But $50 million of the $142.5 million bond cost could be eliminated if the ill-informed policy to continue to own, manage and fund the 19,500 acres of ag-land tied to the project was instead sold with deed restrictions and put back on the tax-rolls.

Mid-Plains Community College budget growth: the pride of our local higher education and the path I urge our local youth to take to a rewarding career. According to the State Auditor’s website, since FY2004-05, the mid-point of the recent property valuation run-up, MPCC’s property tax asking has gone from $6.1 to $16 million and state-aid has increased from $5.5 to $9 million. Meanwhile, over the same period, full-time equivalent student enrollment has dropped from 1,642 to 1,441. Apparently, expanded campuses and new buildings do not attract new students.

Elected officials can say NO. Leading by example, during the 2015 session we led a filibuster to kill LB423—a $95 million wind-energy tax credit for windmills. The Legislature was told if we did not give those credits, windmills would not be built in Nebraska. We killed the bill, yet since then Nebraska has become the home to hundreds of new windmills.

The truth is, Nebraska’s third highest national ranking for local and state tax-burden is not caused by property valuations or lack of taxpayers, but instead by government spending on things far from its mission to provide good public infrastructure, educational opportunities and public safety. Some good advice – if you want respect, don’t create dirty laundry!

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

As I continue our objective to clarify that the four NRDs involved in N-CORPE could continue to use the groundwater underlying the augmentation project without continued direct ownership of the land, I am often told by an attorney who is well versed in Nebraska’s ground water law: yes, I am correct that N-CORPE can sell the land but that I should refrain from using the term “separating groundwater from land ownership”. Although my argument is correct, legal mechanisms in existing law do allow for a past or present landowner to assign their groundwater use rights to others by lease, easement or reservation, he is also correct in saying those agreements always tie the ability to use groundwater to the land.

Recently the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Upper Republican Natural Resource District (URNRD) and against Dundy County concerning the county’s attempt to access property taxes on URNRD’s Rock Creek augmentation project. In the ruling the Court quoted from the 1985 Sorensen v. Lower Niobrara (LNNRD) case where the NRD used eminent domain to acquire two ½ acre parcels from Sorensen to establish domestic use water transfer wells for the citizens of Knox County. The Court concluded from the Sorensen decision that “it is clear that the right to use ground water is an attribute of owning fee simple title to land overlying a source of ground water and is inseparable from the land to which it applies.”

Supporters of N-CORPE’s continued ownership of the land are now taking the Court’s words out of context by claiming the Upper Republican decision infers that it must continue to own title to the land. What they are not telling you is that in the Sorensen case the farmer continued to own and irrigate the quarter section of land surrounding the two ½ acre parcels where the NRD transfer wells sat. They also forget to mention in the Sorensen case the Court ruled that under the Municipal and Rural Domestic Groundwater Transfer Permit Act, the “NRD has become a peculiar type of landowner granted very special status with statutory rights contravening common law.” In other words, use of groundwater by NRDs does not follow the same common law applied to private ground water users.

Justice Cassel stated in his concurring opinion in the Upper Republican case, “Perhaps another provision in current law, not invoked by the parties before us, is available to address this problem.”

Those provisions available to the N-CORPE board would include:

—Do what LNNRD did in the Sorensen case. N-CORPE could tie the water to the land by retaining ownership of the half-acre of land under each of their 19 wells and sell off the remainder of the 19,500 acres.

—Sell the land and retain the groundwater use rights through a lease agreement as a condition of sale. The towns of Bartley, Indianola and Cambridge did so, when they created their BIC Joint Water agency to supply water to their towns. They leased the water usage rights along with easements on land from three landowners, thus tying the water usage to the landownership. The farmers continue to own and farm the dry-land acres.

—Sell the land in parcels as N-CORPE did in 2014 when they sold to Lowe L.L.C. 313 acres, while reserving to itself all rights to the use of the groundwater through a deed reservation and easement, again, tying the water to the land through a common real-estate legal procedure.

It is time to stop the misrepresentation of court findings and the phony scare tactics that somehow selling the N-CORPE land will open the door to an absolutely unrelated fictional future attempt to transfer our water to the Colorado front-range. A good first step was the decision by the Chairman of the Natural Resource Committee to hold a hearing on LR 463. To examine existing law on augmentation projects and the relationship between land ownership and groundwater. I plan to also heed Justice Cassel’s second reminder in his concurrence, “But only the Legislature is empowered to determine whether current law is adequate or whether the law should be changed to balance competing public interests differently.” I will again introduce clarifying legislation next year to do so.

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

On Friday, June 15th, a group of us senators held a press conference to announce the creation of the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act (TEEOSA): School Funding Legislative Study Group which will meet during this 2018 interim. At the end of the session this year, Speaker Scheer encouraged the members of the Unicameral to seek common ground to find a solution to the property tax issue. As the present Chairman of the Education Committee which hears legislation related to the school funding, I took it as my responsibility to initiate an effort to heed the Speaker’s advice.  The ten members of the study group are Tom Brewer (LD 43), Mike Hilgers (LD 21), Brett Lindstrom (LD 18), Lou Ann Linehan (LD 39), Jim Scheer (LD 19), Tom Briese (LD 41), Curt Friesen (34), Suzanne Geist (25), Justin Wayne (LD 13) and myself.  Collectively, this group represents all regions of the state, various sized schools, and local taxpayers affected uniquely by the funding formula.  Furthermore, they have all shown an interest in addressing the problem by previously introducing TEEOSA related legislation or investing time in understanding the issue. The group has a statewide perspective on creating an equitable solution. We have also made it clear that input from all of the senators in the Unicameral will be appreciated and they are free to attend any of the hearings and meetings we have.

At the press conference, we emphasized that “this is a unicameral effort to do the will of the people.” We emphasized that the role of the study group is to look at the side of the school formula that directs how we fund our public schools.

Senator Briese commented at the press conference, that community, business and political leaders across his district have made it clear that property taxes are “choking off economic growth in rural Nebraska.” He stated that he, “looks forward to working with this group.”

The 1990 passage of LB 1059 that created TEEOSA, calculates the sources of school revenue.   It is now obvious that the formula has major flaws. Two factors have come into play: the authors of the original legislation never foresaw the last decade of rapidly increasing property valuations and subsequent Legislatures have made changes to the TEEOSA formula during years when state revenues fell.  Those factors have caused an overreliance on property taxes as the major source of school funding.

The Study Group plans to begin meeting next month and has a three-prong approach to its effort:

  1. Study the history of TEEOSA to understand where we are and where we started. This will include understanding changes made over the years leading to the current formula, comparing public education funding of neighboring states and across the nation, looking at TEEOSA allowable spending growth factors, and studying factors causing the funding shift to property taxes (i.e. property valuations and property tax diversion programs such as Tax Increment Financing, Homestead Exemptions, low income housing exemptions, etc.).

  1. Seek a sustainable and constant local State Aid resource to serve as the Foundation Aid. This will include seeking innovative new ideas, as well as looking at options already presented in recent proposed legislation. Senators Briese, Friesen, Groene, Scheer and Wayne have all introduced related bills.

  1. Create a legislative solution for the 2019 Session that stabilizes state aid to ALL local school districts while reversing the present property tax burden that stabilizes at a responsible inflationary growth.

As the third prong indicated, the end goal of the study is an introduction of a single 2019 legislative bill addressing the TEEOSA revenue flaw that puts equity back into school funding and can garner the support of the full Legislature.

The people of Nebraska have made it clear they want the Legislature to address property tax relief. They have also indicated a desire for statewide, stable and equitable funding for their public schools. Many of the members of the Legislature have heard the message and are ready to roll up their sleeves to look for a solution. Stay tuned for updates in the coming months.

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

Column 6-14-18

The taxes and spending debate seems to always be simplified into two sides. Take, for example, the spending debate of your tax dollars on public education. Those who believe the answer is always new programs and new spending falsely label those who oppose that philosophy as anti-public education. I have a tendency to examine how we spend existing funds. Is it presently efficient and effective? Is there room to eliminate redundancy? An example of this lies in the recent debate over expanding the use of education dollars to inject mental health services and social services into our schools when those services are already offered through private business, non-profits and for the poor through Health and Human Services. I would prefer we look at incorporating our state’s existing Health and Human Services Department social workers into the school environment. Makes sense since that is where the children they serve are.  I also have a hard time accepting the concept that normal childhood misbehavior and revolt against authority should be considered as mental (behavioral) health. Call it what you want, but a good dose of discipline is still the best cure for it and I will continue to pursue legislation to return control of the classroom back to teachers. The spenders are aghast at such sacrilege; how dare one doubt the education establishment’s ability to use tax dollars wisely. (By the way, it was eye-opening to actually see in a recent newspaper column by a local proponent of more spending use the religious term “sacred” when describing education programs).

As the debate goes on, here are some facts you might want to consider:

-According to the well-respected Hightower Report, U.S. Census numbers show that nationally Nebraskans pay the second highest local and state taxes as a percentage of their income. Only the citizens of the bankrupt state of Illinois pay more.

-Our State government spends 43.9% ($1.96 billion) of its budget on early childhood through college education. Another $170 million of the property tax and homestead exemption funds end up in public education coffers.

-According to State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), an organization of statewide postsecondary education representatives, of every $1,000 of a Nebraskan’s income $9.48 of it goes towards taxes for higher education (6th in the nation) and by per-capita basis they spend $474 (5th in the nation).

-Public education; at $12,989 Nebraska ranks in the top 15 nationally in per-student spending. During these last four years of budget shortfalls we still increased funding for schools.  In this biennium the increase was 1.2% annually while the overall budget increased by only ½%.  Taking into account the continued rapid rise in property tax support for public education due to property valuation increases, Nebraska’s taxpayers need not apologize to anyone about their support of public education.

I believe it to be part of my elected duty to ask some basic questions and expect answers from those public employees who administer the spending of our tax dollars on public education.  Shouldn’t Nebraskans be able to expect excellent results in the basics of reading, writing and math with the $4.2 billion of tax money we spent this year on public education before we agree to spend more?

We do need to make changes to how we pay for education. Presently 58.1% comes from property taxes, one of the highest in the nation, 36.4% from income and sales taxes, one of the lowest in the nation, and 5.4% from federal sources.

Tomorrow, we are announcing an initiative to look at the State Aid to Education formula (TEEOSA) by a group of State Senators who have in the past shown a desire to fix it.  The goal is to create a single legislative bill amongst us and to be able to unite behind it. In the past, we have all pursued our own versions of a legislative fix creating a divided effort that in the end failed to produce results. Will we succeed? I believe so, but to not try is to fail.

I will see you at the NEBRASKAland Days parade and rodeo Saturday, but sadly I have to miss a lot of the events this week due to scheduled meetings in Lincoln. Please take part in the festivities; it is the pride of Western Nebraska.

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

On Memorial Day, Barb and I attended the ceremony at Fort McPherson National Cemetery near Maxwell.  To do so was not only a reminder for us of the sacrifice of those who gave all to protect the freedom we all share, but to realize that many of the living in attendance are the sons, daughters, parents and extended families of those lost loved ones. It must be remembered that the death of these soldiers is more than an individual loss, it creates a huge hole in families and communities that reaches down through future generations.

It was heartening to hear the words of the main speaker, our own David C. Olson, who by his own admission is neither a polished orator nor a man of high military position, but a veteran of common rank. As an advocate for veterans, no one better could have relayed the message that Memorial Day is not a celebration of accomplishments by the politicians or the generals, but instead, of the valor and sacrifice of the common soldier. On Memorial Day, we honor the greatness of those individuals who died in service to their fellow Americans.

With Memorial Day in mind, it is concerning to us the lack of importance that most Americans put into their duty to vote. Recent statewide and local elections have had dismal voter turnout. In the Omaha Public School’s successful $409.9 million bond election to renovate older schools and build 5 new schools in Northwest Omaha, only 21.4% of registered voters voted; meaning that the 14.4% of those registered who voted in favor decided the issue. In a Millard Public Schools levy override election, only 46.8% of registered voters voted and 29.2% of those registered decided to raise property taxes for all of the homeowners in the district.  Even in the recent primary election where winners go on to the general election, the statewide 24.27% voter turnout (25.87% Lincoln County) was disappointing.

Politicians in the past have blamed voter access for the declining turnout, so we expanded early voting from election day to weeks, we expanded the ability to vote by mail and we made it easier to register to vote by creating DMV motor vehicle-voter registration and created provisional ballots for those who have changed addresses. None of it worked, yet we now have more disinterested citizens registered to vote and that has distorted the percentage of active voters; but even with that, the number of voters has decreased nationally. It is akin to saying if we build them a house they will move here, the fact is a person has to be motivated to want to live somewhere and to vote when they get there.

I am approaching the issue through public education. When addressing the State Board of Education last year concerning their upcoming student civic and social study assessments, I stated that we already have an assessment of our public schools’ success in instilling civic readiness in our children; it is voter turnout. As each new generation of voters leave our schools, fewer and fewer of them are voting.

We are preparing proposed legislation to address needed changes to our present statutes that require American civics to be taught in our schools, updating the old 1940’s Americanism Law.  The statute gives guidance to school boards on the subject matter and curriculum that is expected to be offered to students. The present statute makes it a misdemeanor crime by a teacher for not following the statute and basically puts the county sheriff in charge of enforcing it.  The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled similar provisions unconstitutional and against a teacher’s free speech rights.  A person does have the right to say what they wish, they cannot be arrested; but they can be fired by their employer. One of the changes we propose will put enforcement in the hands of the local and State Boards of Education. We also will eliminate old cold war terminology starting with the word “Americanism” and instead refer to “American citizenship”. In order to take pride in citizenship, and then take responsibility to vote, one must first know the history and sacrifices of those who came before.

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

Recent deadly school episodes of violence in Florida and Texas, by two individual public school students against their peers and school personnel, causing 27 deaths have caused political reaction across the country including Nebraska.  A few of Nebraska’s State Senators have called for interim studies to examine school violence and to seek ideas to improve school safety. I recently examined recent legislation passed by the Legislature concerning school safety and I have reached the conclusion that the issue has been addressed adequately by the Nebraska Legislature. If an interim Education Committee study were to be held, it would be more of an attempt to assure the public on what is presently being done by school officials to address school safety.

In 2014, LB 923 was passed, including an amendment introduced by Senator Kolowski, to create the position of State School Security Director within the Nebraska Department of Education. The Commissioner of Education, currently Matt Blomstedt, was directed to fill the position based on experience, knowledge and skills in the field of school security. Presently, a very well qualified Jolene Palmer holds the position. Previously, she held educational training positions for 15 years with the Nebraska State Patrol; before that, she started out as an elementary school teacher before becoming an elementary school principal.

The job description of the Security Director’s duties is well defined: “providing leadership and support for safety and security for the public schools”; and the legislation is clear as to the Education Department’s and Director’s duties.

 

–Collect present safety and security plans from all school districts; it directs local school districts to cooperate with the Director and allows the Education Department to withhold those plans from the public (from the planning of a future perpetrator)

–Recommend minimum standards for school security for public school buildings in Nebraska

–Conduct an assessment, to be completed by August 31, 2019, of the security of each of Nebraska’s 1130 public school buildings

–Identify deficiencies in each schools’ security based on the minimum standards adopted by the State Board of Education, and make recommendations to school boards for remedying such deficiencies

–Establish security awareness, preparedness tools and training programs

–Establish research-based model instructional programs for staff, students, and parents to address the underlying causes for violent attacks on schools

–Respond to inquiries and requests for assistance relating to school security from private, denominational and parochial schools

 

This year we added within LB 1081, a statutory provision requiring school boards to collaborate with their local county attorney and law enforcement officials to review the schools’ rules and standards for student conduct and require the school to contact law enforcement if a student displayed such conduct.

 

In Nebraska, we value local control of our educational facilities. Citizens, through their State Senators, do create statutes giving direction to their elected State Board of Education on matters that concern them; the Board in turn directs and advises local elected school boards. The State Board is then required to measures their performance.

 

School security is, and should be, a local issue decided by local voters through their elected local school board. They have tools available to them. They can create an inter-local agreement with local law enforcement to have a police officer on site at school buildings, as North Platte Public Schools (NPPS) presently does, or they can hire a security officer themselves. Through LB 923 and school accreditation requirements, school districts should have in place a school security plan.  NPPS has done so with the creation of a “School Safety Committee” comprised of law enforcement officials and school administrative staff.  School districts can create a secure entrance to their school buildings and install metal detecting devices, as the Lincoln County Commissioners recently did at the courthouse with an investment of $23,724 for scanning equipment.

 

Providing a safe environment for our school children is a local issue; local school boards have the authority to spend your tax dollars on projects they deem to be their top priorities. One would think the safety of our children would be at the top of that list.

 

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.

Sen. Mike Groene

District 42
Room #1306
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2729
Email: mgroene@leg.ne.gov
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