Legislature advances judges' pay raise; school aid increase

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April 25, 2013 - 5:30pm

Despite some grumbling, a pay raise for judges is advancing in the Nebraska Legislature. And lawmakers are also moving ahead on a school aid bill.

In the last two years, as state revenues were tight, judges’ salaries have not gone up very much. Two years ago there was no raise; last year, it was twopercent. So now, Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop is proposing a fivepercent raise in each of the next two years. A district court judge’s salary would go from about $135,000 to $149,000; a Supreme Court judge would go from about $146,000 to $161,000. Overall, the raises would cost state taxpayers about $3 million.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins objected to the proposal, and filed an amendment to cut the raises in half. In debate, Bloomfield explained his motivation to his fellow senators. "I thought we were spending money like drunken sailors down here. And I say that at the risk of giving drunken sailors a bad name," Bloomfield said.

Lathrop opposed Bloomfield’s amendment, and laid out his rationale for the larger raises. "We’re not spending money like drunken sailors out here. We’re compensating professionals who have left the practice of law at the pinnacle of their career so that we will encourage others to follow," Lathrop said. "It is important public policy that we compensate these men and women in a way that allows us to draw the talented from the practice of law to come serve the state of Nebraska."

Senators rejected Bloomfield’s amendment on a vote of 28-16, and then gave the pay raise bill the second of three approvals it would need by a voice vote.

Compromise on School Aid Bill

The school aid bill stalled on Monday, amid objections by urban senators that the funding formula did not give the state’s largest school districts enough money. Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, chairwoman of the Education Committee, alluded to that setback as she spoke about a compromise proposal to address those concerns. "Somebody reminded me in the whole process this week, when you think you are losing, perhaps you should redefine what winning is. And who’s won in this process? Well, I sincerely hope our kids have won," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the compromise contains an adjustment that sends more aid to large urban districts that tax residents at a high rate but still spend less per pupil than many rural districts. But she said it also contains more money for schools that have teachers with advanced degrees and extra instructional time. She said that aid could go to rural schools that don’t otherwise qualify for help under the state aid formula.

The precise effects of the changes on individual school districts won’t be known until the Department of Education finishes crunching the numbers next week. Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk hailed the compromise, but said it won’t solve some fundamental problems. "Your larger districts that have had no real estate growth – they still have problems…The small districts perhaps have revenue available to them as a result of valuation, still have the controls based on their expenditures and receipts. This doesn’t solve their problem," Scheer said.

However, Scheer added, by advancing the bill "We get down the road. And that’s something that we have to do. We have to move forward.

Overall, Sullivan said, the bill increases state spending on schools by about five percent each of the next two years.  That aid will total about $904 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and $940 million the year after that. Senators voted 42-0 to give the bill first round approval.

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