Legislature advances more funding for schools

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February 5, 2014 - 5:23pm

Sen. Kate Sullivan watches a vote in the Nebraska Legislature. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

More money for schools, protecting taxpayers from inflation, and dividing Nebraska’s electoral votes were among topics discussed in the Legislature Wednesday.

When the recent economic downturn hit, the state of Nebraska pulled back on the money it sends to local school districts, by changing the formula used to compute that aid.

Part of that change is supposed to go away next year. But Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, chairwoman of the Education Committee, wants to speed it up.

Sullivan said schools have done their part, absorbing cuts and holding down spending. “Now that the economy is on the mend, our children deserve to have their schools funded in a way that allows educators to focus on education, instead of simply how to pay the bills,” she said.

Sullivan said high ag land values, which generate property taxes, and fiscal restraint by schools means school aid would actually be about $40 million less next year than the state budgeted for. Speeding up the change as she proposes would give most of that back to schools.

Sen. Greg Adams of York told his colleagues there are other options for what to do with the money. “Do you want to leave it in the cash reserve? That is one option. Do you want to spend it on something else? That’s another option. Or do you want to take the route that Sen. Sullivan and the committee has offered to run it back through the formula and get it back out to schools?” Adams asked. Adams favored Sullivan’s approach.

But Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion wasn’t so sure. “You know, I see $40 million sitting there, and I say ‘Give it back to the taxpayers.’ We don’t do that very much,” he said.

After less than two hours of debate, senators gave Sullivan’s proposal first round approval on a vote of 28-0. Kintner was among those not voting on the bill.

Also on Wednesday, Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont gave up on his attempt to return Nebraska to the winner-take-all system of allocating its electoral votes in presidential elections.

Currently, Nebraska is one of only two states that allocates some of its votes to the candidate who wins each of the state’s three congressional districts. In 2008, that gave Democrat Barack Obama one vote from the Omaha area, despite the state’s overall vote for Republican John McCain.

Janssen, a registered Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, said his decision was based on legislative math. “I’ve looked at the numbers on this particular bill across the floor, and while I think there are 25 votes there are not 33 votes for this bill, and I am certain that there are state senators on this floor that would take it all the way,” he said.

Twenty-five votes is a majority of the 49-member Legislature. But it would have taken 33 to overcome a filibuster against the bill. With 18 Democrats and one independent in the Legislature, and not all 30 Republicans necessarily for the change, Nebraska will stick to its electoral vote system, at least for now.

Wednesday afternoon, the Revenue Committee began hearings on a series of proposed changes to the state’s tax system.

A proposal by Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, the committee chairman, would not change income tax rates. But it would index income tax brackets to inflation, so over the years, higher rates would not kick in at effectively lower income levels. Hadley said that would help. “This is truly a tax cut for the people of Nebraska,” he declared. Hadley’s bill also exempts more Social Security income from taxation.

But the measure is a far cry from the lowering of income tax rates favored by the business community. That will be the subject of a public hearing next Thursday.

 

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