Bill for more childcare advances; drug penalty increases debated

Feb. 21, 2024, 4 p.m. ·

Senator John Fredrickson debating Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. John Fredrickson debating Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A bill that supporters say will ease Nebraska’s childcare crunch advanced today/Wednesday in the Legislature. And senators sparred over whether to enhance penalties for dealing drugs that result in serious injury or death.

Sen. John Fredrickson introduced the childcare bill, which has been endorsed by both business groups and childcare providers. He said it’s modeled on a successful program in Kentucky that significantly increased childcare available there.

“The bill is designed to attract workers into the childcare industry by providing them with no cost childcare for their own children. The intent is to increase childcare worker recruitment and retention in order to fully staffed childcare programs throughout our state. This will produce a multiplier effect, enabling more working parents to participate in Nebraska's overall workforce,” Fredrickson said.

People who work in childcare would get free care for their own children, regardless of income. Initially, the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that could cost the state $21 million a year. Fredrickson questioned that estimate, but got an amendment adopted capping the cost at $10 million a year and sunsetting the program in two years to let the Legislature decide if it needs to continue.

Sen. Jana Hughes supported the bill, saying it could help solve a big problem: the lack of people to fill available jobs, in part because they can’t afford childcare.

“This is one of the top issues facing the state of Nebraska as well as the United States. And we are in a workforce shortage and hopefully this could help start addressing that issue,” Hughes said.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan said she supports the bill for now. But she warned it could have unintended consequences by making work in childcare more attractive than being a teacher.

“Let's say you're young, you got two children in childcare, that's $24,000 a year. You're going to get that for free. So that's $24,000 tax free, versus the teacher whose take home pay is maybe $32,000, $33,000. But they're paying $24,000 for daycare. You're going to have teachers going into daycare,” Linehan said.

Sen. Brian Hardin, a small business and insurance consultant who also owns a childcare operation in Colorado, opposed the measure.

“When you allow the government in and they're going to pay that cost for you, that sounds welcoming. There's lots of chocolaty goodness with that. The unfortunate thing is that it comes not with strings but with tentacles attached. They will then also begin to dictate other things that your business is allowed to do, and not to do,” Hardin said.

Hardin said those government requirements could include things like rules on how to operate, or not, in a future pandemic.

Sen. Danielle Conrad supported the bill, while saying it didn’t go far enough. Conrad compared the $10 million cost to what she said was the need in Lincoln alone.

“It's been estimated in Lincoln, in one year, the child care gap is over $17 million. That's one community for one year. So we need to think about how significant the need is here. We need to stop dancing around the edges. We need to stop admiring the problem. And we need to do more as quickly as possible to deliver for working families and to help move our economy forward,” Conrad said.

Senators then voted 35-9 to give the bill first-round approval.

Also Wednesday, the Legislature began debating a proposal by Sen. Carolyn Bosn to enhance penalties for people who supply others with illicit drugs that end up causing serious injury or death. Bosn said the idea is to combat overdoses resulting from drugs being laced by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which she said killed 256 Nebraskans from 2018 through November of 2022.

“This bill is a step in the right direction for Nebraska in terms of addressing and attacking the fentanyl crisis that we are dealing with. We have lost too many young people in this state -- and middle aged people, quite frankly --to death resulting from the use of a controlled substance that is so much more dangerous than any of the controlled substances out there,” Bosn said.

Sen. Justin Wayne, chair of the Judiciary Committee, opposed the bill, saying people can already be charged with manslaughter for doing what’s covered by it. Sen. Terrell McKinney also opposed it, comparing the approach to reaction to crack cocaine in the 1990s, which he said has contributed to prison overcrowding.

“We changed laws and reacted to the crack epidemic, snd look what that got us: instead of trying to get people help, we put them in prison. Instead of trying to get people help, we broke up families. Instead of trying to get people help, we didn't invest in those communities. We didn't try to address the root cause as to why somebody would want to use a drug at all. We just was like, ‘Let's be tough on crime. Let's penalize them, enhance penalties, and lock them all up.’ And now we got this problem,” McKinney said.

Lawmakers adjourned for the day before reaching a vote on the bill. But Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who offered a motion to kill it, said she thinks Bosn has enough support to advance the bill.

Wednesday marked one day past the halfway point in the legislative session, with 31 of the 60 scheduled business days elapsed. So far, senators have avoided much of the rancor and filibustering that characterized last year’s session. Senators have now identified their priority bills, which will have the best chance of being debated for the rest of the session. They include controversial measures on taxes, private school scholarships, and restrictions on transgender athletes, so it remains to be seen how long the relative harmony will last.