Early Childhood Plan Falls Short; Proposal to Attract Jobs Criticized

Feb. 4, 2019, 5:24 p.m. ·

Sen. Brett Lindstrom testifies Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Finding enough workers to fill Nebraska’s available jobs, and attracting higher-paying jobs to the state, were among issues discussed at the Capitol Monday.

Debate resumed Monday on Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen’s proposal (LB66) to require Nebraska cities to include discussion of early childhood education in their comprehensive plans.

Hansen said it’s a matter of expanding the number of people available for work. “One of the biggest issues facing the state of Nebraska is workforce. We need more workers. We have jobs to fill and we can’t fill ‘em. And one of the underutilized pools of people already in this state who could work at jobs are parents who have to take care of childcare responsibilities. And this is primarily mothers,” he said.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt said federal spending and tax credits for early childhood education are already helping the economy, and the bill would increase their effects. “I benefitted from these programs when I got divorced and became a single working parent. And it would have been impossible for me to make use of them if I didn’t live near an early childhood education facility nearby,” said Hunt.

Opponents called the proposal unnecessary. Among them was Norfolk Sen. Jim Scheer. “We are trying to mandate something that, for my purposes, has not been displayed to me that there is a need. Most communities are doing this already. The examples where we’ve talked about, Red Cloud and others, those communities took it upon themselves to do this. They weren’t mandated to do this,” Scheer said.

Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, another opponent, said the bill would be ineffective. “This is a key issue – the key issue – for every economic development director in the state. It’s an issue that’s already front and center statewide. A legislative mandate that this is put in their plans will not have any impact,” he said.

Twenty-three senators voted against advancing the bill, with only 19 in favor. (See how senators voted here). When it became obvious he didn’t have the votes, Hansen expressed disappointment. “Everybody seems to have committed to the importance of early childhood education, but this isn’t the way to go about it. Okay, I’m disappointed, I disagree, but I can take that that. But I do hope that we don’t just continue to pay lip service to early childhood education,” Hansen said.

Monday afternoon, the Business and Labor Committee held a public hearing on a proposal Omaha Sen. Brett Lindstrom said was designed to attract high-paying jobs to the state. Under Lindstrom’s proposal (LB604), the state would match funds raised by private investment companies to lend to small businesses to hire people in low income or rural areas.

The program would be capped at $30 million a year, meaning the state’s cost could be up to $15 million. Lindstrom said it would be a good investment. “The price tag of this bill is up to the Legislature. I think we would have significant impact – a $15 million appropriation would make a tremendous impact,” he said.

However, tax receipts that continue to lag behind projections lessen the chances for big-ticket spending programs this year. The Department of Economic Development also sent a letter opposing the proposal, on grounds that it inserts a new layer, in the form of private investment companies, between the state and the companies it’s trying to help.

Another part of the bill, giving tax credits to companies that pay one and a half times the minimum wage, without requiring benefits, drew criticism from Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop. “You know, 11 bucks an hour with no health insurance probably isn’t what we’re shootin’ at right now,” he said.

Ryan Dressler of Advantage Capital, one of the investment companies supporting the proposal, said the benchmark was not the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, but rather the state minimum of $9, so one and a half times that means the jobs would have to pay at least $13.50 an hour.

Lindstrom said his proposal would be part of the mix this year as Nebraska decides how to update its tax incentive programs.