Private School Scholarship Proposal Blocked in Legislature

Jan. 12, 2022, midnight ·

Sen. Megan Hunt gestures in debate Wednesday as Sen. Lou Ann Linehan looks on from behind (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Megan Hunt gestures in debate Wednesday as Sen. Lou Ann Linehan looks on from behind (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A proposal for tax-credit-funded scholarships for children to attend private schools in Nebraska was blocked Wednesday in the Legislature.

The proposal, by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, was designed to fund scholarships for children to attend private and parochial schools. Those funds would come from private donations. Donors would get a dollar credit on their state income tax for every dollar donated, up to half their income tax liability. For example, someone who owed $1 million to the state could instead pay $500,000 to the state and $500,000 to the scholarship fund.

Linehan’s bill would limit the credits to $5 million a year. Opponents said in other states, the program has grown to the point of hurting public school funding.

Sen. Justin Wayne supported the proposal, saying it would open new possibilities for students.

“This is a vote about a parent and a student wanting something better. --wanting to access the American Dream. That is, if you work hard and you get a good education, you can go far in life,” Wayne said.

Sen. Terrell McKinney said the bill would create an alternative for parents who are concerned about public schools in his north Omaha district.

“What do I say to a parent that calls my office and says ‘Sen. McKinney, I’m looking to get my kid out of OPS because my kid keeps getting suspended. He doesn’t feel safe when he walks home from school. And I’m afraid he’s going to die or end up in prison. And my response is “I don’t know,’… How do you answer that question?” McKinney said.

Sen. Rich Pahls said a bigger solution is needed.

“The way we’re going to change north Omaha is not by sending a few individuals to a different school. We’ve got to make massive changes.”

Sen. Megan Hunt, reading from some religious schools’ school policies, said the proposal would help send students to schools that discriminate against LGBT students.

“We’re putting into statute a way for people to turn around to taxpayers and say ‘Give me all my donation money back taxpayers,’ including LGBTQ taxpayers like me. And then we’re going to take your tax money and give it to an organization that tells you that, you know, you shouldn’t exist, basically. How on Earth does that make sense?” Hunt asked.

Hunt tried to amend the bill to say schools where the scholarship recipients went could not discriminate, including on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Senators voted 26-17 against that amendment.

After eight hours of debate stretching over two days, Linehan moved for cloture – a parliamentary maneuver to cut off debate and vote on the bill itself. That requires a two-thirds vote, or 33 in the 49-member Legislature. The vote was 28-14, killing the proposal for this year. However, a new version could still be introduced between now and next Thursday.

And in continued bill introduction, Sen. Adam Morfeld submitted a proposal for a half-million dollar study of high-speed passenger rail service between Lincoln and Omaha. Morfeld said such a service would have many benefits.

“The great thing about this is, not only will it be a big economic driver, in terms of making it so more businesses and more people want to work and come to Lincoln and Omaha. But it’s also going to make it so people have more accessibility to entertainment venues, to their grandkids in many cases, and then also to schools and jobs,” Morfeld said.

The proposal is one of more than 300 introduced so far for consideration later this year.