Private/Religious School Scholarships Blocked in Legislature

May 13, 2019, 5:24 p.m. ·

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan debates Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A proposal for tax credit-funded scholarships to send children to private or religious schools got sidetracked by stiff opposition in the Legislature Monday.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan is the lead sponsor of the scholarship proposal. She told her legislative colleagues she assumed all of them would do what was necessary to make sure their children or grandchildren succeeded. “Maybe you would have to move as I did when my children were small and struggling with reading. We moved from one district to another school district because we could afford to do so. Or maybe you have a junior high student who’s not thriving in a larger school, so you’re willing and do pay tuition for a private school. I did all those things, because I could afford to. But not everybody has those options,” Linehan said.

Linehan’s proposal would give a 100-percent tax credit to people who donate to an organization that provides scholarships for students to attend private or religious schools. Originally, students from families with incomes up to twice the level to qualify for free or reduced price lunches would have been eligible. That’s an income of about $95,000 for a family of four. Under an amendment proposed by Linehan, that would be cut in half.

Linehan said her proposal would not take any money away from public schools. But opponents said it would, by reducing state revenues. Several senators cited an estimate that the proposal could cost the state $93 million a year by the year 2030. Sen. Lynne Walz tried to put that in perspective. “Ninety three million dollars for tax credits is more than – listen carefully – aid to ESUs, high ability learning programs, early childhood programs, nurturing healthy behavior programs, our school lunch program, textbook loan program, school breakfast program, adult education, learning community aid, summer food program, high school equivalence assistance, step up (to) quality child care and voc rehab put together,” Walz said.

The proposal would limit tax credits to $10 million the first year. But it allows that to grow by 25 percent a year if there’s enough demand. Linehan tried to use the figure cited by opponents as an argument for the bill. “If there’s concern that we’re going to go up to $93 million, then there must be a huge appetite for this bill. That’d be somewhere between 18,000 and 36,000 students,” she said.

Other opponents argued the bill violates the state constitution. Among them was Sen. Steve Lathrop. “It is an attempt to work around a constitutional prohibition against appropriating money to sectarian schools – to religious schools,” Lathrop said.

Linehan disputed that argument. “It’s not state money. It’s the donors’ money. And until it comes to us as revenue, it’s not state money. So there’s no constitutional problem with this,” she said.

Senators reached the three-hour time limit on debate before reaching a first-round vote on the bill, which did not appear to have enough support to be debated again this year. Linehan said she would work on the bill this summer, and try it again next year.

Also Monday, senators gave final approval to a bill by Sen. Tom Brewer aimed at the use of eminent domain powers to build transmission lines for privately-owned wind farms. The bill gives opponents a chance to go to court to prove eminent domain is not justified because the projects are not a public use.

And, lawmakers debated fantasy sports betting, as part of a measure to regulate video games that fall into a gray area relating to gambling.

Sen. Steve Lathrop’s legislation applies to games like “Bankshot” that the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled are not gambling devices, because they rely more on skill than chance. His bill would limit the number of such devices to between 4 and 15 in any location, depending on its size. They could not accept credit, charge, or debit cards. And no one under 19 could play.

Sen. Justin Wayne proposed an amendment to the bill to regulate fantasy sports betting on platforms like FanDuel or DraftKings. Wayne said the measure is needed. “This is not expanded gambling. This is a way for us to regulate an industry that is currently going on in our state anyway, unregulated,” Wayne said.

Sen. Tom Briese opposed Wayne’s amendment “I hear the folks talk about, you know, ‘Fantasy sports – they’re here. We’re already doing it.’ Well, we’re already doing a lot of other destructive, illegal behavior in this state, and we’re not going to legalize it, just because it’s going on,” Briese said.

Wayne eventually withdrew his amendment, and senators then gave second-round approval to Lathrop’s bill regulating video games that have cash prizes.

Correction: The audio version of this story contains incorrect information about the forms of payment that cannot be accepted by video games of skill.