Senators Discuss School Funding, Childcare, Abortion, and Betting

Feb. 13, 2019, 5:24 p.m. ·

Sens. Ernie Chambers, left, and Rob Clements, right, bet in the Legislature Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Local income taxes for schools and standards for childcare were subjects for the Legislature Wednesday. Abortion language could come up again in budget debate. And there was some high stakes betting between senators.

Nebraska schools could add an extra 20 percent to residents’ income taxes, with voter approval, under a proposal by Sen. Kate Bolz. The money would have to be used to reduce property taxes or for building construction.

Bolz told the Revenue Committee her proposal is fair for taxpayers. “This approach would give the communities the option of spreading the cost across taxpayers based more on their ability to pay according to their income, rather than on the basis of how much property taxes they pay,” she said.

Sen. Curt Friesen expressed skepticism, suggesting many districts would prefer to rely on property taxes. “The urban residential homeowner outnumbers the rural ag land owner, and we’d lose the vote,” he said. The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

In floor debate Wenesday, senators tangled over a bill that would let cities use economic development funds for child care facilities. The hang-up was over a requirement that the facilities meet certain quality standards.

Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Education Committee, said certification is no guarantee of quality. He referred to a Bellevue teacher arrested on suspicion of possessing child pornography. “Licensing, certifications are meaningless as far as quality. They just give some parameters and guidelines. If you’re a bad person, you’re a bad person,” Groene said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld, a member of the Education Committee, went after Groene. “For the Education Committee chair to get up and talk about how credentials don’t matter is, quite frankly, just shocking … I would just like to let Nebraska know that there’s one senator on the Education Committee that thinks education and credentials matter. Unbelievable!” Morfeld declared.

“Could we say the same thing about attorneys? Do you want somebody filing a lawsuit for you that has no background, no credentials in law? Do you want people educating your kids who have no background, no credential in education, in our K-12 education system? You gotta be kidding me, Sen. Groene,” he added.

Groene shot back. “Correction for the record on Sen. Morfeld, who doesn’t listen well. That’s a skill that ought to be certified…I gave the example of a sexual pervert who taught in Bellevue who had a certification and still was not a person of good character. If you’re a good farmer, that doesn’t mean you got good character. If you’re a certified day care provider, that doesn’t mean you have good character. That was my point,” he said.

Senators adopted an amendment removing the quality requirements from the childcare legislation, then gave it first round approval on a vote of 31-0.

And it looks like the Legislature may not be done discussing abortion language in the budget bill. Tuesday, the Appropriations Committee voted 5-4 against including proposed language that would have prohibited giving any federal Title X family planning funds to abortion providers, such as Planned Parenthood.

Federal law already prohibits using those funds for abortion, but abortion opponents argue any funds to Planned Parenthood could indirectly subsidize the procedure.

Governor Pete Ricketts called the committee’s decision “appalling.” The language was included in the last budget at Ricketts’ urging. But Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. John Stinner said this year is different.

“First of all, we have a lot more to discuss this year with Medicaid expansion; we’re all predicting another shortfall as it relates to revenue so more cuts to be made; rainy day fund to be repaired. So, lots of budgetary issues. I think from my side of things, this is more of a social issue that needs to be permanently put in statute,” he said.

Sen. Rob Clements, who proposed the abortion language, said Planned Parenthood could still qualify for the funds if it set up a separate administrative structure.

“There are at least a dozen Title X clinics around Nebraska that are not abortion providers. They have separate offices and this would just put Planned Parenthood in the same situation as the other Title X clinics,” Clements said.

Bolz, who voted to keep the language out of the budget, said some new providers have not worked out well. “There were some new grant awardees in Omaha and Lincoln that don’t provide the full panel of Title X Services. So they have to refer out for many things including birth control, which can be burdensome on individual patients,” she said.

“Maybe that is the policy priority of the Legislature. But I think what that tells us is that the rhetoric last year, that there would effectively be no impact on patients, didn’t play out to be true,” she added.

The Appropriations Committee’s preliminary budget recommendation is due out next week. But the issue may not be done for the year. Asked if he would attempt to amend the language back in when the budget reaches the full Legislature, Clements replied “I would still like to have an opportunity to amend the language in. If the opportunity arises, I probably will.”

On a lighter note, Clements engaged in a bet with Sen. Ernie Chambers during legislative debate Wednesday. Chambers offered to bet he still had some cookies in his legislative office another senator’s wife gave him two years ago. Clements reminded Chambers he had won a nickel bet against Chambers previously.

“I will then double that wager, and bet you a dime that within five minutes, I can be back with that cookie. Are you willing to accept it?” Chambers asked.

“Yes, I’ll accept the wager for a dime. But I actually wanted to give you the opportunity to go down to your office. And if you don’t return, that would be fine with me,” Clements replied, as their colleagues laughed.

Chambers left, but within five minutes he was back, bearing the cookies, winning the ten-cent bet and then engaging in further debate.