Senators pass private school scholarships; advance justice reform

May 24, 2023, midnight ·

Senator Justin Wayne speaks Wednesday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)
Senator Justin Wayne speaks Wednesday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)

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The Legislature gave final approval Wednesday to tax-credit-funded scholarships to be used to send students to private and religious schools. Opponents immediately vowed a referendum campaign to repeal it. And lawmakers continued to wrangle over criminal justice reform.

The scholarship proposal, sponsored by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, would rely on donations to fund scholarships, and give donors a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for those donations. It would give priority to students from low-income families, those needing special education, those being bullied, and those from military families, to name a few.

Supporters of the bill, like Sen. Bruce Bostelman, said it would help students who, for whatever reason, were not doing well in public school, by giving them a choice of going to a different school.

“That other school may provide them the instruction, the teaching, the one-on-one or what it might be to help that student reach their potential. And that happens to be a private school. What this bill does, if they can't afford it, gives that family that ability to send that student to that school,” Bostelman said.

Sen. Dave Murman, chair of the Education Committee, also supported the bill because it gives families a choice if they don’t approve of what or how public schools are teaching.

“I do think families have the ultimate decision as to the best way that their kids are educated. Sometimes it's because, you know, lack of control in the classroom in a certain school, or just the teachings or moral guidance in that school aren't conducive to what the family desires,” Murman said.

Sen. George Dungan agreed families should have a choice, but not at public expense.

“If families disagree with what's being taught in public schools, I think they're more than welcome to go to schools that maybe better fit their particular beliefs and their particular belief systems. And if a family wants to ensure that their students or their kids rather are being raised with some sort of religious upbringing and their education, I think that's perfectly fine… What I don't think is appropriate, however, is the utilization of public dollars for that kind of education,” Dungan said.

Dungan argued that, although the bill doesn’t directly appropriate state money, it would deprive the state of tax revenue that could be used for public schools. Sen. Brad von Gillern rejected that argument.

“To say that this bill takes money from public schools is the same as saying that every dollar spent on roads, bridges, hospitals, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and funding our public servants and first responders is also taking money away from public schools, and that is completely false,” von Gillern said.

The bill caps the tax credits at $25 million a year for the first three years, but allows them to rise to $100 million after that.

Senators voted 33-11 to pass the bill and send it to Gov. Jim Pillen, who supports it.

Within an hour of the bill’s passing, the Nebraska State Education Association, the state teachers’ union, announced it would support a referendum drive to repeal it. The organization called the bill “a convoluted tax scheme that will hurt kids while benefitting the uber-rich and corporations,” and said it would hurt public schools.

Holding a referendum requires collecting petition signatures from 5 percent of the state’s registered voters within 90 days of the Legislature’s adjourning, or by early September. The question of repeal would then be put on the general election ballot next year.

Also Wednesday, lawmakers returned to the controversial subject of criminal justice reform. Supporters say reform is needed to reduce prison overcrowding and ensure that prisoners are supervised after they are released. Opponents say earlier releases would threaten public safety.

Sen. Justin Wayne, chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said governor Jim Pillen had agreed to a compromise that would make prisoners eligible for parole earlier than under current law, and that would reduce minimum sentences for some habitual criminals. And a spokesperson for Attorney General Mike Hilgers he was not opposed to the latest version of the bill.

But Sen. John Lowe read a letter from Paul Schaub, president of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association, saying that his group still opposed the proposal.

“It is (a) far reaching and harmful proposal that would seriously threaten public safety. For these reasons, I asked you to please oppose LB50,” Lowe read.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan objected to the county attorneys’ position, suggesting they should run for a different job.

“If they want to tell us what to do, they ought to hand in those credentials and come down here and be a state senator. Why? Because they want their jobs to be easier? It's not our job to make the county attorneys’ jobs easier,” Linehan said.

Under the most controversial parts of the bill, prisoners would become eligible for parole two years before their mandatory discharge date. And repeat offenders would get a three-year minimum sentence, instead of 10, if one of their previous offenses did not involve violence, sex, or firearms.

After four hours, senators voted to cut off debate and vote on the bill. They then voted 30-7 to give it second-round approval. It still requires one more vote for approval before being sent to the governor.

Correction: the two-year earlier parole eligibility applies only to those sentenced to 20 years or less. Beyond that, parole eligibility would occur when someone had served 80 percent of the time toward their mandatory discharge date.