Temple Vandalism, Restraining Students, School Finance Discussed

Jan. 17, 2020, 12:55 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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NET News' Jack Williams talks to reporter Fred Knapp about some highlights of the Nebraska legislative session so far.

Jack: The new Nebraska legislative session is now well underway and NET’s Fred Knapp has been keeping track of some of the issues that state lawmakers are proposing and considering he joins us live in studio, Fred, what have been the highlights of the session so far?

Fred: Well, you know, it’s always a little bit slow getting started. They begin with bill introductions, which doesn't mean people talk about their bills as they introduce them, they just sort of plop a piece of paper on the clerk's desk. But this past week, they have begun to debate.

Jack: And so now we're getting into the meat of the

session. I understand senators were reacting to some vandalism at the South Street Temple in Lincoln earlier this week. What did they say?

Fred: Yes, somebody painted a swastika, among other places on the steps of the South Street temple, although they painted it backwards from how the Nazis used to design it. Nevertheless, people were very upset, among them Lincoln senator Anna Wishart, who talked about how as a little girl she used to walk past the temple on her way to school every day:

“I am deeply, deeply saddened and disturbed that this has happened to a beautiful place of worship in our community. We are better than this Nebraska. I spoke with members of the South Street Temple yesterday and they said that this is not the first time they have experienced hate or evangelism. But the amount of hate they have experienced comes nowhere near to the amount of messages of love they have received, especially this week,” Wishart said.

Fred: And other members of the legislature also condemned the vandalism along with Gov. Ricketts, U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird and others.

Jack: What legislative issues have come up for debate so far?

Fred: Possibly the highest profile one that's been debated so far is allowing teachers to physically restrain students if they think they're a threat to themselves or others. The sponsor of this bill is the Education Committee Chairman Mike Groene, who says teachers need clarity on what they are allowed to do. But opponents of the bill say that that permission to intervene already exists in case law.

Jack: So where do things stand with that proposal?

Fred: Well, they've had three hours of debate and under the rules that the Speaker of the legislature Jim shear imposes, or follows, after three hours, they suspend debate to see if the sponsor can show him a vote card indicates that he has close to 33 votes, which is what is needed to overcome a filibuster. That has the advantage of saving an additional three hours of debate that they would otherwise spend and possibly be repetitious. But it has the disadvantage that you don't actually get to see how people vote. So we're kind of in limbo, and we'll see if that bill comes back again.

Jack: Gov. Pete Ricketts gave his State of the State speech this week. What did we learn from that?

Fred: Well, the governor paid tribute to the victims and helpers in last year's flooding. Policy-wise, he threw his support in principle behind a Revenue Committee plan to lower property taxes by increasing state school aid.

Jack: What are some of the key things to look for in discussion of that issue?

Fred: Well, there are 244 school districts in Nebraska and most of them are small, and a lot of them get little or no state aid now, so they're likely to like this proposal because it allocates a certain number of dollars to what's called foundation aid, which is aid per student. On the other hand, the big schools have to be watched to see what their attitude is going to be towards this. They are probably going to lose some taxing power. They are represented by an organization called the Greater Nebraska Schools Association, which is about 10% of the school districts in the state, but about 70% of the students And they are represented by over half of the Legislature -- that is to say, the senators that represent those schools make up over half. And because it only takes a third of the legislature to stop a proposal with a filibuster, if they come out against the proposal, that will be a significant brake on the proposal.

Jack: What's the next step now?

Fred: Well, there's going to be a public hearing on that bill coming up next Wednesday at 1:30 Central Time in Room 1524 of the Capitol. And if you can't make it down there in person, it will be streamed on netnebraska.org. There's also another hearing that afternoon on Speaker Scheer’s proposal to increase the number of legislators. Currently it's 49. His proposed constitutional amendment would allow up to 55, which he says would be better in terms of making senators represent fewer people so that you'd have more access And in the rural areas, it would shrink the size of the districts, which can be hundreds of miles wide, for example.

Jack: Okay – we’ll be listening to see what happens with those proposals. Thanks, Fred.

Thank you, Jack. Oh, I should have mentioned the Legislature is now off and they won't come back until Tuesday.

Jack: Sounds good. Thanks, Fred.