Senators Give First Round Approval to Several Bills

Unicameral Information Office

Members of the Nebraska Legislature have passed several bills during the first round of voting in recent days of the current session. Here’s a look at some of the legislative bills being advanced:

Education Cleanup Bill

Lawmakers gave first-round approval April 23 to a bill containing several changes to education-related programs after amending it to include the modified provisions of two other bills.

Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz, sponsor of LB 528, said the bill contains several technical changes requested by the state Department of Education and others.

Among those changes, Walz said, the bill would extend the sunset date to school year 2020-21 for a grant program meant to improve teacher effectiveness, expand the list of programs eligible for the Community College Gap Assistance Program and change eligibility requirements for the Access College Early Scholarship Program to help more students in need.

LB 528 also would specify that the purchase of computer technology or equipment and internet access and related services are qualified higher education expenses under the Nebraska educational savings plan trust.

Additionally, the proposal would require each school board to require that the telephone number for a national or local suicide prevention hotline or a crisis text line be included on new student identification cards beginning with the 2022-23 school year.

Public postsecondary institutions also would include one of those numbers on new student ID cards beginning with the 2022-23 academic year.

An Education Committee amendment, adopted 46-0, includes amended provisions of LB 3, introduced by Albion Sen. Tom Briese. They would require the department to establish and maintain a website where the public could access school financial data at the statewide and district levels. The website would include total receipts, receipts classified by source, total expenditures, cost per pupil and performance.

The provisions also would require school districts to include the website’s internet address on a currently required budget hearing notice.

Briese said the proposal would give taxpayers an easy-to-use tool with which to find school financial data and compare their school district with others.

The committee amendment also includes amended provisions of LB 558, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas. He said the changes are meant to address a teacher shortage made worse by the pandemic.

The provisions would require the state commissioner of education to grant a temporary teaching certificate to any applicant who has completed a teacher education program at a standard institution of higher education and has a certificate to teach in good standing from another state.

The amendment also would authorize the commissioner to grant a temporary teaching certificate to any applicant who has earned a bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree from an accredited college or university and has demonstrated basic skills competency and passed a subject area examination.

The temporary certificates would be valid for no more than two years, during which the holder would be required to obtain a full teaching certificate.

After adopting a technical amendment 45-0, senators voted 44-0 to advance LB 528 to select file.

Tax Incentives for Nuclear Energy Firms

Companies that build advanced nuclear reactors in Nebraska would be eligible for tax incentives under a bill advanced on a 36-1 vote from general file April 26.

Under LB 84, sponsored by Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, a renewable energy firm that uses nuclear energy to produce electricity would qualify for incentives under the ImagiNE Nebraska Act.

Bostelman said the bill is intended to help attract companies that currently are developing advanced nuclear energy technology. He said small modular reactors, molten salt reactors and microreactors, which are the size of semi-trailers, are safer than current designs and can improve the electrical grid’s reliability.

“As the energy industry becomes more reliant on renewable energy, and given the current administration’s commitment … to all carbon-free sources of energy, including advanced nuclear reactors, it would be prudent to incentivize nuclear energy in Nebraska,” Bostelman said.

Sen. Julie Slama of Peru supported the bill. She said small modular reactors can be turned off and on to meet electricity demand, making them more flexible than traditional large-scale reactors that must run at nearly full capacity at all times. That is important at a time when renewable energy, which can fluctuate with the weather, is becoming a larger part of utilities’ power generation portfolio, Slama said.

 “Nebraska has a great opportunity here to be a leader on (the small-scale nuclear reactor) front,” she said. Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan also supported LB 84, saying advanced nuclear energy projects would create high-paying jobs and generate electricity in rural Nebraska in a “fiscally reasonable way.”

Statewide Farm-to-School Program

A Nebraska farm-to-school program would provide locally grown and minimally processed food to elementary and secondary school students under a proposal advanced from general file April 26.

LB 396, introduced by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, would require the state Department of Education to hire a coordinator to administer the program, which also could provide students with hands-on learning activities, such as farm visits, cooking demonstrations and school gardening and composting programs.

The coordinator would partner with public agencies and nonprofits on a public engagement campaign and build a communication network that links farmers and schools. They also would encourage schools to develop and improve their nutrition plans using locally grown or processed food and provide technical assistance to school food services staff, farmers, processors and distributors regarding the demand for and availability of Nebraska food products.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt spoke in support of LB 396. She said the bill would allow schools to reduce their dependence on large food distribution companies.

“The food is fresher and it has everything our kids need to stay healthy,” Hunt said.

Senators voted 43-0 to advance LB 396 to select file.

Tribal Health Center Funding

Lawmakers advanced a bill to select file April 27 to provide state funds to one of Nebraska’s federally qualified health centers.

LB 185, as introduced by Gordon Sen. Tom Brewer, would appropriate $700,000 in general funds in fiscal year 2021-22 and 2022-23 to the state Department of Health and Human Services to provide funding to the Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center in Omaha.

Brewer said the tribally owned, federally qualified health center was established in the 1990s by the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and provides medical, dental, behavioral and public health services to individuals who are eligible for Indian health services.

The Ponca Tribe does not have tribal land, Brewer said, and the Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center serves the tribal community on such important health issues as maternal health, obesity and diabetes management. The clinic’s federal funding is limited, he said, and LB 185 would ensure state funding similar to that provided to Nebraska’s seven other FQHCs.

An Appropriations Committee amendment, adopted 43-0, would reduce the amount to $531,000 in each of the next two fiscal years. Gering Sen. John Stinner, chairperson of the committee, said the change would bring the appropriation to a level comparable to the amount provided to other FQHCs in Nebraska.

Senators voted 41-0 to send LB 185 to select file.

Water Safety License Plate

A new specialty license plate that seeks to educate the public about water safety received first-round approval on a 39-0 vote from lawmakers May 4.

LB 166, sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist, would authorize Josh the Otter-Be Safe Around Water license plates, available as of Jan. 1, 2022.

Blake and Kathy Collingsworth of Lincoln created the Josh the Otter character and a memorial foundation after their son, Josh, succumbed to his injuries following an accidental drowning. Geist said she introduced the bill on their behalf because they have turned a tragedy into a positive force in the community.

The fee for the alphanumeric plates would be $5, credited to the Josh the Otter-Be Safe Around Water Cash Fund. Personalized plates would cost $40, with $10 credited to the state Department of Motor Vehicles Cash Fund and $30 credited to the Josh the Otter-Be Safe Around Water Cash Fund.

History License Plate

Lawmakers advanced a bill from general file on a 38=0 vote on May 4 that would create a new specialty license plate celebrating Nebraska history.

Under LB 317, sponsored by Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh, Nebraska History licenses plates would be available in alphanumeric or personalized versions beginning Jan. 1, 2023. The plate would be designed in consultation with History Nebraska — formally known as the Nebraska Historical Society — and reflect the importance of preserving the state’s shared history.

The specialty license plate commemorating Nebraska’s sesquicentennial will expire in 2022, Cavanaugh said, removing a small, but reliable revenue stream for History Nebraska.

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