State Senators Give First Round Approval to Several Bills

Unicameral Information Office

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

Expanded Child Care Assistance

More Nebraskans would be eligible for subsidized child care assistance under a bill advanced from general file April 20.

LB 485, introduced by Bennington Sen. Wendy DeBoer, would increase the income eligibility limit of the Child Care Subsidy program from 130% of the federal poverty level to 185%. The bill also would increase transitional child care income eligibility from 185% of FPL to 200%.

DeBoer said the bill would help families still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and lessen the “cliff effect” that occurs when a pay raise causes an individual receiving subsidized child care to lose that benefit.

“The cost (of child care) is tremendous. It’s a very big disincentive to work,” DeBoer said. “Our economy will not thrive without workers and our workers cannot work without child care.”

The bill’s expanded eligibility would be paid for from existing federal Child Care and Development Block Grant funds.

Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas supported the bill, saying affordable child care is critical for families that need two sources of income.

“Many working families are not in a position where we can voluntarily choose to have a parent leave the workplace to stay home with the kids,” he said. “Nebraska has an opportunity to make sure that we’re getting back in competition with states like Colorado and Kansas, both of which have adopted the 185% threshold.”

Also in support was Gothenburg Sen. Matt Williams. Nebraska businesses struggle to find available workers, he said, in large part because lower-wage workers cannot afford child care.

“What we’re doing with (the bill) is really creating additional workforce for our businesses across the state,” Williams said.

Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil opposed the bill. Children are better off when raised by their parents, he said, and the bill would cause more parents to put their children in day care.

“Time together is good for the mental health of both children and parents and benefits society,” Murman said. “This is not to say that children are not valued in day care, but no one can totally replace a loving and caring father and mother.”

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard also opposed the bill. Future lawmakers would find it difficult to take away benefits once federal funding runs out, he said.

A Health and Human Services Committee amendment would end expanded eligibility for both programs after the 2023-24 fiscal year. The proposal also requires that the state Department of Health and Human Services collaborate with a private nonprofit organization to evaluate the proposed eligibility changes and file a report with the Legislature by Dec. 15, 2023.

Lawmakers adopted the amendment on a 42-0 vote.

DeBoer offered an amendment, adopted 40-0, that explicitly would prohibit using state general funds to pay for expanded child care eligibility under the bill.

Senators then advanced LB 485 to select file on a vote of 31-7.

Priority College Admission for Service Members

Lawmakers gave second-round approval April 27 to a bill that would give priority college admission to certain uniformed service members after amending it to expand eligibility.

LB 669, introduced by Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas, would require Nebraska’s public postsecondary institutions to accept military and veteran students who apply to enroll as undergraduates if they otherwise meet admissions requirements.

A student who graduates from a Nebraska high school on or after Jan. 1, 2022, signs enlistment papers to serve in a uniformed service and meets other requirements related to the length of their service would be eligible.

Nebraska high school graduates and individuals who graduate from high school in another state on or after Jan. 1, 2022, and served in a uniformed service while assigned to a location in Nebraska also would qualify if they received an honorable discharge from a uniformed service.

Vargas introduced an amendment on select file under which students who graduate from high school on or after Jan. 1, 2002, also would qualify. Vargas said the amendment also would add an emergency clause to the bill to ensure its provisions would be operative before the upcoming school year.

After adopting the Vargas amendment 39-0, senators advanced LB 669 to final reading by voice vote.

Expansion of Home Energy Program

More Nebraskans could be eligible for assistance with their residential energy consumption under a bill advanced from general file April 28.

LB 306, introduced by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, would increase the eligibility threshold for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program from 130% of the federal poverty level to 150%. The bill also would require the state Department of Health and Human Services to allocate at least 10% of LIHEAP funds to weatherization assistance.

Brandt said the bill was a “no-brainer” that would help a projected 8,313 Nebraskans better manage extreme weather.

“Weatherization assistances programs enable low-income families to permanently reduce their energy bills by making their households more energy efficient,” he said.

Senators advanced LB 306 on a 28-5 vote.

Classroom Air Filter Study

The state would install high-quality air filters in 150 classrooms to study their effect on student test scores and behavior under a bill advanced from general file April 27.

LB 630, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Eliot Bostar, would require the state Department of Education to develop and implement a pilot program to study the efficacy of commercial air filters to remove air pollution from classrooms and their impact on academic performance and behavior.

The pilot program would include 50 schools, with six participating classrooms in each school. Half of the classrooms would be assigned to the control group.

At the end of the study, the department would submit the results to the Legislature.

Bostar said a recent study measured the effect of air quality on academic performance in several California schools that installed high-quality commercial air filters in response to a leak at a nearby natural gas storage facility in 2015.

Compared to schools outside the affected area, he said, schools that installed air filters saw a significant increase in students’ math and English test scores.

Given those results and the growing body of research demonstrating air pollution’s negative effects on children’s health and development, Bostar said, Nebraska should further investigate classroom air filters.

“It would be a missed opportunity not to ask our education system to investigate this matter fully,” he said.

An Education Committee amendment, adopted 44-0, would require the department to work in conjunction with researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers supported the bill, which he described as a new approach to addressing the problem of student performance.

“LB 630 is a small investment to try to see whether this data that we’re seeing in other places will lead to a (similar) result,” Hilgers said. “If it does, I think it’s a no-brainer for us to look at (doing) this in the school systems across our state, given the value and the potential benefits.”

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt said she would support the bill on general file but expressed concerns about the amendment. She said she was skeptical of putting inflexible research requirements into state law that may not reflect best practices.

“Basically, the parameters of a randomized control study are being legislated in the language of this bill,” Hunt said. “My question is what if researchers find out that it would be better to execute this study in a (different) way?”

Senators voted 41-2 to advanced LB 630 to select file.

Committee on Flood Control, Water Resources

A legislative task force would study potential flood control projects and related economic development opportunities in three areas of the state under a bill advanced from the first round of debate April 29.

LB 406, as introduced by Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell, would have created a task force to study three to five flood control infrastructure projects in the Lower Platte River basin.

A Natural Resources Committee amendment, adopted 43-2, replaced the bill. It instead would create a special committee, consisting of at least seven members of the Legislature, that would study the need to protect public and private property, enhance economic development and promote private investment along the Platte River and its tributaries from Columbus to Plattsmouth.

The committee would conduct similar studies on the Lake McConaughy region and the region in Knox County that includes Lewis and Clark Lake and Niobrara State Park. Under the amendment, the Platte River study could not include a study of any dam on the river’s channel but could include infrastructure that maintains the integrity of its main channel.

The committee could hold hearings and request reports from federal, state, county, city and village agencies and natural resources districts on matters pertaining to the studies. It could hold one or more closed sessions to receive confidential information upon a majority vote of committee members.

With the Executive Board’s approval, the committee could enter into contracts for consulting, engineering and development studies. The committee would complete the studies no later than Dec. 31, 2022.

The amendment states that it is the Legislature’s intent to appropriate $2 million to the committee for fiscal year 2021-22.

Speaker Mike Hilgers of Lincoln supported the amendment, saying it would expand the proposal’s scope beyond the southeast part of the state.

“This is an opportunity to actually study something in an aggressive way that could form the basis for a big swing for the state of Nebraska,” he said.

Creighton Sen. Tim Gragert also supported the bill. He said the proposed study area in northeast Nebraska, which includes scenic views and hunting and fishing opportunities, is underdeveloped and underused but could attract more tourism with additional investment.

Also in support was Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood. He said he opposed the original proposal because it would have considered building a dam on the Platte River, threatening private property and infrastructure.

Clements said the amendment would restrict potential flood control projects to the river’s tributaries and to levees in the area, some of which still have not been repaired after floods in 2019.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte supported LB 406 but said he would seek to amend it on select file. The bill as introduced does not set a termination date for the committee, require it to seek bids or include the state Department of Natural Resources in the process, he said.

Columbus Sen. Mike Moser opposed the bill, saying the state’s natural resources districts could conduct similar studies.

“I think this is just another study to put on a shelf somewhere,” he said.

After adopting a technical amendment, senators voted 42-2 to advance LB 406 to select file.

Financial Literacy Requirements

Lawmakers gave first-round approval April 28 to a bill intended to improve the personal finance skills of Nebraska students.

LB 452, as introduced by Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney, would require each school district to create a financial literacy program and incorporate it into its K-12 curriculum.

An Education Committee amendment replaced the bill. As amended, LB452 would add a half-credit high school personal financial literacy course as a graduation requirement, a provision originally introduced by Peru Sen. Julie Slama in LB 327. It also would require financial literacy to be incorporated into each district’s curriculum in kindergarten through 8th grade.

The state Department of Education would recommend academic content standards for financial literacy, which the bill defines as knowledge and skills regarding budget and financial record keeping, taxes, debt, savings, risk management, insurance, investment strategies and establishing, building, maintaining and monitoring credit.

Each district would be required to adopt its own standards and develop a program based on those standards. By Dec. 1, 2022, districts would present evidence to the department that they are teaching students financial literacy.

Districts that do not provide a financial literacy program, require a half-credit high school financial literacy course or provide the required annual evidence to the department would lose their accreditation status.

Additionally, the department would collect data on the program, evaluate its effectiveness and report that information to the Legislature and the State Board of Education.

McKinney said young people often find themselves making “high stakes” financial decisions regarding personal and student loan debt without the proper knowledge of how those choices may impact them later in life.

“So many Nebraskans spend a lifetime learning about finances through trial and error — trying to build their boats as they sail them,” he said.

Gothenburg Sen. Matt Williams supported the bill. As a banker, he said that he has seen the consequences of financial illiteracy across all walks of life.

“Not providing a strong financial background to our young people is a significant penalty for them for the rest of their lives,” Williams said.

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said she supports financial literacy but couldn’t vote for the bill. While stopping short of actively opposing the measure, Hunt said the Legislature should not determine school curriculum no matter the subject. The state has educational experts to fulfill that duty, she said.

After voting 42-0 to adopt the committee amendment, senators advanced LB 452 to select file 44-0.

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