Legislature debates prisons, school finances

Nebraska's Capitol from the southeast (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 27, 2018 - 6:04pm

Proposals intended to improve Nebraska’s prison system were discussed in the Legislature, and senators had a wide-ranging debate, but took no action, on school finance.

The prison proposals include requiring the Department of Correctional Services and the Board of Parole to develop procedures that will be followed if an overcrowding emergency is determined to exist. Current state law requires such an emergency be declared if the prisons are above 140 percent of capacity on July 1, 2020.

 Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks described what current state law requires. “If we are over 140 percent at that time, an overcrowding emergency shall be determined to exist, and the Board of Parole shall immediately consider, or reconsider, committed offenders for suitability for accelerated release on parole, until which time we are at 125 percent operational capacity or below,” she said.

Nebraska’s prisons are currently at just under 160 percent of design capacity. The bill would require a description of how parole decisions would be accelerated. The report would be due December 1.

The proposal also requires the Department of Correctional Services to study its staffing needs and report by Sept. 15, 2020. It would require the department’s medical director to determine if an inmate about to be released needs medicine to reduce or eliminate their use of opiates. A provision that would have transferred the authority to conduct criminal investigations within the prisons to the State Patrol was dropped, as was one to create a new council to coordinate inmates‘ reentry into society. Senators voted 37-0 for an amendment containing all the bill’s provisions. But after Sen. Ernie Chambers became upset over an attempt to make it optional for the department to collaborate with local providers on rehabilitation, a first round vote on the bill itself was postponed. (For a detailed description of what's in and what's out of the prison bill, click here).

Also Tuesday, senators engaged in a debate on school finance that  highlighted the complexity of doing anything about it.

Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Education Committee, proposed taking the $224 million a year in state sales and income taxes currently used to offset local property taxes, and funneling it directly to schools instead. His proposal would also limit schools to getting no more than 55 percent of their funding from property taxes.

 That’s about the statewide average now, but many smaller, mostly rural districts get no state aid and fund almost all their expenses from property taxes.

Groene said under the Nebraska Constitution, the state should pay the entire cost of K-12 education. “If you read the constitution, they should pay 100 percent of it. But there’s been a grand bargain made. If the state pays 100 percent, then they come in and tell you who’s going to be hired in your town, what you’re going to teach in that school,” Groene said. “We’re creeping more and more all the time. But locals have said ‘We’ll pay property tax. Just give us local control of what happens in that building.’ That’s kind of what the grand bargain was.”

Groene’s proposal would provide state taxpayer dollars to districts and lower the maximum property tax levy they could charge. But he said some local administrators oppose the idea. “The administration of our schools does not want to lose taxing authority. That’s the biggest negative why they would call a senator and say don’t support this,” he said. “If they can tax you $1.05 (per $100 of valuation) that’s guaranteed. They can sell your house at the courthouse steps and be paid. They do not want to lose taxing authority and have to rely on the state to fund education. Well, the problem is this: it is the state’s duty.”

The proposal ran into opposition from senators who argued it would simply redirect money that currently offsets property taxes owed to all local governments, including counties and cities – and not provide any additional funds.

Among those making that point was Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln. “The individual taxpayer doesn’t benefit on average when you take $224 million away from people in one manner and distribute it back out in another. For some it’ll be warm, some it’ll be cold, some it’ll be medium, but overall, the net effect is zero,” Baker said. “You haven’t really changed anything. You’ve taken money out of one pocket and put it in another and said ‘Somehow, that made me richer.’”

Groene got 25 senators to adopt an amendment putting his proposal in the shape he wanted, but without more support, the plan is not likely to be brought up again this year. 



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