Proposals range from early childhood ed to early prison release

Rehabilitation and reminder, Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 20, 2021 - 5:19pm

Senators introduced proposals on subjects ranging from early childhood education to early release from prison, as the Nebraska Legislature wrapped up the process of introducing new bills Wednesday.

An early childhood education proposal came in a bill by Sen. Tony Vargas. Vargas wants to impose a 4 percent surtax on the income of single people making more than $500,000 a year or couples with incomes over $1 million. He would use that money to fund grants for early childhood education in schools, a field he says is currently underpaid and underfunded.

“We don't have the workforce to currently meet our needs. We don't have the funding to actually make this early ed a sustainable place. About a fifth of people's income specifically for working class families is going to early education. We have to figure out a way to invest in this space, or else we're making it harder for people to enter the workforce, continue their education, so we can fill these much needed jobs we have all across the country,” Vargas said.

Sen. John McCollister introduced a bill to let prisoners earn time off their sentences by completing programs in fields including employment, education, drug treatment and entrepreneurship. McCollister said he hopes to reduce the prison overcrowding that has built up over the last 40 years.

“It's hard to believe that in 1980, we had only 1,400 people in our prison system. And here we are 5,500 people – an overcrowded situation, second only to Alabama. So, this reduces the prison population, hopefully, and also gives those people incarcerated, an incentive to behave properly,” McCollister said.

Over the same time as the prison population has nearly quadrupled, the state’s population has increased by just under 25 percent.

Several bills were introduced to move the headquarters of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission out of Lincoln. One, by Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, on the Wyoming border, would require the headquarters to be more than 200 miles from Lincoln or Omaha, in a county with 10,000 or fewer inhabitants. Another, by Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, in the western Nebraska panhandle, would specify the headquarters be in Sidney, a community of about 6,000 people 350 miles west of Lincoln. Erdman said he wants to bring the commission closer to the people whose lives it affects. He specifically mentioned damage done to crops by wild antelope.

“My thinking is that's where most of the wildlife damage has been. And those people are located in Lincoln and they're removed from hearing that issue. And it's an opportunity for those people there to have a direct response to those people who are managing wildlife. They're not managing wildlife, and if they were they would do it differently,” Erdman said.

Sen. Mike Flood introduced a proposal to set up the legal framework for industrial plants, such as ethanol producers, to get federal permits to sequester carbon dioxide underground. Flood said with states like California imposing requirements to reduce carbon emissions, that creates an economic opportunity for Nebraskans to supply ethanol that meets those requirements.

“It is ultimately a financial benefit for the corn grower in Nebraska, because there's a market, if we as a state are sequestering carbon. And there are lots of other ethanol providers in the United States, and very few of them are sequestering carbon. If all of a sudden, the state of California looks out there and says, who, in fact, should we do business with? Should we do business with this ethanol plant over here, that doesn't sequester carbon, or should we do business in Nebraska, with the people of an ethanol plant or plants that actually sequester carbon?” Flood said.

And Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, in southeast Nebraska, introduced legislation to try and remove what she says have been obstacles to rural economic development.

“I’ve seen in southeast Nebraska, and we’ve seen in other rural parts of the state, some real hurdles to companies coming our way for Imagine Nebraska projects or other economic incentive projects. So LB594 really offers some more flexibility for that growth in our rural areas,” Slama said.

Slama’s bill would allow the director of economic development to waive certain education, licensing and supervision requirements for people working on a project if there is not a sufficient workforce available within 50 miles.

Wednesday marked the last day of bill introduction for the year, with a total of 684 bills and 12 constitutional amendments proposed. Lawmakers will now begin holding public hearings on each of the proposals.

Also Wednesday, officials reacted to newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden’s promised cancellation of a permit for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. Sen. Eliot Bostar, who campaigned as a champion of environmental issues, hailed the decision.

“If the project is cancelled, I think that’s a win for Nebraska and it’s a win for the United States. The project would primarily benefit Canada, and while they are a trusted ally, it wouldn’t serve the best interests of the United States and it certainly wouldn’t serve the best interests of the landowners along the route of the pipeline. So I’m grateful for President Biden and his decision to cancel the project,” Bostar said.

The proposed pipeline would cut through Nebraska from near Mills on the South Dakota border to Steele City near the Kansas border, carrying oil from oil sands of Alberta, Canada to refineries on U.S. Gulf Coast.

Critics say extracting and transporting the oil would increase global warming and threaten the land and water it passes through; supporters say it would produce economic benefits in the form of jobs and tax revenue.

A spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts said Ricketts remains a strong supporter of the project, and pointed to his earlier statements, including one last March where he called TC Energy’s announcement that it would start construction “tremendous news” for Nebraskans.

The company announced it was suspending construction in anticipation of Biden’s announcement and considering its options.



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