Sen. Kate Sullivan (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
Nebraska lawmakers talked about more early childhood education, and took a step toward expanding property tax breaks for disabled veterans Thursday.
Currently, about 7,000 of Nebraska’s roughly 27,000 four-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education programs, which are offered in about two-thirds of the state’s school districts. Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids said the Education Committee, which she chairs, wants Nebraska children to have access to early childhood education, no matter where they live. "This is not saying that we are requiring any child to attend a pre-K program. It’s just that we have as a goal 100 percent access to early childhood education in the year prior to kindergarten," she said.
School districts use a variety of public and private funding sources to pay for the programs. This year, the state is spending about $3.6 million – half of it from lottery profits -- on grants for the programs in about 60 school districts. A proposed change to the state budget, which has received first round approval, would devote another $3.4 million to that effort. The Department of Education estimates that would be enough to equip and staff another 20 full time classes, serving about 360 more students. The bill stating the goal of offering early childhood education to all four-year olds was advanced by the Legislature on a vote of 31-0.
Senators also spent time debating a proposal to expand the homestead exemption program for disabled veterans and their spouses. Currently, they do not have to pay all or some of their property taxes if they fall below certain levels of income and home value relative to the county average. In Omaha, for example, a veteran with a 100 percent service-related disability, income of $30,000, and a house worth $170,000, or his widow, would pay no property taxes. The proposal would do away with those income and property value restrictions, and exempt all veterans with a 100 percent servicer-related disability from property taxes. The same for would apply to their surviving spouses, if they had not remarried.
Omaha Sen. Pete Pirsch, sponsor of the measure, said the bill recognizes the sacrifices that 100 percent disabled veterans have made. Sen. Galen Hadley, chairman of the Revenue Committee, said he supported the bill, with some reservations. "You could, you know, theoretically have a veteran with a million dollar house, and half a million dollar a year income, that gets this break. So that’s what we’re deciding is, what do we want to do to honor the veterans?" he said.
Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue, the newest senator, who was appointed last December, suggested the scenario of wealthy disabled veterans benefitting was unlikely. "I am, you know, the freshman guy here. I am amazed at the cynicism of this body" sometimes, he said.
Garrett, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel after a 26-year career, said he did not know any military retirees who live in half-million dollar houses, although there may be some.
Pirsch said the bill could apply to around 2,500 people. The Department of Revenue estimated it would cost about $400,000 a year for the state to pay the property taxes for those who would benefit.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers accused Pirsch, running for the Republican nomination for attorney general, of sponsoring the bill for political gain, a charge Pirsch denied. Senators vote 28-0 to give the bill first round approval.