Highway bonds hit roadblock; help for poor schools sparks debate

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February 12, 2014 - 5:53pm

Sen. Greg Adams listens as Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh speaks (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

A proposal to sell bonds to finance up to $400 million in Nebraska road projects ran into opposition Thursday in the Legislature. And a plan to help some poorly performing schools sparked a wide-ranging debate on education.

Nebraska has borrowed money by selling bonds for road construction in the past, but not in its recent history. Three years ago the Legislature passed the “Build Nebraska” act, setting aside one-quarter cent of the state sales tax for roads. That raises about $60 million a year.

Now, Sen. Annette Dubas, chairwoman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, is proposing to devote half of that to backing up to a maximum of $400 million worth of bonds, to speed up road work. Dubas acknowledged she had opposed diverting sales tax dollars to roads three years ago. But she said now that the money had started to flow, it made sense to pledge it against borrowed funds. “It’s in place, and so now I believe, personally, that we need to take those dollars that are in there and use them to the maximum,” she said. Dubas said bonding now would enable the state to take advantage of historically low interest rates.

The bill drew support from groups including the Associated General Contractors, which includes road building firms. But Rodney Vandeberg, chairman of the State Highway Commission, offered only what he called “modest support,” citing limits on how many projects the Department of Roads has ready to go. “I believe the cash flow being provided by Build Nebraska Act is matching up very nicely with the Build Nebraska Act projects the Department has started. Which makes me wonder about the need for this bill, from the point of view of just how much the department can deliver,” he said.

Department of Roads Director Randy Peters opposed the bill. He said it would not speed up projects that have yet to be designed. And he said if federal funding drops, Nebraska will need maximum flexibility for taking care of its existing roads, without being encumbered by bond interest payments. The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

On the floor of the Legislature Wednesday, a proposal for state intervention in poorly-performing school districts provoked a wide-ranging discussion of education in the state. The proposal by Sen. Greg Adams of York would tell the State Board of Education to pick a small number of schools – three, in the version currently being debated – with poor graduation rates and test scores. The state Education Commissioner would then appoint an intervention team to come up with a plan to improve the schools.

Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms said he is concerned that the proposal ignores problems that start long before school starts. “I would be in hopes that we would start to focus on before the child gets there. Because that’s where we’ll failing. That’s the problem we have. And if you don’t deal with that, I don’t care what kind of evaluation system you put in, I don’t care what system you establish -- it will not be successful,” he said. Harms said better early childhood education is needed for children defined as “at risk.” That definition includes coming from a low-income family.

But Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh said schools need to do a better job with the students they get. “We talk about these kids coming to school not ready for the school. We have to have the school ready for the kids. They’re the hand we’re dealt,” he said. “It doesn’t do any good to say we just have to end poverty. Because again, that means we’re not going to do anything, yet again. And not doing anything is intolerable. Lautenbaugh said that argues for allowing charter schools.

Adams said his proposal, LB438, doesn’t address all the problems with education, but it’s a start. “I can’t tell you that because of this bill, schools instantly are going to be turned around, or next year are going to be turned around, or the next year. But if we’re frustrated just talking about it, (LB)438 attempts to do something about it,” he declared.

The debate comes against the background of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Unless states get a waiver, which Nebraska does not have, that law dictates how they must use part of the federal education money the state gets. In Nebraska’s case, up to $18 million a year could be at stake. The law says if schools are not making adequate progress, that money must be spent for student transportation, tutoring, and professional development. But Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said if Adams’ bill passes, that would increase Nebraska’s chances of getting a waiver, and give it more flexibility over how to spend federal funds.

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