The day before Gov. Dave Heineman is to deliver his budget proposals, a coalition of groups that wants more funding for various programs is calling on the Legislature to "reinvest" in Nebraska
The coalition includes groups serving poor people, the elderly and disabled; public employees and teachers. But Carolyn Rooker, executive director of Voices for Children, said they have a common theme. "In this legislative session, we urge lawmakers to please be future-thinking in their budget decisions, both on the revenue and the spending side, and prioritize services that will put future generations on the path to success, Rooker said.
Shawn Bonge, a parent with children in Omaha Public Schools, said funding cuts have affected her children, who use outdated computers to take tests on state standards. "The computers are old. They’re a minimum of six years old or older. Many times they freeze up. This is incredibly unsettling to a student," she said.
"Our children know how important these tests are. Our state uses the results of these tests to determine how a school is doing. It is ironic that our state government puts so much weight on these tests, but has not provided the tools to take them properly," Bonge added.
Bonge later said while she was aware of computers freezing up on pre-tests, she didn’t know if it had happened during actual standards tests.
While members of the coalition claimed funding for programs has been cut, the reality is more complicated. According to figures provided by the coalition, state funding for K-12 education actually increased nearly 200 million dollars, or just less than 25 percent, in the last decade. That includes special education and stimulus money.
But the coalition says considering inflation and population growth, real per-capita spending dropped by 17 percent.
The plea for more funding comes one day before Gov. Dave Heineman is to present his budget plan in Tuesday’s State of the State speech. The governor has said he will propose tax reforms, and has hinted they could include cutting or abolishing the state income tax. Jennifer Carter of the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, which advocates for low-income families, expressed concern about that.
"When there are proposals to significantly reduce the state’s revenue, that’s a spending proposal. That’s a choice we’re making about how we’re spending our state’s dollars," Carter said. "Is it best spent there, or is it spent in ways that are going to help foster the great kind of community and society that we’ve built here in Nebraska and really continue to focus on kids and our families?"
Meanwhile, members of the Legislature continue to introduce new bills that would affect state spending. Monday, Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms proposed to spend an additional $10 million in each of the next two years on early childhood education. Harms said 60,000 Nebraska children under age 5 are at risk of failing when they get to school.
"They just don’t have the very basic skills to be able to communicate…to get along with other children… to sit and to listen…. They’ve never been taught their numbers, their letters. All of that fits together," Harms said.
How Harms’ proposal fits together with other legislators’ and the governor’s ideas on the budget will become clearer tomorrow.