Bills target police in schools: One would set guidelines, the other would ban the practice

LINCOLN — Dozens of schools in Nebraska have school police programs, citing concerns about school safety. Critics say those programs can fuel a “school to prison” pipeline.

One bill heard Thursday before the Judiciary Committee would outline requirements for having school resource officers in schools. Another bill would ban them entirely.

There are about 75 school resource officers — or police officers in schools — in Nebraska, according to a December report by the ACLU of Nebraska.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks introduced a measure, Legislative Bill 390, that would require that each law enforcement agency that has officers in schools create a “memorandum of understanding” with the school district.

“I do not believe that most parents want our juvenile justice system having jurisdictions over things that should be handled through restorative justice, conflict resolution training, as well as school disciplinary measures,” Pansing Brooks said.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers introduced a bill, LB 589, that would ban school resource officers in schools altogether.

“(Schools) are not prison barracks,” Chambers said. “You should not have armed police in these schools, especially when there is such a bad reputation that they have.”

Nebraska State Education Association President Jenni Benson, testifying in support of Pansing Brooks’ bill, said her children had a school resource officer.

“He wasn’t there to arrest people,” she said. “He was there as a resource.”

The report found that about 1,200 students in public schools with police were referred to law enforcement during the 2015-16 school year, not including 300 more referrals for wellness checks, traffic offenses, truancy and offenses occurring off school grounds.

The report also found disparity in referrals to police based on race and disability status. Some counties in Nebraska have schools with police but no counselor, social worker or school nurse.

Pansing Brooks’ bill would require training on school-based policing — 20 hours for school resource officers and at least one administrator and teacher in the school administration. It would also require that detailed records be kept on each student referral for prosecution.

The bill also requires that the memorandum of understanding would set a procedure for determining when students should be referred for prosecution, when parents should be notified or present, when officers should notify students of their rights, and for complaints. More than half of Nebraska districts with school police do not require that a parent be notified when their child is questioned about an incident at school. Even fewer law enforcement agencies have policies about parental notification, according to the ACLU report.

Law enforcement agencies did not testify against Pansing Brooks’ bill, but some testified against Chambers’ bill.

Omaha Deputy Police Chief Greg Gonzalez testified in support of the Pansing Brooks bill. He said arrests are down in schools dramatically, and the requirements in the bill would not be new to Omaha police.

Businesses tell Nebraska Legislature that ending tax break would hamper startups

LINCOLN — Dozens of business owners and groups lined up Wednesday to oppose the elimination of an $85-million-a-year tax break they portrayed as critical for growing the state and others called a loophole that benefits only a few wealthy Nebraskans.

The Open Sky Policy Institute, as well as a University of Nebraska-Lincoln tax law professor, said the tax break is unusual, with fewer than five states offering similar policies.

Renee Fry of Open Sky said 80 percent of the tax break went to about 600 taxpayers with incomes of $1 million or more who are shareholders in Nebraska businesses structured as limited liability companies (LLCs) or S corporations — entities in which the shareholders pay taxes instead of the company.

“This exclusion is a significant deviation from a normal income tax code,” Fry said. She suggested that the $85 million in revenue could be put to better use by offsetting property taxes or investing in job creation.

But Legislative Bill 276, introduced by State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, ran into a deluge of opposition.

More than 40 business owners and representatives sent letters against the bill, and 10 more testified personally that it was a bad idea at a public hearing before the Legislature’s Revenue Committee.

Opponents said the tax break was created to provide tax parity between “pass-through” entities like S corporations and LLCs, which don’t pay state corporate income taxes, and the C corporations that do, in light of some federal tax changes three decades ago.

They said that LB 276, if passed, would discourage startup businesses, which are usually structured as LLCs, from locating in Nebraska and might result in people paying taxes twice on the same income — income derived in Nebraska and income earned in other states.

“By passing this bill, you’re saying that Nebraska is closed for business,” said Michael Cassling, whose family has a health care software business in Omaha. “I want to see the state of Nebraska grow, but LB 276 will mean loss of people, loss of jobs and loss of companies.”

Several representatives of other businesses, such as Omaha Steaks, Tenaska and Crete Carriers, also opposed the bill.

Stacy Watson, who testified on behalf of the Omaha and Lincoln Chambers of Commerce, said that the tax break wasn’t that unique to Nebraska and that other states do the same thing and just word it differently. She predicted that if LB 276 is passed, Nebraska shareholders in such companies would move to another state to avoid the higher taxes.

Right now, Nebraskans who earn income in other states have to report it and pay Nebraska income tax on it. But owners of S corporations and LLCs do not have to report their out-of-state income, thus avoiding some taxes, according to Adam Thimmesch, a UNL tax law professor, who called the tax break “highly, highly unusual.”

“There doesn’t seem to be a compelling tax policy case (for doing this),” Thimmesch told lawmakers.

Most states tax a person’s total income, no matter where it was earned, he said. He also disputed that the tax break for LLCs and S corporations achieved parity between different companies because a similar break isn’t given to owners of companies that are individually owned or structured as sole proprietorships or partnerships.

Watson said almost all shareholders in LLCs and S corporations are paying income taxes in the states in which they earned income, so the current system is fair and avoids taxing the same income twice. But Fry said if those states didn’t levy individual income taxes, like Wyoming or South Dakota, a person would avoid paying taxes on that income altogether.

The Revenue Committee took no action on LB 276, but given the strong opposition, it appeared unlikely to be included in a property tax reduction package being crafted by the committee.

Thursday is a big day for the committee because it will take testimony on three of the more comprehensive plans to reduce property taxes. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, who chairs the Revenue Committee, said she plans to huddle with other legislative leaders after this week’s public hearings to discern what ideas might be included in a committee bill to rein in property taxes.

Fairness, nonpartisanship urged in process of redrawing Nebraska political districts

LINCOLN — Nebraska needs to decide this year how the state will go about redrawing political boundaries in two years, a legislative committee was told Thursday.

“This is the year to do it. We don’t want to wait until 2020 when it is a political (election) year,” said State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha.

Fellow Omaha Sen. Sara Howard warned that failing to put some guidance in place now would lead to a political nightmare down the road, when lawmakers are required to redo political districts following the next federal census.

The two were among four lawmakers who laid out redistricting proposals at a hearing before the Legislature’s Executive Board.

Both said they want to create a process that is fair and nonpartisan and that provides for citizen involvement.

They contrasted their ideas with Nebraska’s past redistricting processes, which have differed every decade and resulted in a court battle in 1992.

Donna Roller of Lincoln endorsed their goals, especially the value of citizen participation.

“There’s nothing more important than my vote, and I want our elections to be fair and everyone to be equally represented,” she said.

>> Legislative Bill 253, introduced by McCollister, would create an independent citizen commission to draw up new district boundary proposals for U.S. Congress, the Legislature, the Public Service Commission, the Nebraska Supreme Court, the State Board of Education and the University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

The commission would have seven members, including three from each of the two main political parties. The chair could not be from either of those parties.

The bill sets out principles for redrawing boundaries, such as ensuring equal populations in the districts, following county lines and ensuring that districts are compact and contiguous.

It requires the commission to ignore the political party of voters and previous election results and to avoid improperly diluting the voting rights of any group based on race or language. The commission would work with the Legislature’s research director in drawing the new boundaries.

Public hearings would be held on the resulting proposals, after which they would go to the Legislature for approval. If lawmakers rejected the initial set of proposals, the commission would be required to draw up a second set of proposals. If those also were rejected, the Executive Board would draw up a third set.

>> LB 466, introduced by Howard, would be similar to the process used in Iowa since 1981. It would put the job of drawing new district boundaries in the hands of the director of legislative research.

The bill would require that new district maps be drawn using state-issued computer software and politically neutral criteria. Political affiliation of voters, past voting data and demographic information from sources other than the U.S. Census could not be considered.

A special legislative Redistricting Committee would hold hearings in each of the three congressional districts on the initial boundary proposals.

Lawmakers would have to vote on those proposals without substantive amendments. If lawmakers nix the first set of proposals, the director of research would draw up a second, and if needed, a third set.

The other two bills addressed more limited pieces of the process.

>> LB 261, introduced by Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Omaha, would require that any redistricting proposal be done using state-issued computer software. She said the bill would codify best practices.

>> LB 467, introduced by Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, would allow only population numbers, not other demographic factors such as race, language or household makeup to be considered in redistricting. The bill mirrors language used in the Legislature’s 2011 redistricting resolution, he said. It also would bar consideration of political affiliation and previous election results.

Tax collections. Clouds hovered over the state budget as state tax receipts fell short of expectations for a fourth straight month in January.

The Nebraska Department of Revenue released a report Thursday showing that net tax collections were 7.6 percent, or nearly $32 million, less than anticipated for the month. Collections were 1.3 percent, or about $35 million, lower than projected for the fiscal year that began July 1.

“We’re missing the numbers fairly dramatically,” said State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman. “It’s a big concern.”

The numbers detailed in the new report understate the financial issues facing legislative budget-crafters.

The Appropriations Committee is working on a new state budget using a revenue projection issued by the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board in October. At that meeting, the board increased its previous revenue forecast for the year by $69 million.

But, as required by law, the department report compares actual tax collections with the lower revenue projections set in July.

Stinner estimated that actual receipts are running about $80 million less than the October forecast.

The difference could make it difficult to put money into the state’s cash reserve fund and could dampen hopes of increasing property tax relief.

Tax Commissioner Tony Fulton, however, said the state’s financial picture could change in April, when income taxes are due.

He pointed to estimated individual income taxes as the chief area where receipts are falling short. He said the federal tax changes may have led to people changing their tax filing behavior.

Gov. Pete Ricketts noted budget planners will know more after the forecasting board meets later this month and again in late April.

“We will continue to closely monitor receipts,” he said.

Discrimination amendment. An amendment to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation briefly threatened a bill aimed at making museums, theaters, art galleries and other cultural institutions eligible to use tax-exempt bonds Thursday.

Legislative Bill 224, introduced by Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, would add private nonprofit cultural institutions to the list of entities able to use a special financing mechanism created by the state.

The mechanism already is used to help private nonprofit educational, health care and social services entities.

As proposed, the bill would have required cultural institutions seeking bond financing to meet certain qualifications, including complying with laws on discrimination “on the basis of race, color, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, gender or disability.”

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha offered an amendment to add “sexual orientation” to the list, saying she wanted to make sure the list was complete and inclusive.

Albrecht objected, saying she didn’t think the amendment was necessary. But Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said he wasn’t sure he could support the bill without the change.

In the end, Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha worked out a compromise with Albrecht under which LB 224 would simply require the institutions to comply with state and federal discrimination laws, without listing the types of discrimination banned.

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