Hearings present opportunities
By JIM CUNNINGHAM
One of the unique aspects of Nebraska's Unicameral Legislature is that with very few exceptions every legislative bill is given a public hearing during the session in which the bill is introduced. In each instance, the hearing is a significant opportunity for citizens to tell legislators just what they think about the various proposals for changing public policy.
The varied items of substantive legislation are scheduled for hearings by the chairpersons of the standing committees with respective jurisdiction over the subject matter. A committee of the legislature's Executive Board assigns the bills.
In some instances the public hearings accommodate diverse and competing viewpoints; other times it's a 'love fest." Sometimes testimony is emotional, while at other times it's more humdrum. It's all part of an important process.
The current session of the Nebraska Legislature has moved to that stage when public hearings are under way at the State Capitol in Lincoln.
An example of a legislative bill that will have a public hearing this session is LB 769, introduced by Sen. Mike Friend of District 10 in Omaha. His bill proposes to establish modest tax relief for parents and guardians who incur expenses in providing for the education of their children at the elementary and secondary levels.
The tax relief takes the form of a state income tax credit for a prescribed percentage of qualified expenditures, up to a maximum credit of $250 per year per elementary student and $500 per year per secondary student. The proposal is best described as an education expense tax credit. It would apply to expenses that include tuition, textbooks, various fees for academic courses and labs, and transportation costs. It would be available to all those who pay such costs at any elementary or secondary school, public or private, operated legally under the laws of Nebraska. There is plenty of legal precedent and support for the constitutionality of such a policy.
Friend's LB 769 presents a particularly important opportunity for parents and guardians who determine that the best way for them to fulfill their state-law obligation to provide for the education of their children is by enrolling them in a non-governmental school, whether religiously affiliated or otherwise. These are Nebraska taxpayers, who, except in rare instances, are doubly burdened, paying for education through taxes and through tuition and fees. The hearing is an opportunity for parents who face these circumstances to make a case for tax justice, either orally or in writing.
A great deal of attention is being given in Nebraska these days to the organization and financing of elementary and secondary education, in both urban and rural settings. Typically overlooked in these considerations is the fact that nearly 40,000 students are enrolled in non-governmental schools. If policy makers are sincerely interested in achieving educational equity, then their deliberations ought to include ways of recognizing and supporting the value of parents choosing non-tax-supported alternatives. Investing in true educational choice is an idea deserving of consideration. Parents who make these choices need to speak out and be heard. LB 769 provides that opportunity.
The date for the Revenue Committee's public hearing on this bill had not been set as of the deadline for this column, but such information can be obtained by monitoring the Legislature's website: www.unicam.state.ne.us. In addition, anyone interested in additional information about LB 769, as well as other legislation pertaining to education, is welcome to contact the Nebraska Catholic Conference office, 402/477-7517, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, the conference's website, www.nebcathcon.org, has a link to education issues and to the Nebraska Federation of Catholic School Parents.
Another bill that awaits a public hearing in front of the Revenue Committee is LB 810, introduced by the committee's chairman, Sen. David Landis of Lincoln. This bill proposes state-level implementation of something that has already proven effective and successful at the Federal level: an earned income tax credit. This provides tax-based benefits for those who are employed, but whose earned income falls below certain prescribed levels. It puts tax dollars back into the hands of low-income working families. Having this at the state level would enhance the value even more.
Regarding the earned income tax credit that already exists "“ the federal one "“ now is an important time for anyone who thinks they might qualify for this to seek information in time for the April 15 filing deadline.
The legislature spent almost all of its first eight days introducing new bills and giving-first round consideration to just three bills carried over from 2005. All three proved to be contentious.
The third of these, LB 57, is Sen. Mike Foley's bill proposing to define and establish penalties for the crime of assault of an unborn child. It is a logical extension of legislation enacted in 2004, which established the crime of homicide of an unborn child. (Legislation, by the way, that has already resulted in at least four prosecutions.)
LB 57 addresses circumstances in which the intentional or reckless actions of a third-party perpetrator cause serious, but non-lethal, bodily injury to an unborn child.
If, for example, a baby was born with a permanent disfigurement and there was evidence that the condition was caused while the child was in utero, by the intentional or reckless conduct of someone other than the mother, and other than a medical provider performing a medical procedure with the mother's consent "“ in order to avoid conflict with abortion rights "“ then that could be prosecuted as a crime of assault of an unborn child. The unborn child would be regarded as a separate victim of criminal conduct.
Such legislation is constitutional and it's meritorious public policy.
Jim Cunningham is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, headquartered in Lincoln. . He can be contacted at his office in Lincoln at (402) 477-7517.