Catholics score victories during 2021 legislative session
June 17, 2021
The 2021 legislative session was an unusual one, adapted for COVID-19 concerns, but also one marked by several victories for Nebraska Catholics.
Chief among those victories was a substantial increase in funding for the state’s textbook loan program, which lets private school students use textbooks from their local public schools. The books are loaned when parents request them from their public school districts.
Other victories included a tax credit for families facing medical and funeral costs after the stillbirth of a child, and two measures that will help low-income families with food and energy assistance.
The Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC) advocated for those bills. They also successfully fought measures that would have allowed health centers to distribute contraception in schools, banned certain types of therapy for children struggling with same-sex attraction and gender identity issues, and eliminated a requirement that a physician be present when prescribing an abortion pill.
TEXTBOOK LOAN PROGRAM
The decades-old school textbook loan program is a “very small way of providing equity” to Catholic school parents who support the public schools as taxpayers and whose children would have access to the textbooks if they opted for those schools, said Tom Venzor, NCC’s executive director.
He credited Gov. Pete Ricketts for including $1 million of increased funding for the program in the budget he presented to the Legislature in January. Venzor also commended senators for keeping the funding in the budget they approved.
In recent years increases in funding for the textbook loan program were small or nonexistent, he said.
The state previously had set aside about $465,000 a year for the program, which amounts to roughly $13 or $14 a year for each private school student for loaned books.
“I don’t think we need to tell anybody, but $13 or $14 per student for textbooks won’t even get you the table of contents in a book,” Venzor said.
The average price of textbooks for Catholic school students in Nebraska is about $150 to $200 per student annually, he said, while the average price for public school students is about $250 to $300.
“So essentially, 13 to 14 bucks per kid for textbooks was really little to nothing,” Venzor said. “And honestly, that small amount of money made it very difficult for a lot of smaller schools to even engage in the textbook loan program, because at the end of the day, there was little return on the investment of their time.”
The textbook loan program hadn’t seen a significant increase in funding for about 15 years, he said. The NCC worked with the governor’s office to seek the increase in his budget proposal and with the Appropriations Committee to keep the funding in the state budget, which was then passed by the full Legislature.
“So now there’ll be nearly one and a half million dollars per year for textbooks,” Venzor said, which equates to about $30 to $40 per private school student for textbooks.
“That’s still not true equity, but it’s definitely way better than we were prior to this.”
A bill failed that would have provided scholarship opportunities for students from low-income families. But the NCC saw progress toward school choice in Nebraska and is hopeful a similar bill will pass next year.
LB364 was defeated after it fell four votes shy of overcoming a filibuster. It would have given tax credits for donations to nonprofit scholarship funds to be used by private school students from low-income families.
Despite not being able to overcome the filibuster, proponents saw progress in winning over more senators and citizens on the benefits of the bill, allowing them to see how students thrive in parochial and private schools when they have the means to attend.
Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, speaking before the Legislature on behalf of the scholarship tax credit bill, said the testimony of students and parents persuaded him.
The NCC has been focusing on “getting the word out about how school choice changes lives,” said Lauren Garcia, communications and outreach specialist for the NCC, which represents the public policy interests of Nebraska’s three Catholic dioceses.
“It’s not about the system of the public schools,” Garcia said of school choice bills like LB364. “It’s not about even helping private schools. … It’s about empowering parents to choose what’s best for their kids, and those kids getting opportunities that they wouldn’t normally get to change their lives.”
The NCC supported LB597, which provides a $2,000 refundable tax credit for families facing medical bills and burial costs after a stillbirth. The bill was never voted out of committee, but was introduced as an amendment to a tax bill, LB432, which Gov. Ricketts signed into law May 26.
In promoting LB597, the NCC had said it’s “a way to support families financially during a time of trial, suffering, and healing, which is also a time of increased financial cost for them. Our state and federal governments recognize through tax incentives the financial costs families bear to raise their children. LB597 is a recognition of the costs borne by families who have lost a child as well.”
LOW-INCOME RESIDENTS WIN
The NCC also applauded victories for low-income residents when the Legislature overrode the governor’s vetoes of two measures that will help more people qualify for aid for food and utilities.
“In these particularly difficult times, we are compelled to exercise a preferential care for the poor, not only as individuals and churches, but also at the state and federal government level,” the NCC wrote on its website.
LB108 increases the income eligibility to apply for federal food assistance, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), from 130% of the federal poverty level to 165% for a two-year period.
For a family of four the income threshold jumps from $34,450 to $43,725.
LB306 increases the income eligibility for the federal energy assistance program from 135% of the federal poverty level to 150%.
For a family of four that income threshold rises from $35,775 to $39,750.