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Filibuster defeats plan to create tax credits for private school scholarships in Nebraska

Filibuster defeats plan to create tax credits for private school scholarships in Nebraska

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Opponents of a bill creating a tax credit for Nebraskans who donate to scholarship funds for private school students once again defeated the proposal through a legislative filibuster.

Despite offers of compromise from sponsor Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, the Opportunity Scholarships Act (LB364) was pushed off the agenda after backers failed to secure 33 votes to invoke cloture.

Under the bill, taxpayers could receive credits up to 50% of their annual income tax liability, with the scholarships going toward tuition and fees for low-income students who elect to attend a private school.

As introduced, the state would have provided $10 million in tax credits annually, but an amendment from the Revenue Committee — which Linehan leads as chairwoman — reduced that yearly cap to $5 million.

The Revenue Committee also amended a bill (LB531) from Sen. Tom Briese of Albion that created a similar tax credit program for Nebraskans who donate to early childhood education programs.

Linehan said both programs would help families find the right educational fit for their children, and wasn't about stoking division between public and private schools.

Over eight hours of debate on Wednesday, opponents attacked Linehan's bill as diverting state funds to private schools — which some said was potentially unconstitutional under state law — and an unneeded tax incentive for wealthy Nebraskans.

Still others said the bill did nothing to address issues of poverty, which several lawmakers said were responsible for lower educational attainment in the state's schools.

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, who introduced an amendment to prohibit funds from going to any organization that discriminates on the basis of race, gender, sexual identity or disability, said the bill would hurt public education in Nebraska.

"If families choose to send their children to those schools, that's their prerogative," Hunt said, "but don't tell me the state should subsidize that."

Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington raised concerns that LB364 provided more in tax benefits to Nebraskans that contributed to private school scholarship funds than food banks or medical research.

"The problem isn't the program these dollars are going to," DeBoer said. "It's that this is a kind of tax loophole my constituents asked me to come down here and not create."

Several senators, including Adam Morfeld of Lincoln and Steve Lathrop and Tony Vargas of Omaha, said instead of creating an incentive to donate to private schools — something they pointed out happens regardless — the Legislature should work to improve deficiencies in the public school system.

Lathrop criticized backers of the bill who said it would have helped close the achievement gap in low-performing school districts by expanding the educational options for students.

"We've stuffed money into property tax relief," Lathrop said. "We didn't talk about the achievement gap during the property tax relief bill."

Instead of creating a bevy of new tax breaks this year, as the Legislature is on track to accomplish, Lathrop said state lawmakers should have been looking at ways to reduce class sizes, better engage parents and provide more funding to schools.

But Sen. Justin Wayne, who had opposed similar bills in recent years, said families in his North Omaha district couldn't wait for their schools to turn around.

"Choice is about the privilege of having the dollars to make that choice," Wayne said, likening the program to a life preserver that could immediately help change the trajectory for hundreds of students.

Emerging as a leader among the backers of Linehan's bill, Wayne was routinely given time on the microphone to try and persuade opponents.

He told the Legislature about his family's choice to send their children to a private school rather than the public schools in his neighborhood, and at one point, challenged other senators to send their kids to school in North Omaha.

Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk, who recently retired from the Children's Scholarship Fund of Omaha, which provides financial assistance to help children attend private K-12 schools, said families should be given every tool to do what's best for their children.

"For some kids, in certain situations, this is their chance for something different," Flood said. "It's a very personal choice for someone who wants to enroll their son or daughter in a school like this."

Linehan said she was willing to work with other lawmakers to address their concerns, and indicated she was ready to limit the amount of tax credits individuals and organizations could receive, put an end date to the bill, and work on the anti-discrimination language proposed by Hunt.

Her offers were rejected, however.

Shortly before 7 p.m., Linehan invoked cloture, but fell four votes short of shutting off debate and forcing a vote on the bill and its amendments, effectively killing it for the year.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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