2 sides of gun debate face off on Nebraska Legislature’s ‘red-flag’ bill, proposal to arm teachers

LINCOLN — Advocates for gun rights and gun control squared off Thursday at the State Capitol over what to do about mass shootings.

One on side, gun rights advocates supported giving Nebraska school districts the option of training and arming willing teachers and administrators.

Brian Hof, a concealed carry handgun instructor and the superintendent of the Red Cloud Community Schools, said putting guns in the hands of teachers in his rural school makes sense because law enforcement help could be 30 minutes away.

“We can make our kids even safer,” said Hof, a retired military veteran.

But on the other side, advocates for gun control said the answer wasn’t more guns, but increased mental health treatment and a mechanism for temporarily taking away guns from people who pose an imminent threat.

An Omaha police sergeant said a “red-flag” law allowing a judge to order that weapons be removed from the reach of a mentally disturbed or threatening person might have prevented the 2007 Von Maur shooting in Omaha that left nine people dead, including the 19-year-old gunman, who had a history of mental illness.

“A law like this may have been able to assist law enforcement,” Sgt. Michael Kozelichki said.

Both sides agreed on one thing — something needs to be done.

“Not doing anything is unacceptable,” said State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln.

Morfeld introduced the state’s first proposal for a “red-flag” law. Such laws have been adopted by 14 states and have shown promise in reducing suicides by firearms.

Under Legislative Bill 58, if a family member, roommate or law enforcement official senses that a person poses a “significant risk” of harm to themselves or others, they can petition a judge to have firearms within easy access of that person removed.

Often, Morfeld said, a person exhibits warning signs before attempting suicide or a violent act. He said his Extreme Risk Protection Act would allow the temporary removal of guns for up to 12 months, thus providing a “time out” in which a person could seek help or cool off.

“The purpose of this law is to save lives,” the senator said.

Law enforcement officials and a trio of university students supported the bill, saying it would be a valuable tool to remove deadly weapons from people in crisis when other steps fail.

“Gun violence is an epidemic,” Jayden Steed said. “This law would allow people to act before warning signs escalate to tragedy.”

But gun rights advocates called LB 58 a violation of constitutional rights and due process rights that could be misused by a spouse during a divorce.

Patricia Harrold of the Nebraska Firearm Owners Association said greater investment in law enforcement and mental health care was the answer.

“Rather than addressing that, we’re trying to come up with a quick and easy solution,” Harrold said.

“This bill is a symptom of the creeping socialism in our country,” Gregg Lanik said.

Later during the public hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings explained the latest legislative attempt to allow teachers to be armed.

Halloran emphasized that his LB 343 is not a mandate, but simply gives schools the option to develop programs to arm teachers or staff.

Schools, he said, need a way to respond more rapidly to an active shooter. During the Parkland school shooting a year ago in Florida, more than 50 students and teachers were shot in the first three minutes and 20 seconds, he said, long before law enforcement had entered the school.

Advocates for the bill said if school personnel were armed, students would “think twice” before launching a deadly attack. They said both Ohio and South Dakota had successfully implemented programs to allow and train school staff to carry firearms.

But opponents of LB 343 said better mental health care for students and adults, and better funding for school security steps, was a better answer. Foes raised concerns about students taking away guns from teachers, whether teachers would actually shoot a student, and whether schools could afford liability insurance and training expenses.

“Leave weapons to trained law enforcement officers,” said Paul Schulte, a teacher and vice president of the Nebraska State Education Association.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee took no action on either bill after a 4½ hour hearing, but its chairman, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said he sensed that arming teachers was not a proposal the eight-member committee would advance.

A similar bill to arm teachers failed in 2014. The Omaha Public Schools board voted last year to oppose allowing teachers to carry guns in schools.

Bill seeks continued guarantee of services to developmentally disabled grads

Disabled graduates. Nebraska had a job coach waiting for Spencer Mitchell when he graduated high school at age 21. That coach helped the young man get a job and learn the duties, then backed out of the picture over the course of two years.

On Thursday, Loveda Mitchell of Lincoln said her son continues working as a checker at Target and has remained largely independent for the last 20 years. She credited Nebraska’s guarantee of transition services to help students with developmental disabilities when they age out of school.

“This is the way it should work,” she told members of the Health and Human Services Committee.

Mitchell joined other parents, advocates and developmental disability service providers in backing a bill that would continue that guarantee for future young people.

But Courtney Miller, developmental disabilities director at the Department of Health and Human Services, opposed the measure, saying it could pit people needing services on an emergency basis against the guarantee of services for those students.

Legislative Bill 540, introduced by State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, would eliminate a June 30, 2021, sunset for the youth transition services.

The sunset was adopted last year as a legislative compromise. It was intended to ensure that young people could continue getting services under a new priority system for determining who would get developmental disability services.

As mandated by the federal government, the system gives first priority to people in immediate crisis because of a caregiver’s death or homelessness or a threat to life and safety. Services for youth leaving school is fourth priority under that system.

Miller said the state has been able to provide services for all of the top priority cases as well as all students reaching age 21 during the last two years. But she said that’s only been because of good planning.

She said LB 540 could put Nebraska at risk with the federal government if more people than anticipated need services on an emergency basis. She noted that Nebraska’s population is aging, meaning more parents are reaching an age they may not be able to care for a disabled adult child.

Tax relief for farmers. Lawmakers gave first-round approval Thursday to a measure that would lower the tax load on farmers and ranchers when it comes to paying off school bonds. LB 183, if passed, would value agricultural land at 50 percent of its value (instead of the current 75 percent) when it comes to assessing costs for school construction and renovation bonds, thus shifting more costs onto homeowners and commercial property.

State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion said his bill addresses a common complaint in rural areas — that farmers pay most of the property taxes but residents of cities and villages have most of the votes and decide whether school bond issues pass. That results in a minority paying most of the cost of new schools, he said, making it easier for city residents to pass bond issues.

Briese’s bill initially called for ag land to be valued at 1 percent of its actual value for school bonds, but he amended it Thursday to 50 percent in the face of opposition by education groups.

He said the impact in urban districts would be negligible under LB 183, but in a rural school district in his area the owner of a $150,000 home would pay $117 a year, rather than $94 a year.Meanwhile, the owner of a $4 million farm would pay about $1,700 a year rather than $2,531.

The senator said further debate on LB 183 will be delayed until the Revenue Committee decides what property tax relief measures might be coming forward. Then, Briese said, legislators can decide if his bill becomes part of that package.

Revenue projection for Nebraska’s next budget period lowered by $110 million

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s fiscal picture turned a bit gloomier Thursday when a state panel lowered its prediction of state tax revenue by $110 million through the end of the next budget period.

The new revenue forecast means that lawmakers will have to tighten the state budget for the two fiscal years ending June 30, 2021. It also makes the road ahead rougher for property tax relief measures.

State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the Appropriations Committee chairman, had anticipated that the news could be even worse. When presenting a preliminary budget plan to colleagues on Wednesday, he emphasized the “preliminary” designation.

“The world may change on Thursday,” he said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts offered a measured response, saying the new forecast would “inform our work as we balance the budget without raising taxes.” He said the new budget would not become final until after April, when officials know more about individual income tax receipts for the year.

The Appropriations Committee’s preliminary budget plan called for balancing the budget based on the previous revenue forecast. It proposed $9.36 billion worth of spending over the two-year period, which would amount to an average increase of 3.3 percent.

Ricketts had recommended a 3.1 percent average increase in spending.

The committee proposal included more money to boost payment rates for Medicaid, child welfare and other service providers. It also incorporated higher state employee raises as required under recently completed collective bargaining agreements.

But the committee plan called for a smaller increase in state aid to schools than the governor’s proposal. The plan assumes passage of a bill to phase out a cost-cutting measure instituted two years ago.

Under current law, that measure is to end on June 30, contributing to a $77 million bump in aid for the 2019-20 school year and another $8 million increase the following year. Legislative Bill 588, introduced by Stinner, would increase aid by $51 million in 2019-20 and $33.5 million the next year.

The new revenue forecast means that Appropriations Committee members will have to revisit some of their budget decisions before sending a final plan to the full Legislature.

The Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board’s revenue predictions are used by both the Legislature and the governor in crafting state budgets.

The board last met in October, at which time they raised their projections of this year’s revenue by $69 million and made their first projections for the two-year budget period. The board will meet again in late April, shortly before lawmakers begin debating the Appropriations Committee’s final budget package.

One area likely to get additional attention now will be the cash reserve. Based on the October projection, the $69 million increase in tax revenues for the current year would have automatically gone into the cash reserve.

That transfer will not happen under the new forecast, which could leave the reserve at its lowest level since 2005-06. The preliminary budget plan calls for taking $54.7 million out of the reserve for prison construction. That would put the reserve at an estimated $278.8 million by June 30, 2021.

In the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30, state tax collections have fallen short of projections for four straight months. Through January, net receipts were running about $80 million less than predicted in the October forecast.