Children’s behavioral health, zoo tax exemption bills advance
April 8th, 2015
Lincoln, NE – More Nebraska children could be screened for behavioral health problems, zoos would get a tax break, and it would be easier to pay for initiative petition signatures, under proposals advancing in the Nebraska Legislature.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Legislative-Update-040715-KVNO01.mp3]
In 2008, Nebraska passed a safe haven law that allowed parents to drop off children they didn’t want or couldn’t handle at hospitals and other locations. The original idea was to protect newborns from abandonment, but senators put no age limit in the law, and people from around the country started dropping off troubled teenagers before the law was changed.
One outgrowth of that was the state established a pilot program in 2013 to offer screenings of children for behavioral health problems, in addition to physical problems, when they visit doctors’ offices. The program operates in Columbus, Omaha, and Scottsbluff, which also serves four other communities in the panhandle.
Now, there’s a proposal to continue the program, due to expire next year, and possibly expand it to five other locations. Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen, sponsor of the bill, said the pilot program is having worthwhile effects. “Over 1,900 students were screened, and of that, approximately 23 percent or 460 screened, positive for one behavioral health concern. And then from there, more sought either referral or treatment,” he said.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion said the program is an example of why senators should be careful when creating pilot programs. “I want to caution everybody that any time you see the word ‘pilot program,’ you’re pretty much talking about a permanent program. I can’t remember one pilot program in my three years that we’ve ever gotten rid of,” he said.
Supporters of the proposal said the screenings have identified concerns ranging from ADHD to depression. Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher questioned the value of that, asking if there are any kids there aren’t concerns about. But Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell said identifying such concerns is important. “One of the biggest problems we have across the entire state, and which there’s probably going to be a statewide task force on… has to do with suicide in teenagers. We shouldn’t dismiss depression, anxiety – those are the types of precursors” that could contribute to young people’s problems, she said.
Schumacher said he wants evidence of the program’s benefits. “Since suicide has been raised as an issue, what is the difference in suicide rates in the screened population vs. the state as a whole? We need to know if this is doing any good, rather than assertions by people who are getting money from the system, saying it’s just absolutely wonderful,” he said.
The proposal would cost an estimated $450,000 a year, funneled through the University of Nebraska Medical Center budget. Senators gave it first-round approval on a vote of 32-11.
Tuesday afternoon, senators debated a proposal that would exempt the state’s nationally-accredited zoos in Omaha, Lincoln, and Scottsbluff from paying sales taxes on memberships, admissions, and purchases other than concessions.
Omaha Sen. Health Mello said the bill, LB419, would be helpful to that city’s Henry Doorly Zoo, rated by the website Tripadvisor as the best zoo in the world. “LB419 will allow our state’s top tourist attraction to reinvest in its facilities and programming, assisting them in holding onto that number one ranking. This is an unprecedented opportunity for our state to seize the moment and make Nebraska known throughout the world as a premier tourist destination. Now is a perfect time to form a public-private partnership with Nebraska’s most global recognizable institution,” he said.
Opponents said the zoo was obviously doing alright without the tax break, which would cost the state an estimated $2.5 million over the next two years. And North Platte Sen. Mike Groene objected to singling out one group for tax breaks. “We’ve got to stop this dividing and conquering – little bit of a tax break here, little bit there, then Mike Groene and his friends are standing here paying all the taxes. That’s gotta stop,” he said. “Working people out there don’t have the lobbyist to come in here and ask you for tax breaks. But when you give $2.5 million away here, somebody else has to make it up.”
Senators voted 33-5 to give the bill first round approval.
They also voted final approval for a number of bills. Among them was one by Groene that would remove a ban on paying people who collect signatures on initiative petitions according to the number of signatures they collect. The bill was passed in response to concerns the practice gave people incentives to fake signatures.
Groene has argued repealing it will make it easier to collect signatures without having to hire petition circulating companies. Senators gave the bill final approval on a vote of 42-0.
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