Referendum On Tax Credits For Donations To Private School Scholarships Remains On Ballot


Bob Evnen

     Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen says a referendum to repeal a law allowing dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations to groups giving scholarships for private and religious schools will stay on the November ballot. 

     A petition drive put the issue on the ballot, but Revenue Committee Chair Senator Lou Ann Linehan asked Evnen to pull it – arguing that it’s unconstitutional because it interferes with the Legislature’s ability to tax. 

     In denying Linehan’s request, Evnen cited legal advice from Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers and 2 previous decisions by the Nebraska Supreme Court in concluding the referendum will remain on the ballot unless he is ordered to do otherwise by a judge.

        Linehan, one of the leading supporters of the scholarship program, blasted Hilgers and his opinion – telling the Nebraska Examiner that Hilgers “has decided he’s going to make up the law (when) the court’s the law.”

       Hilgers came under sharp criticism earlier this year over an opinion that the legislature exceeded its authority in creating inspectors-general for prison and child welfare – leading to proposals to limit his ability to issue such opinions.

        Linehan offered a not-to-thinly-veiled threat along the same line, saying she hopes the Legislature decides to make a point to the attorney general to let him know he doesn’t get to make the law, they do.

Opponents of the law turned in petitions last fall containing an estimated 117,000 signatures, nearly double the 61,308 valid signatures required to place the referendum on the ballot.

By law, the Secretary of State’s Office is allowed to quit counting when it reaches 110% of that requirement and Evnen did just that when the total of valid signatures reached 91,861.

The petition drive was also required to have the valid signatures of more than 5% of registered voters in 38 counties, but easily topped that in 64 of the state’s 93 counties.

    Public school advocates argue that the tax credit-funded scholarship program is a first step toward a broader voucher program that would divert public funds for use by private schools and could limit how much funding is available for public schools. 

    Many others say the program gets preferential treatment for its donations compared to all other charitable donations in Nebraska by providing a dollar-for-dollar reduction in income taxes owed up to half the amount.

     They point out that a $10,000 private school scholarship donation by someone owing $20,000 would bring them the full $10,000 in tax savings while a similar donation to a group such as the Chadron Public Schools Foundation would yield at $625 tax credit.