LINCOLN — A group of education leaders and state senators called Monday for Nebraska to make education a priority for state funding, despite the state’s difficult budget situation.

The group unveiled a suite of bills aimed at boosting support for public schools, easing property taxes and better serving Nebraska students.

Ann Hunter-Pirtle, executive director for Stand for Schools, a public school advocacy group, said the package responds to the challenges facing public schools, including an increase of students in poverty.

“We have growing needs, shrinking budgets and an overreliance on local property taxes,” she said. “That exacerbates inequality, overburdens taxpayers and hurts our most vulnerable kids.”

State Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha introduced three parts of the package on Monday:

» Legislative Bill 876 would boost state special education funding by 67 percent over the $224 million allocated this year.

State special education funding currently covers about 48 percent of the extra cost of teaching such students, according to Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association. Federal funds cover an additional 14 percent of the extra cost.

» Legislative Resolution 270CA, a proposed constitutional amendment, would require the state to offer free education starting at age 3. The Nebraska Constitution now requires free education for students ages 5 through 21.

» LB 877 would increase state aid to schools for early childhood education. The proposal would provide about 66 percent more aid per child.

Other proposals would fund programs that train students to enter the workforce, make school breakfasts and lunches free for more students, and make it easier for school districts to fund after-school programs.

Sen. Lynn Walz of Fremont said she plans to introduce a bill that would put a social worker in every regional educational service unit. The social workers could help find services for students with mental and behavioral health issues.

Among other legislative action on Monday:

» Rules. With less than an hour of debate, Nebraska lawmakers adopted rules for the session. Last year state senators fought over the rules for the better part of 30 legislative days. At issue last year were proposals making it easier to end a filibuster. In the end, lawmakers made no changes.

» Protecting animals. Two animal-protection bills that have been gaining traction nationally were introduced. LB 892, introduced by Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, would make it illegal to leave animals tied up outside without shelter during severe weather, including tornado warnings. The bill also would apply during natural or man-made disasters.

LB 893, introduced by Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, would bar pet shops from selling dogs and cats from breeders. The bill would allow shops to sell animals from shelters or rescue groups.

» Jailhouse informants. LB 878, introduced by Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, would require prosecutors to disclose to the defense information about the credibility of any jailhouse informants they intend to use at trial. And defendants can request a pretrial hearing about the informant’s likely testimony, which the court could rule may not be admitted.

» Reporting child abuse. Two bills were introduced to require public schools to post the state’s toll-free number for reporting child abuse and neglect. The hotline is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services. LB 888 is sponsored by Sen. Justin Wayne, while LB 912 was introduced by Sen. John McCollister. Both senators are from Omaha.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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