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The Legislature advanced seven bills to final reading that make up the $8.6 billion, two-year budget. 

The budget recommendation set spending growth at a lower-than-average 3.1 percent. But that spending is expected to grow by the end of the session as more bills that require spending are passed. 

One amendment that drew a chunk of time in the debate -- and was not adopted -- was a proposal by Education Committee Chairman Kate Sullivan to redirect to special education $500,000 each year of the two-year budget from the master teacher certification program, put into law in 2000 but never funded. 

While Sullivan said she supports finding ways to recognize and reward good teachers, special education funding is a challenge every school district has to address. The proposed 5 percent increase each year for special education was reduced in this budget to a 2.5 percent increase each year. 

The state special education reimbursement to districts is down to about 52 percent, from 90 percent in the late 1990s, she said. But costs are increasing in caring for children with special needs. 

She said she didn't know why the master teacher program was identified as a priority. But the needs of special education are a priority. 

Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk said the master teacher program affects too few teachers. More would benefit from getting more education, particularly in their areas of expertise.

Sen. Mike Groene also questioned the funding. 

"That teacher that's got that piece of paper is a great teacher in the first place. They love what they do. They have a work ethic," he said. "Does that piece of paper make them better? Probably not." 

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz defended the funding for the master teacher program, which would benefit student outcomes, educational quality and students with learning challenges, she said.

"I would argue that we need to take action to incentivize good teachers to keep teaching in our Nebraska classrooms and to help them use their skills and their gifts in a way that really makes sense," Bolz said.

Also during the debate on budget bills, several senators still had concerns about a controversial contract included in one of the bills that would contribute state money to the Creighton University dental school, even after Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha worked out a compromise with senators on the bill (LB661). 

Omaha Sen. Tanya Cook continued to oppose giving public money to a private ecumenical university in the heart of north Omaha. 

"It's almost as though you're supposed to sit down (and) be grateful we're helping your people. They're the underserved," she said. "No conversation to the fact of why they're historically underserved, or why the area is segregated and the degree to which that institution may or may not have contributed ... to those pathologies." 

The contract, to be administered by the Post Secondary Coordinating Commission, would make available a total of $8 million for workforce development for dental workers. Originally, Creighton University, a private college in Omaha, was to receive the contract for training, dental services and equipment. Some senators wanted the contract opened to the University of Nebraska College of Dentistry, too.

The compromise would open the applications to both schools. It would require the successful applicant or applicants to provide dental services for a minimum of 10 years to underserved communities. And the applicant must provide oral health training at a reduced fee to students in dental education programs who agree to practice dentistry a minimum of five years in a dental profession shortage area.

Applicants must also get matching funds from other sources in a four-to-one ratio with the distributed funds.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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