A handful of senators will introduce several bills designed to encourage more families to contribute to a 529 college savings plan administered by the Nebraska Educational Savings Trust.

On Thursday, state Treasurer John Murante, who serves as trustee for the account, said the proposals will "dramatically increase access and awareness to Nebraska's college savings program.

"It is our office's goal for every kid in the state of Nebraska to be able to graduate from a two- or four-year college debt-free and that they do that through savings and investment," Murante said.

Toward that goal:

* Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn will introduce the Meadowlark Scholarship Act, which will open a 529 account for every child in the state of Nebraska and deposit $100 in those accounts.

The $100 deposit designed to kick-start a child's college savings won't come from state funds. Linehan's bill would instead allow the state treasurer to solicit for philanthropic support to create a cash fund for that purpose.

Linehan said expanding Nebraska's 529 college savings program creates opportunity for all the state's youth to obtain higher education.

"This simple act of opening an account tells that child, 'You can have the future you want, there is hope,'" Linehan said. "There is little that is more important in our lives than having hope for the future."

* Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart plans to introduce the College Savings Matching Grant Program that would provide families living between 200 and 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines a dollar-for-dollar match to their 529 account.

Children from families living below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines would receive a 2-to-1 match for every dollar contributed to their 529 college savings account.

Wishart said the plans have bipartisan backing in the Legislature.

Murante said Wishart's bill also applies to adults who open a 529 account for the purpose of earning a college degree in order to address the state's shortage of highly trained workers.

"What Senator Wishart's bill proposes to do is increase awareness and to increase the ability of folks of any age to get re-educated in the trades and to do the jobs that need to be filled in the state of Nebraska," he said.

* Sen. Andrew La Grone of Gretna will propose a bill extending the income tax deduction for contributing parents to "anyone who contributes to a 529 account."

La Grone's bill would also remove the $10,000 cap on contributions to the state-run college savings program.

He said the proposed legislation "will get the government out of the way of parents who just want to invest in their kids' education, and also allow aunts, uncles and extended family members to get that same benefit."

* Omaha Sen. Brett Lindstrom will introduce the College Savings Tax Credit Act to encourage employers to create college savings benefits for their employees and their families. It would give employers a 25 percent tax credit of what they contribute to an employee up to $2,000.

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* Sen. Justin Wayne, also of Omaha, plans to sponsor a bill creating an income tax exemption for employers who contribute to an employee's 529 account. It would also ensure that any state income tax refund could be directly deposited into a 529 account.

"We believe this will make Nebraska the nationwide leader in college savings," Murante said.

The Nebraska Educational Savings Trust administers approximately 275,000 college savings plans, the majority of which are held by people living outside of the state. The average savings is roughly $13,000, according to the state treasurer's office.

Also on Thursday, new bills were proposed as part of the seventh day of bill introduction:

Motorcycle helmets

Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair proposed the latest version (LB383) of perennial legislation to remove the requirement for adult Nebraskans to wear motorcycle helmets. Hansen's bill would exempt motorcyclists from wearing a protective helmet if they are 21 or older.

Minimum wage increase

Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island introduced a measure (LB383) that would require an annual adjustment in the state minimum wage, which is $9 per hour. Beginning in 2020, the minimum wage would be adjusted to reflect the average annual percentage change in the consumer price index for the most recent five-year period.

Tip wage increase

Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt introduced a bill (LB400) to increase the "tip wage" for Nebraskans who work at jobs like restaurant service to 50 percent of the state minimum wage.

The proposal would increase the wage to $3.60 per hour in 2020 and then to $4.50 an hour in 2021. The tip wage in Nebraska has been $2.13 an hour since 1991.

19-year-old senators

Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln introduced a proposed constitutional amendment (LR11CA) to reduce the age of eligibility to serve in the Legislature from 21 to 19. That proposal would require 30 legislative votes to reach the ballot for consideration by Nebraska voters.

Immigration enforcement notification

A proposal (LB369) by Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha would require jails, law enforcement agencies and the Nebraska State Patrol to provide public notice before entering into any agreements to enforce federal immigration laws. Under terms of the bill, that would include any agreement to "investigate, interrogate, detain, detect or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes."

Americanism in schools

Sen. Julie Slama reintroduced a bill (LB399) requiring the state's eighth- and 11th-graders to take the civics test given to future naturalized citizens by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


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