Students interested in entering a trade, babies born with congenital heart defects and terminated employees trying to recover their final paychecks have a friend in Papillion’s man in Lincoln.
Those are among three bills state Sen. Jim Smith will attempt to usher into law during the new legislative session that began Jan. 9.
Among other issues, Smith said he will take on the 3-year-old Learning Community, which he believes should be abolished. He is considering a bill that would force business owners to ensure their employees are legally entitled to work, and he wants to remove a $5 fee for issuing Purple Heart license plates as well as to control the activities of transient businesses buying and selling gold.
Smith said a Papillion mother whose child endured several heart surgeries after being born with a congenital heart defect inspired him to write a bill that would mandate heart tests for all babies born in Nebraska.
The bill, known as the Critical Congenital Heart Disease Bill, would mandate a test to measure a newborn’s oxygen rate. The cost of the test is expected to be about $100.
Three percent of the state’s newborns are typically found to have some kind of heart defect, Smith said, and early intervention would reduce the cost of corrective surgery.
“We haven’t had any real strong opposition to this,” he said. “With the emphasis on reducing health care costs and proving a higher quality of child care, I think it should pass.”
Smith said he intends to address a growing shortage of people skilled in the trades.
“The problem is that our school systems are just not turning them out,” he said. “It’s almost like a cookie-cutter program where everyone has to follow a college-based program.”
He said he will seek to amend the state’s College Early Access Program, which provides funding for high school students to take college credit classes.
Smith wants 25 percent of the funding for the program to pay for students to develop technical skills.
He said he sees the shortage in his own business, Norm’s Door Service of Ralston.
“We have folks doing a lot of steel work, metal fabrication, carpentry, welding, and we have really hard time finding people with those skill sets,” he said.
He said the state should not overlook the importance of a skilled workforce in attracting employers.
“We’re always talking about providing tax incentives,” he said. “Well, I’m here to tell you that companies also look for a workforce that is capable and competent. We could outmaneuver other states if we could get ahead of this.”
Other issues targeted by Smith include:
Ÿ Authorizing the Nebraska Department of Labor to impose a fine of $1,000 per violation on employers who do not issue final paychecks to terminated employees in a timely manner.
“As an employer I don’t like the Department of Labor messing with me, but if I owe an employee compensation, then I owe the employee compensation,” he said. “We need to look out for the interests of the employee, and sometimes we have to use a stick.”
Ÿ Raising the fee for vanity license plates from $40 to $40.50.
The increase would allow the state to remove a $5 fee for issuing Purple Heart recipient plates while continuing to drop $60,000 a year into the Veterans Cemetery Operation Fund.
Ÿ Considering requiring employers to use the e-Verify system to ensure that workers are legally entitled to work in the United States. The penalty for non-compliance would be the loss of an employer identification number, without which a business cannot function.
“It’s a constructive approach to the whole issue of undocumented employment,” he said. “There might be some businesses that won’t necessarily like it, but it’s constructive.”
Ÿ Requiring buyers and sellers of gold to have a permanent office in the state.
“This would prevent someone from setting up shop in a hotel room for a few days and then leaving town,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid the transient nature of some of these businesses.”
Ÿ Joining with other senators to reform, or outright abolish, the Learning Community, which oversees the budgets and affairs of metro-area school districts.
“I don’t see that we have had a good return,” he said. “I just don’t see the results, and many schools officials agree with me.”
Smith is a member of the Natural Resources and Transportation and Telecommunications committees.
He is beginning his second term as a state senator. That means he is ineligible under term limits laws to seek a third term in 2016.