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The budget bills were given second-round and final approval this past week. Governor Ricketts now has 5 days (excluding Sunday) to decide whether he’ll use his line-item veto authority to strike specific budget appropriations from the package. His vetoes are due to the Legislature by midnight on Wednesday, March 30. The budget passed by the Legislature did not differ markedly from what the governor recommended.
My priority bill, LB 744, received first-round approval this past week on a 42-0 vote. Under LB 744, open adoptions would be recognized in state statute, allowing for future communication or contact between birth parents and adoptive parents in private and agency adoptions. However, the law would make it clear that the failure to comply with such an agreement would not affect the validity of the adoption. A recent Nebraska Supreme Court decision stated that until the Legislature acts to approve of these open adoption arrangements in a private adoption context, they will not recognize them and will instead continue to hold that relinquishments signed with the promise of such an open adoption are invalid.
In order to help the birth mother as she makes this important decision, I offered an amendment to require independent legal counsel for the relinquishing parents from that of the adoptive parents, at the adoptive parents’ expense. The amendment also requires that free counseling be offered to the birth parents.
Due to this lawsuit, agencies and private attorneys may have advised against any type of open adoption because even the existence of a communication and contact agreement could prove problematic in the view of the court. LB 744 will allow open adoptions to continue in Nebraska and will assure the permanency of the adoption process.
LB 886, a bill that I co-sponsored with Senator Al Davis of Hyannis, has received initial approval from the Legislature. The legislation would provide a refundable income tax credit of $250 for volunteer emergency responders who meet certain criteria. The intent behind the bill is to recognize volunteers for the important service they provide to their local communities. It stemmed from an interim study that I introduced last year, which among other things, looked at incentives for recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters, emergency responders and rescue squad members in our rural communities.
LB 1038, another bill given first-round approval, contains the language needed to implement the Niobrara River Memorandum of Understanding between the Nebraska Public Power District, the Niobrara NRDs and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. I have been involved in meetings preparing for this important legislation. After many years of legal battles and negotiation, these three political subdivisions reached an agreement on the transfer of the controlling water rights to the Niobrara River. The agreement will allow the NRDs and the Game and Parks Commission to jointly purchase and hold the water rights from the Spencer Hydroelectric generation facility and convert the rights to provide a protected instream flow for the Niobrara River. The agreement protects all existing uses of domestic, livestock, municipal, surface water irrigation and groundwater irrigation.
The Speaker of the Legislature informed senators that 33 priority bills are on General File (first stage of debate) and 15 priority bills are on Select File (second stage of debate), verifying that we have a great deal of work to do in our last 11 days of this session. We will be working into the evening on most days.
As we debate the final priority bills before us, I encourage you to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty this past week. LB 268 was passed by the Legislature on a 32-15 vote.
Governor Ricketts issued a statement prior to the final vote, urging senators to listen to their constituents and keep Nebraska among the 32 states that have a death penalty. In his extensive travels across the state, the governor said he found overwhelming support for keeping the death penalty in Nebraska. He said that a vote to repeal the death penalty will give our state’s most heinous criminals more lenient sentences.
The governor has indicated that he will veto LB 268. If so, I would predict that Senator Chambers will file a motion to override his veto, which will likely be taken up by the Legislature next week. Thirty votes are necessary to override a veto.
The recent incident at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution emphasizes the need for the death penalty. If the death penalty is repealed, it can no longer be used as a deterrent for inmates serving life sentences, which could impact the safety of staff.
Opponents of the death penalty pointed to the high costs associated with carrying it out. They also cited religious reasons for not taking a life, the possibility of wrongful convictions, and the emotional turmoil it places on the victim’s family.
The State of Nebraska has officially administered the death penalty since 1901, when executions were moved from individual counties to the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The method of execution at that time was hanging. In 1913, Nebraska’s execution method changed to the electric chair. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman V. Georgia that the arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violated the U.S. Constitution and constituted cruel and unusual punishment, resulting in a national moratorium. Nebraska and other states enacted new legislation seeking to overcome the constitutional defects and in 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the revised death penalty statutes. In 2009, the Legislature changed the method of execution to lethal injection, after the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the sole use of the electric chair violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The State of Nebraska has carried out 23 executions, 8 by hanging and 15 by means of the electric chair, with the last occurring in 1997. Eleven men are currently on death row.
Senator Chambers has been attempting to repeal the death penalty for forty years. In 1979, the Legislature passed such legislation, but former Governor Charles Thone vetoed the bill.
The Governor signed the budget bills without a single line-item veto. Governor Ricketts said that he did not veto anything from the budget as it slowed the growth in government spending and it offered property tax relief, which were his two top priorities.
Within the budget are several items that I instigated and am appreciative of the approval from my fellow senators and the governor. Several water projects, initiated through the Nebraska Resources Development Fund (RDF) to help protect our state’s natural resources, while also producing notable recreation and economic benefits for the state, were never fully funded. The RDF was phased out with the passage of legislation in 2014 that created the Water Sustainability Fund. In fulfilling the state’s obligation, these projects will now be fully funded through a combination of General Funds and funding from the new Water Sustainability Fund.
Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteers are trained citizens who are appointed by a judge to speak in court for the safety and well-being of abused and neglected children. There are 22 CASA programs serving 38 counties in Nebraska. It has been shown that children with a CASA volunteer are more likely to find safe, permanent homes, are more likely to be adopted, are half as likely to re-enter foster care and are substantially less likely to spend time in long-term foster care. I was able to obtain a stable source of state funding for this program.
I introduced legislation to increase the funding for the Property Tax Credit program by $60 million annually. The Governor also included this increase in his budget proposal. The final biennial budget contains an additional $64 million annually in direct property tax relief for taxpayers, which is shown as a credit on annual tax statements.
Along with a dozen other senators, I visited the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution this past Sunday. We wanted to show our support for the staff at TSCI and commend them for their dedicated service during the recent riot at the facility. I also joined Governor Ricketts and Scott Frakes, the director of the Department of Corrections, as they toured the facility mid-week. The Governor has pledged to seek solutions to staffing problems at TSCI, including high turnover and job vacancy rates, stagnant salaries and mandatory overtime.
As we enter our last days of this legislative session, I encourage you to continue to contact me with your thoughts and opinions. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is email@example.com and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.