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The One Hundred Fourth Legislature, First Session, has adjourned. I would describe this session as “different”. Although the Legislature is officially non-partisan, typically senators of one party are somewhat aligned. In the past, rural senators tend to stick together on issues. This year saw division within groups that historically band together. Because of this, there were many surprises. Conservative senators supported a gas tax increase and the repeal of the death penalty. Several issues supported by major farm organizations were either blocked or weakened.
The biennial budget, which is the primary task of the Legislature, did see unified support. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I was happy to see funding for faculty salary enhancements at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis. I have previously mentioned the budget limited the growth in spending to a historical low increase and contains an additional $64 million annually for the Property Tax Credit program.
LB 643 proposed to allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Since this was the first time such legislation has been introduced in Nebraska, I was surprised that it was advanced from the Judiciary Committee and given first-round approval by the Legislature. Earlier this week, the sponsor of LB 643, Senator Tommy Garrett, asked to bracket the bill after realizing he didn’t have sufficient support for passage. There were many unanswered questions on this issue, such as how the manufacturer would obtain the medical cannabis and how the Department of Health and Human Services would determine a range of recommended dosages for each qualifying medical condition. Senator Garrett referred to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic on recommended dosages for certain conditions, however their website states that there is no proven safe or effective dose for marijuana in children under 18 years of age. Senator Garrett had made it known that he introduced this bill due to the pleas from mothers of children with epilepsy. A more limited version was passed in LB 390, which created a pilot study at UNMC to allow access to low-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) oil for patients who suffer from intractable epilepsy.
Prison reform legislation was passed in an effort to reduce overcrowding and limit recidivism within the correctional system. The legislation gives preference to alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes, requires post-release supervision plans for offenders released on probation, establishes the Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System in order to improve oversight of the department, requires a plan to reduce the use of segregation, and seeks to ensure adequate mental health care is provided to mentally ill inmates.
The death penalty has been repealed. Governor Ricketts vetoed the bill to repeal the death penalty but senators overrode his veto with just the required number of votes. I was saddened to see this happen, as I feel that the death penalty serves as a necessary tool in protecting the safety of the citizens of Nebraska. The very day the death penalty was repealed, an organization called Nebraskans for Justice was formed. This organization will explore the possibility of a citizen-driven ballot initiative to give Nebraska citizens the option of reinstating the death penalty.
Other legislation that passed will give nurse practitioners more independence, strengthen the Commercial Dog and Cat Operator Inspection Act, grant personal property tax relief, allow young immigrants participating in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to qualify for driver’s licenses, and adopt the Nebraska Agritourism Promotion Act, which encourages landowners to grant access to their farm and ranch land for recreation and tourism activities by reducing the risk of liability. Some major issues that failed to gain passage included legislation to expand Medicaid, repeal the motorcycle helmet law, lower the valuation of agricultural land, allow for a lower minimum wage for students, change habitual criminal provisions, and prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.
This past week, I met with the executive director of the Nebraska Community College Association regarding the need for Southeast Community College to provide additional services to students living in the far southeast corner of our state. I also met with the Ombudsman and several employees about staffing issues at TSCI.
I introduced a legislative resolution recognizing the contributions and service of Rodney Vandeberg and extending sympathy to his family. Rod was a tireless promoter of the Falls City area, serving as mayor and on numerous boards. He also represented District #1 on the Nebraska Highway Commission and was a key player in the launching of the Rulo bridge project.
With the completion of the legislative session, I will no longer be at the State Capitol daily and will spend most of my time back at my farm near Syracuse. However, I will be at the capitol on a weekly basis and if you cannot reach me, my staff will be able to assist you. I will be available to attend local events and encourage your invitations.
If you need information on legislation passed or on any issue pertaining to state government, I encourage you to contact my office. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This past week, senators gave first-round approval to LB 268, which would change the maximum penalty for first-degree murder in Nebraska from death to life imprisonment. This year, a dozen senators have signed on as co-sponsors to the bill annually introduced by Senator Ernie Chambers. Senators voted 30-13 to advance LB 268, which is the number of votes necessary to override the Governor’s promised veto. I voted against the advancement of the bill because I am still in favor of the death penalty.
The Legislature gave LB 610 second-round approval this past week. LB 610 proposes to increase the gas tax by six cents over a four-year period. Twenty-seven senators voted in support of the advancement of the bill to Final Reading, fourteen senators voted against its advancement, while eight senators did not vote. Although the bill had sufficient votes to advance, it may not have enough votes if a filibuster is attempted on final reading or to override an expected veto by the Governor.
Three bills dealing with prison reform were given first-round approval this past week, but not without a pledge to work with state and county prosecutors. Concerns from prosecutors focus on such issues as indeterminate sentencing, minimum sentences, habitual criminal statutes, and presumption of probation.
LB 605, the principal bill in the prison reform package, seeks to ease prison overcrowding and to hold offenders accountable with supervision and treatment. Our state’s prisons are currently at 159% of their design capacity. The legislation would use probation to hold people convicted of low-level offenses accountable, require misdemeanor sentences to be served in jail rather than prison, and update Nebraska’s property offense penalties to account for inflation. If the policy framework contained in LB 605 that structures certain felony sentences to be followed by post-release supervision is implemented effectively, it is projected to substantially reduce the number of inmates that jam-out of prison (released without any supervision). LB 605 also seeks to improve parole supervision through the adoption of a risk assessment tool and other evidence-based practices and would respond to major parole violations with short periods of incarceration followed by supervision.
The policy framework contained in LB 605 resulted from the work of the Nebraska’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which included the leaders of the three branches of government, district court judges, county and defense attorneys, and law enforcement executives. The group worked closely with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has helped a number of states reduce spending on corrections through lower-cost alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, such as probation, drug courts and parole, and greater focus on rehabilitation and mental health treatment for violent offenders.
LB 598 is aimed at reducing the use of segregation and improving treatment for mentally ill inmates. It would also create an Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System. This bill was prioritized by the Performance Audit Committee, which I chair.
The last bill in the prison reform package, LB 173, dealt with habitual criminals and mandatory minimum sentences. This bill proposes to remove mandatory minimum sentences for several felonies and restricts the use of enhanced penalties for being a habitual criminal to violent crimes only. Currently, any three felonies, either violent or not, can be used in determining longer sentencing. Proponents of the bill state that mandatory sentences have failed to deter crime and can act as a disincentive for inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs. Opponents pointed out that this bill went further than what was recommended by the CSG Justice Center. The Nebraska Attorney General held a press conference to voice his concern that the legislation ignores the seriousness of several violent crimes, which could jeopardize public safety.
The prison reform bills have been introduced in an effort to relieve the overcrowding at our state prisons without having to spend millions of dollars on a new prison facility. Before the second round of debate, senators will work with the state attorney general’s office and county attorneys in an effort to reach a compromise on measures to reduce overcrowding without jeopardizing the safety of Nebraska’s residents.
If you have any comments on the prison reform measures or other issues before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me. 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.