The One Hundred Fourth Legislature, First Session, completed work today, one day short of the allowed 90 days. For new and experienced senators and staff, it was historical and controversial.
There will be few readers of this column who are not aware of LB 268, to replace death penalty provisions with a life sentence.
I voted to advance LB 268 through three rounds of debate. A fourth vote was required to override Governor Rickett’s veto. My earlier thoughts on this issue are part of this column, printed April 17th, 2015.
My resolve to vote with the majority of the body was sorely tested as the day became a reality. My staff, along with all others in the building, had their hands full trying to keep track of the numerous emails and phone calls as well as personal visits to the office. The attorney general and the governor both came to my office. They pled for four more years to make the death penalty work.
I had to weigh my constituents’ wishes with facts about the efficacy of the death penalty as it was or was not being administered in Nebraska. The last use of the death penalty, by electrocution, was 1997. Eleven men remained on death row, with one dying last weekend. Those ten will now, according to prison officials, be returned to non-segregated housing in the prison system. What will happen to their sentences remains in the legal system.
My commitment to repealing the death penalty still stems from basic facts contained in these two articles:
Some have said repealing the death penalty makes Nebraska soft on crime. A retired Lincoln police captain is quoted as saying, “it means we are smart on crime.” He also said we should invest the money wasted on the death penalty in tools our law enforcement officers really need.
The vote was not Republican, Democrat, conservative, or liberal. It was a vote to do the right thing. The repeal has been introduced since 1973. There may not be another chance. I stand by my vote.
The death penalty is a rarely used punishment we reserve for the most heinous of crimes. One hundred and forty countries around the world have banned it. The United States is only one of 58 countries that still permits its use.
Growing up on a farm in Northeast Nebraska, the only time I recall ever locking our doors was when Charles Starkweather was on his rampage. My parents didn’t even want us walking the two miles home from school now that was serious. I remember feeling relieved when he was arrested. He was electrocuted soon after. That was my first recollection of talking about capital punishment. Should he be sent to the electric chair? It created great debate on street corners, school, and church.
Over the years I have never thought much about the death penalty, except when it is debated at church or around the family table. My stand has been that we should keep it for the most heinous of crimes or for killing law enforcement officers. My denomination, Presbyterian, has called for the elimination of the death penalty long ago.
During my campaign only a few people asked my position on capital punishment and I answered – only for the most heinous crimes. In an interview with KETV, I was taken by surprise that it was one of the questions they asked me since it had not been an issue during the campaign.
Last summer, a representative of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty called and asked if I would meet with her. I had already made up my mind on how I felt about the death penalty, but agreed to meet with her. She shared a touching personal story and then added a few facts I didn’t know. It isn’t a deterrent and because of all the appeals process, it costs more to put someone to death than to keep them in prison for the rest of their lives with no chance of parole. As a result, people who commit crimes in larger counties are more likely to be executed than people from smaller counties. Additionally, with DNA evidence, some people have been exonerated from death row. I remember leaving that meeting thinking I need to study my position more.
Over the last months, I have visited with families of victims, some which still believe the perpetrators should be executed, but others have told me they didn’t want the death penalty for the perpetrators. They didn’t want to re-live the experience during the countless appeals processes. They wanted closure in a different way.
Whenever I met with members of law enforcement or the legal system, I would ask them about the death penalty. Their responses have been – we “need” the death penalty for plea bargaining. “Don’t take it away.”
As a member of the Appropriations committee, I have been able to tour some of our correctional facilities.
When I have met with constituents, friends, and others I have been asking them about the death penalty as well. I have been surprised by how many people say we should repeal it!
The turning point in my decision began April 1, during a personal conversation in my office with Ray Krone. Ray had been falsely accused and convicted of murder in Arizona in the 90’s and was given the death sentence. Ray had been at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was near an area where a woman had been raped and murdered. He had no resources so was defended by a public defender, and some false evidence was utilized to convict him. Several years later, his family scrapped together enough money and Ray won a new trial on appeal. The judge in the second trial believed there was not enough evidence to overturn the conviction. In 2001, when DNA could be used for back cases, DNA from that case proved Ray was not guilty and matched that of another man in the vicinity of the crime the same day. Ray was finally a free man after 10 plus years in prison. Ray was the 100th person exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence, which indicated to me our judicial system doesn’t always get it right. There have now been more than 150 people exonerated from death row. To me, this is 150 innocent lives that would have been unjustly ended.
One of the questions I asked Ray, “Obviously, you knew you were innocent, but having been in prison over 10 years, if you had been guilty what would you prefer, the death penalty or life in prison without parole?” Without a second’s hesitation, he said the death penalty. Here was a man who had lived in prison, saying he would rather be put death than face life in prison without parole.
Earlier this week I told my staff, unless I hear some concrete reasons during floor debate that we should keep the death penalty, I am going to vote for the repeal.
Today, several senators described some horrific Nebraska crimes. Absolutely awful! If they weren’t heinous, nothing is. The “fear” or deterrent of the death penalty did not prevent these crimes from happening.
After telling my decision to a few colleagues and staff, I saw the result of a poll done in March of this year (referred to in Thursday’s edition of the World Herald). The question asked: Do you support or oppose replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life in prison with absolutely NO possibility of parole?” The results from my District 4 constituents show 58% support, 27% oppose, and 15% are unsure to repealing and replacing the death penalty. I was pleased to learn that most of the residents in my district have come to same conclusion.
This morning, I voted along with 29 of my colleagues to advance the bill that would change a penalty from death to life imprisonment without parole. This was only a first round vote. We have two more rounds and possibly a veto override vote to come.
As debate on this solemn issue moves forward, I will continue to listen and learn from people on both sides of the issue. Should there be something compelling enough to convince me to change my vote, I will. For today, I am confident that I voted the right way.
The session is over two-thirds done on this 63rd working day. We will soon begin evening debate as bills concerning the budget, the death penalty, minimum wage, prison reform and others remain on the agenda.
Last week was a surprisingly quick end to LB 472, the Medicaid Redesign Act. A committee amendment failed to pass on a vote of 22-24, signaling the intentions of the body. The bill was postponed on a bracket motion, essentially killing it for this year.
I can argue this issue from both sides. As a medical provider, I never turned anyone away due to their ability to pay. After spending some time researching the issue to make my decision more clear, I found there are more people who enroll in Medicaid than are projected in states that have adopted the program.
Two problems I have with expanded Medicaid are availability of providers and increasing state funds needed to make up differences in payments to providers. The bottom line is: Nebraska Medicaid spending is increasing at an unsustainable rate. We need to rein in the present system before expanding into a program that delivers even more generous benefits to more people.
The past week was a first for me as I led a filibuster against LB 31, the bill to repeal the motorcycle helmet law. The discussion took 8 hours before a cloture vote was taken to end debate. The rules state that cloture requires 33 votes. The vote was 24-18, and 4 not voting.
As I stated many times during the debate, freedom comes with responsibilities. Nebraskans are still free to ride motorcycles, but not without helmets. The medical costs to society are no match for that freedom. The bill has been introduced several times and has never been successful.
The legislature started all day debate this week after completing afternoon committee hearings. The Appropriations Committee will continue to meet after adjournment to finalize the required state budget.
We have reached the halfway point of this session. I am fascinated by our process and am so pleased to be here. In the Appropriations Committee we are in the process of hearing from agencies and bills asking for money. I am astonished by the number of requests. Many are deserving of support but there is only so much money available.
Our big job will begin soon as we sort through all the requests. We will make tough decisions of which to fund and which will go no further.
As to floor debate, I have learned one big lesson: it is easier to pass a law than to change or repeal one. We need to be certain any law we pass is one we can live with “forever.”
Thank you for giving me the privilege of serving you. Everyone, have a great St. Patrick’s Day!
On this 45th working day, we are at the half way mark of my first legislative session. Several committees have completed afternoon public hearings. Appropriations, on which I serve, is still hearing requests from agencies and special interest groups.
Bills designated individual, committee, and speaker priorities go ahead of others when the agenda is compiled. LB 452, which I introduced on behalf of the Nebraska Medical Association, would create a baseline by which all health occupations and professions can follow as a guide in their health care advertisements. That bill was selected as a speaker priority.
LB 156, a bill introduced by Senator John Stinner of Gering, is my personal priority bill for this session. The bill would increase the aggregate amount of refundable tax credits for “Angel Investors.” This bill is to stimulate state economic development and create more jobs for Nebraskans.
The Speaker allowed one morning this week for committees to meet in “Executive Session,” which is a private meeting to determine which bills to advance for debate. A majority vote is required to forward a bill to the entire legislature.
I was disappointed that the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee deadlocked at 4-4 on sending LB 373, which I introduced, to the floor. The bill would require school buses manufactured after 2016 to have shoulder-lap belts for all passengers. Students would be required to have training and wear the belts. I was planning to designate LB 373 as my priority bill for this session. Priority bills are guaranteed debate before the end of the session. I will be studying other issues to use as my priority for this year.
A bill with much discussion this past week was LB 366, to increase for Medicaid eligible aged, blind, and disabled persons, who reside in an alternative living arrangements, the personal needs allowance from $50 to $75. I supported this bill, which was amended and moved to second round debate with a $10 increase, to $60 per month.
The past two weeks have been busy with hearings and floor debate. I introduced two major bills and also voted on two bills introduced by others.
LB 373, to mandate seat belts on school buses manufactured after 2016, was introduced February 23 in front of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. I had a school bus seat with three belts in the rotunda and it is now on display in my office.
LB 532, to fund a virtual medical learning center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, was introduced yesterday in front of the Appropriations Committee. I was happy to carry this bill, which would put Nebraska at the forefront of medical education and research.
LB 77, a bill to expand women’s health services, failed to advance from General File. I had many emails concerning this bill. In the end, I voted against the bill for the following reasons:
1. The Every Woman Matters Program remains in place.
2. The expanded services the bill would have provided are already available to people of all income levels by federally funded private agencies.
3. My vote was not against women’s health. It was a vote against our tax dollars paying for expanded services.
This week, on March 2nd, the use of cloture advanced LB 10 from General File. A cloture motion is allowed after eight hours of floor debate on one bill. The motion requires 33 votes. If the votes are obtained, there is a vote on the bill, which requires 25 to advance. If 33 votes are not obtained, the bill is done for the session. I voted for cloture and the bill.
LB 10, called the “Winner Take All” bill, would change the way the state’s electoral votes are designated. Frankly, I like the way Nebraska and Maine count their votes. When Nebraska first passed this issue in 1991, there was hope that other states would follow Nebraska’s lead.
Since that has not occurred in regard to the other states, Nebraska gives up a possible vote(s) in the Electoral College. I expect this will meet additional filibuster during Select File or Final Reading.
This first third of the Session I (we) have had a lesson in how to control the body by filibuster. I absolutely marvel at the capability of Senator Chambers’s knowing how to use the system to have the minority rule. Cloture will be the only way to pass a bill he doesn’t like – so far we haven’t taken any of the issues that far – I expect that to change in the next week(s).
The widely reported defeat of the Voter Photo ID was dead on arrival to the floor. There were difficulties with the bill itself and filibuster was begun. When the World Herald does a story and lists who votes for/against a bill realize that doesn’t necessarily mean those who voted for ending the filibuster oppose the measure. The body has to keep moving forward.
I will be interested in how LB10 – (Winner take all) fares on the floor. Nebraska is one of only two states that splits our electoral votes. You may recall Nebraska delivered one vote for President Obama in the ’08 election. This started in 1991 when Governor Nelson pushed for the separate vote and got it passed – previous attempts to return to winner take all have not been successful. The only way it could make it through this year is with a cloture vote – will there be 33 votes to move it forward?
The Appropriations committee has completed our preliminary review of all the agencies – it appears that we have been able to hold spending down. Even Senator Kintner feels we have been able to work together to bring some meaningful holding the line on spending – he is by far the biggest budget hawk on the committee – when he thinks we have done a good job of holding down spending you think you are on the right track. Next week the various agencies will start coming before us with their requests and trying to get cuts placed back in the budget. If you missed it, we appropriated $45 million dollars to the property tax relief fund – we have a goal to increase that number, but that won’t be known until the final days when all budget requests and floor debate are completed.
I’ve appreciated the opportunity to represent you in this esteemed body. We are truly 49 individuals seeking to do what is best for our great state. I am having a Town Hall meeting again tomorrow at the Hy-Vee store (132 and Dodge) in the upstairs meeting room between 9-10 am. Bring your questions and concerns.
Today I voted against LB 111. I am concerned about voter fraud. After all, living in Chicago for four years, there were frequent reports and allegations of voter fraud.
We need to protect our votes and voter rights. In the end, I could not support LB 111 as presented. Proponents could not recite any evidence of voter fraud occurring in Nebraska.
The bill did not address mail in ballots, which have the greatest potential for fraud.
Many college students, who choose to vote in their college town, do not have driver licenses with their voting address. They feel just as disenfranchised as the poor, elderly, and homebound when it comes to photo ID.
We already have a voter registration process in place, which does require verification of address and citizenship. The emails to my office overwhelming encouraged defeat of LB 111. In the end, 24 other senators agreed and LB 111 was defeated.
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