Dear Fellow Nebraskans:
With the 2009 Legislature behind us, I wanted to take a moment to summarize our work in what I believe was a very productive and successful session on behalf of all Nebraskans. All 49 senators worked together to find common ground on the big issues of the day. I would like to recognize the members of the Judiciary Committee, the Committee I am honored to chair. We held public hearings on 107 bills and advanced 47 bills to the floor of the Legislature, many of which dealt with the most difficult of issues. Thanks to Senators Lathrop, McGill, Council, Rogert, Christensen, Coash, and Lautenbaugh for making this happen.
Budget: We dealt with a very challenging budget outlook by reducing spending where we could while still taking care of important priorities like education, Safe Haven and criminal justice issues. Our state continues to manage our budget well despite the weak economy that has many other states facing a budget crisis. Our budget for the next two years will grow by an average of only 1.1%. We have also met our commitments to the solvency of our employee pension plans and are maintaining an adequate reserve account for the future. Governor Heineman and the Appropriations Committee deserve much credit for the budget, including Omaha Senators Nelson, Nordquist and Mello.
Property Tax Relief: Despite the funding challenges we faced in the legislature this year, we were able to continue the state’s commitment to local property tax relief by providing $115 million per year for the next two years to provide direct property tax relief to Nebraska homeowners.
Immigration Reform (LB 403): After a yearlong study of illegal immigration issues, the Judiciary Committee adopted commonsense reforms to address the significant population of undocumented immigrants living in Nebraska. This measure is now law and it will prohibit state agencies from providing public benefits to those unlawfully in the United States. In addition, all public employers and public contractors will be required to verify the work authorization status of new employees utilizing the Federal Government’s E-Verify system. Senators Karpisek and Friend played pivotal roles in this issue as well.
Gangs and Violent Crime (LB 63): The Legislature adopted the first comprehensive crime bill in many years. I was pleased to have played a role in writing and adopting this important legislation as chair of the Judiciary Committee. The new law provides stiffer penalties for gun crimes, gang recruitment, graffiti and other violent offenses. Local communities will also have more resources for prevention and intervention programs to address the senseless gun violence on our streets committed most often by our young people. Special thanks to Senators Friend, Mello, Nordquist, Pirsch, and Attorney General Bruning for their work on this important initiative. Prevention is a key component to law enforcement.
Safe Haven Legislation (LB 603): The Health and Judiciary Committees collaborated to craft legislation to meet the challenges of children’s behavioral mental health issues that surfaced with the 36 Safe Haven children last year and the Von Maur shootings in 2007. LB 603 is an omnibus proposal that included several bills on the issue dealing with support services for children, a 24 hour hot line, an expansion of the SCHIP program for children’s health and other measures. Senator McGill was the leader in the Judiciary Committee on this issue and Senators Gay, Howard, Dubas and others worked to develop a collaborative approach.
Death Penalty (LB 36): This is an emotional issue for most and it certainly was in the Legislature. A Supreme Court ruling last year left Nebraska’s death penalty in place but removed our state’s method of carrying out this law, the electric chair. In order to provide a means for carrying out the death penalty law — since there were not enough votes for a death penalty repeal — the Legislature adopted lethal injection as the method of execution in Nebraska. The Judiciary Committee spent several weeks studying this issue to ensure that if the death penalty was not repealed, Nebraska’s law provided appropriate safeguards to protect the rights of the accused. Special thanks to Senator Lathrop and Speaker Mike Flood for their work on this issue. Also, County Attorney Don Kleine and Public Defender Tom Riley added invaluable counsel.
Exoneration of the Innocent (LB 260): The Judiciary Committee also dealt with the issue of compensation for those individuals wrongfully convicted of a crime. The effort was led by Judiciary Committee member Senator Kent Rogert and arose out of the Beatrice Six case. LB260 provides that an individual who proves actual innocence may recover compensation in an amount up to $500,000.00.
Protecting our Youth (LB 97): Because of growing concerns about child enticement, sexual assault, and child pornography, the legislature adopted new restrictions on the use of technology by sex offenders and also changed court evidence rules on the handling of sexually explicit materials. LB97 by Senator Scott Lautenbaugh and amended by Sen. Tom White’s LB15 creates the offense of “Unlawful Use of the Internet by a Sex Predator” and increases penalties for Internet-related crimes against children. The bill also requires judges to tell applicable sex offenders at sentencing that they will have to disclose pertinent computer and Internet information, such as email addresses or online sign-in names, to law enforcement and inform them that they are prohibited from accessing and using social networking sites, such as Myspace or Facebook. In order to ensure that increased penalties are not too broad in scope, minors will not be subject to the enhanced penalties in cases of “sexting,” or sending of nude pictures.
K-12 Public Education: The members of the Education Committee worked long and hard on fitting the available Federal stimulus money into our state aid formula. I believe we have provided sufficient funds to assist school districts with the important job of educating our children. This funding also helps to lighten the burden on property taxes. However, the challenge will be to provide a suitable level of funding in the next budget cycle beginning in 2011. The good news is that the recent changes in the state aid formula and the creation of the Learning Community have provided additional funding and educational tools for districts like OPS, Millard and District 66 that continue to provide excellent educational opportunities for our children in District 20. For example, District 66, OPS, and Elkhorn have successfully launched a focus school for grade school children. More must be done, but we have the expertise and the committed teachers, school board members and administrators to do the job. Attracting and retaining the best teachers must be the highest of priorities. We were also able to offer loan assistance for teachers desiring to obtain graduate degrees and to offer loan forgiveness to those teachers willing to work in Nebraska Schools. Special thanks to Senator Greg Adams, Chair of the Education Committee, for his tenacious commitment to creating a fair and equitable state aid formula.
Wind Energy Legislation (LB561): The state made a significant step in the development of wind energy in Nebraska with the passage of LB561, providing tax credits for private development of wind farms. This form of renewable energy is a valuable resource for Nebraska and the Legislature acted quickly to ensure that a significant private investment would occur. LB561 was a result of collaboration by Sen. Chris Langemeier and Sen. Galen Hadley, along with the Natural Resources Committee.
As your State Senator, I believe you expect me to lead on important issues, especially ones that have caused division, are stalled and those in need of immediate answers. I will not shy away from taking on those tough issues. I am committed to finding a common thread of agreement through a collaborative effort to unite all parties on a particular issue. I will openly and candidly work on your behalf to make a difference. As we approach the Interim period before the next session, the Judiciary Committee will be working on the issues of prison overcrowding and alternative sentencing, allocation of judicial resources across the State, and the Whiteclay debacle on the border with the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The website http://www.nebraskalegislature.gov/ is the Legislature’s home page where you can find further information on the legislative process and committee information.
Please take the time to contact me or my staff with thoughts and/or suggestions at (402) 471-2622 or email me at email@example.com. I am truly honored to serve you in the Nebraska Legislature.
State Senator Brad Ashford
Special Thanks to the Judiciary Committee Staff:
Stacey Trout — Judiciary Committee Counsel
LaMont Rainey — Judiciary Committee Counsel
Christina Case — Committee Clerk