Budget advances after fight over family planning funds

April 27th, 2017

By Fred Knapp

Lincoln, NE – The Nebraska Legislature gave first-round approval Wednesday to a proposed $8.9 billion budget for the next two years, but only after a bitter fight over a provision that some senators said would threaten women’s health services.

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Budget debate starts; Ricketts opposes felon voting bill

April 27th, 2017

By Fred Knapp

Lincoln, NE – Debate over the state budget got off to a fitful start Tuesday.

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Whiteclay relicensing denied; senators debate medical marijuana, lethal injection drug supplier secrecy

April 20th, 2017

By Fred Knapp

Nebraska Liquor Control Commission discusses Whiteclay (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission voted Wednesday to deny re-licensing to four controversial beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska. And the Legislature debated whether medical marijuana should be legalized, and whether the suppliers of lethal injection drugs should have their identities kept secret.

The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s vote came after decades of agitation to close four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska. That’s a tiny village bordering on South Dakota where millions of cans of beer a year are sold, mostly to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned but alcohol problems are rampant.

Activists cheered as Commissioners Robert Batt, Janice Wiebusch and Bruce Bailey cast their votes after discussing a lack of law enforcement and other problems in Whiteclay.Afterwards, Frank LaMere, a Winnebago tribal member who has fought for years shut the stores, said it was a start.

“Now the work begins to restore the people that we’ve taken so much from. Today was a victory for caring Nebraskans and the Oglala Lakota people,” LaMere said.

Commission chairman Batt expanded on the challenges facing the Oglala Sioux tribe on its reservation. “This is a much more complicated issue than the four stores. The problem is we still have an 80 percent alcoholism rate. We have a 35 percent fetal alcohol rate.  These are issues that still need to be addressed,” Batt said.

The stores current licenses expire April 30. Their lawyer, Andrew Snyder, said they will appeal the commission’s decision in court, and Batt said it will be up to the judge to decide if they can continue to operate while the appeal is pending.

In the Legislature Wednesday, lawmakers debated Sen. Anna Wishart’s  proposal to legalize medical marijuana. Wishart said many studies have shown marijuana’s legal benefits, and quoted from a January, 2107 review by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine of research on the subject.

“One of the therapeutic uses of cannabis and cannabinoids is to treat chronic pain in adults. The committee found evidence to support that patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms,” Wishart said.

Supporters pointed to stories of how the drug has helped people suffering from epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and the aftereffects of chemotherapy, and said it was preferable to opioids because it is not addictive.

Opponents like Sen. Mike Hilgers said the Legislature should not get involved in something that should be governed by the Food and Drug Adminstration.

“Colleagues, we have a process to determine what types of drugs should be available for public consumption. That process is through the FDA. They have the scientists, they have the individuals in place, the expertise to analyze these questions. This Legislature, as high in regard as I hold all of you, we are not equipped to make this type of clinical decision. We just aren’t,” Hilgers said.

Opponents also said that in the 29 other states that have legalized medical marijuana, those efforts have been followed by legalization or attempted legalization of recreational marijuana.

After two hours of debate, lawmakers moved on to other subjects, leaving Wishart to show she has enough votes to overcome a filibuster for the bill to be scheduled for further debate. Wishart said she would work on it, but said otherwise, the bill would still be alive next year. She also said there are initiatives underway to put both medical and recreational marijuana on the 2018 ballot, adding that both supporters and opponents in other states said it was better for the Legislature to pass a law.

And the Legislature also debated Sen. John Kuehn’s proposal to  exempt the suppliers of lethal injection drugs from the state’s public records law.

In debate Wednesday, Kuehn argued there is no compelling reason to make the names public.

“If all other information including the drug, its composition and its analysis can be provided to the defense and to the public, to provide oversight and scrutiny and the integrity of the compound and the process, what value is the name?” Kuehn asked. “The identity provides no material value to the defense or to the public, and certainly does not justify harassment, retaliation of a private citizen.”

Sen. Ernie Chambers led opposition to the bill.

“This bill that Sen. Kuehn brought is designed to deprive the public of information it ought to have about how its government is carrying out the most solemn, the most consequential act that a government can perform,” Chambers said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said transparency about suppliers is crucial.

“There were at least three botched executions in Ohio, Arkansas, Oklahoma. It raised everyone’s concern and heightened our alarm and disgust of state executions, and the certainty and determination that we need to be watching carefully what our state is doing,” Pansing Brooks said.

Hilgers argued transparency was counterproductive.

“Ensuring the quality of the drugs is an important part of the process and when we allow, when we have the public disclosure, what happens is it makes it harder and harder to find and procure the drugs from reputable sources – from high quality sources,” he said.

After three hours of debate, lawmakers adjourned without reaching a vote on the bill. Kuehn said he thinks he has enough votes to overcome a filibuster, and would work to have further debate scheduled this year.

April 12th, 2017

By Fred Knapp

Spring has sprung outside the Nebraska State Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

A proposal to preempt most local gun regulations advanced Wednesday in the Legislature. But an attempt to require juveniles have lawyers when they go to court anywhere in the state got bogged down.

Lincoln, NE – The gun proposal by Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln would preempt most local gun ordinances passed by cities and towns around Nebraska. Hilgers says the idea is to have uniform state laws, not a patchwork of local ordinances.

Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld opposed the bill, saying it would preempt local ordinances and rules that prohibit guns in places like Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank arena.

“This also has a real economic impact. For instance, Billy Joel who recently came to Lincoln, would not have come to Lincoln unless we had a prohibition on firearms and had metal detectors in Pinnacle Bank Arena. We would not be able to enforce that. We would not be able to offer that clause in the contract. That act  would have not come,” Morfeld said.

Hilgers argued such a ban could still be enforced under trespassing laws. But he offered to work on an amendment to make that clear before the second stage of debate, known as select file.

“What Sen. Morfeld says LB68 does I do not believe is correct,” Hilgers said. “But to make certain on some of these concerns, given how seriously we do take public safety, I’m willing to consider an amendment on select file that would address that.”

With no votes to spare, senators voted 33-8 to end a filibuster against the bill, then voted 32-12 first round advancement. It would still require two more votes to be sent to the governor.

On another subject, lawmakers gave first-round approval to a bill that would guarantee bondholders are first in line for payment if a city declares bankruptcy. Supporters like Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher, sponsor of the bill, said it was necessary to assure payments to people who lend money to cities, in order to keep interest rates low. Opponents including Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell said bondholders should be paid, but only after others like pension holders.

Also Wednesday, an attempt to guarantee juveniles will have lawyers when they appear in court throughout the state got bogged down. The proposal was sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks. Last year, she sponsored a similar bill, which was ultimately amended to cover only counties with populations over 150,000 – in other words, Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy Counties.

Wednesday, Pansing Brooks argued that produced an arbitrary result.

“Under our current law kids have counsel appointed at the time of petition statewide if they are under 14. But if a child is between the ages of 15 and 18, they only have counsel appointed if they live in a town with a population of 150,000 or more,” Pansing Brooks said. “This arbitrary and inconsistent right to counsel makes no logical sense. It’s justice by geography and by age.”

Juveniles have the right to counsel statewide, but outside the three largest counties, they can also decline it; the bill would require counsel. Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango called that unnecessary.

“I’m certainly not hearing that there’s a problem from my district. I want to give credit to Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks for her passion on this issue. It’s rightly deserved. But for her district, in the metropolitan area, I have no doubt that the volume that’s coming before the juvenile system needs to be handled differently than what it is in the rural parts of the state – in greater Nebraska,” Hughes said.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, a lawyer who practices in juvenile court, said juveniles need lawyers because they face serious consequences if they plead guilty to seemingly minor offenses.

“You can’t even work at Burger King, taking cash, if you get a theft charge. If you’re 16 years old and you get a weed charge – a marijuana charge, you potentially cannot be able to get Pell grants and federal funding because of that charge,” Wayne said

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte charged there was an economic motive behind the bill.

“This is a lawyer employment bill, folks. That’s what this is. That’s all it is. The juveniles are taken care of. They’re given justice.  Children make mistakes. Teenagers revolt. It’s handled, and we go on with our lives,” Groene said.

After three hours of debate, senators adjourned for the day without reaching a first-round vote. That means the bill will stay off the agenda unless supporters say they have a two-thirds majority to overcome a filibuster.

LGBT antidiscrimination debate touches on religion, business; Whiteclay beer stores focus of hearing

April 6th, 2017

By Fred Knapp

Lincoln, NE – Arguments about religious freedom and the business climate dominated legislative debate over a proposal to outlaw job discrimination against LGBT people. And the Liquor Control Commission heard testimony about whether there is adequate law enforcement to continue beer sales in the troubled reservation border town of Whiteclay.

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Governor criticizes prison funding cuts; cost of off-year elections hit

April 6th, 2017

By Fred Knapp

Lincoln, NE – Gov. Pete Ricketts is criticizing senators for cutting proposed funding for prisons. And the head of the Legislature’s Government Committee says holding off-year elections in Lincoln and Omaha wastes taxpayer dollars.

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