Capitol: Assaults on healthcare workers; wrangling over pipeline

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February 2nd, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Assaults on health care workers and university construction proposals were on Nebraska legislators’ minds today; while in Washington, partisan wrangling continues over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

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Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop says assaults on health care workers are an increasing problem.

Sen. Steve Lathrop wants to impose a minimum sentence of six months in jail for people who assault healthcare workers. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

In 2009, he said, there were more than 2,000 assaults on nurses, who lost an average of four days of work. Senators say the violence often takes place in emergency rooms, where people are brought suffering from injuries from fighting or taking drugs. Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell said the situation is contributing to a nursing shortage.

Lathrop wants to require minimum sentences of six months imprisonment for third degree assault, with a year for second degree and two years for first degree.

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege asked if there weren’t a less costly way to deal with the problem than increasing prison populations.

Sen. Mike Johanns has sponsored legislation that would claim Congressional authority to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. (File photo USDA

“Why can’t we have some kind of a mandatory stiff fine that might also be a deterrent but would bring money into the state instead of take money out?” Carlson asked.

Lathrop said that wouldn’t work for economic reasons. “The population of people that are engaged in assaults don’t pay fines,” Lathrop said. “Most of ‘em are folks that just don’t have the means to pay a fine. That’d be fine – we could charge them $5,000 as a mandatory penalty, and then they come before the court and say ‘I can’t pay it.’ So we accomplish nothing.”

Senators voted 34-4 to give the bill the first of three approvals it would require before being sent to the governor.

In the afternoon, the Appropriations Committee held a public hearing on University of Nebraska construction proposals. The University wants to use $91 million from the state’s roughly $400 million cash reserve. The money would be divided into $50 million for a cancer center at the university medical center in Omaha, $19 million for a nursing and allied health professions building in Kearney, $17 million for a nursing facility in Lincoln and $5 million for a veterinary diagnostic center, also in Lincoln.

A long parade of university personnel and supporters endorsed the proposals as beneficial for health care, student retention, and economic growth. But Governor Dave Heineman, who’s made tax cuts his legislative priority, has said the timing of the proposals is not good. Some senators have predicted not all the proposals will be funded. Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton, sponsor of the bill to fund the nursing facility in the Capital City, referred to that possibility. “I’m not going to say that we should sit here and fund all of them,” Fulton said. “But I am saying that if we choose not to there’d better be good reason for choosing not to, because they are all worthy of our consideration.”

Meanwhile, in Congress, Republicans are continuing their efforts to work around President Barack Obama and approve construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Last month, President Obama rejected TransCanada’s bid for a presidential permit required to cross the Canadian border. But a new bill sponsored by Republican Senator Mike Johanns would claim Congressional authority to approve to the project.

Johanns said it would allow TransCanada to begin building the pipeline outside of Nebraska while a final route within Nebraska is agreed upon by TransCanada and state authorities. “This legislation respects that agreement,” Johanns said in his weekly conference call with reporters.

“The Congressional Research Service did a very thorough analysis and said look, when it comes to foreign commerce, Congress has the ability to pass legislation.”

Johanns accused President Obama of delaying the pipeline to avoid an election year controversy between Democratic-leaning union groups that approve the project and environmentalists who oppose it.

But speaking with reporters yesterday, Senator Ben Nelson, a Democrat, put Republicans at fault for trying to rush the issue Congress rather than letting the permit process run its course.

“So it’s time to stop the political games and let a new application move forward with agreed upon review by state and federal agencies,” Nelson said, “rather than politicians in Washington deciding they are for or against it.”

“Why not let Trans Canada offer a new route, and let a fair and thorough process move forward.”

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