Capitol: Lawmakers debate longer term limits

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February 1st, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Requiring jail time for people who assault medical personnel, and lengthening term limits for senators were among proposals discussed in the Nebraska Legislature today.

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Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop is proposing mandatory minimum sentences for people who assault health care workers who are performing their duties. He said those workers are particularly vulnerable because they’re working closely with people or their family members who are under physical, emotional, or financial stress. Sometimes those people lash out, and Lathrop said knowing they would spend time in jail would be a deterrent.

Critics say there’s an ever-growing list of groups seeking special treatment, and health care workers should not be added to it.

Sen. Steve Lathrop wants to impose minimum sentences on people who assault healthcare workers. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Omaha Sen. Brenda Council said judges already have the option of sentencing people who assault health care workers to jail, but it should not be required. “There are occasions where people (are) not thinking and unwittingly engage in conduct that none of us here would consider appropriate, and regrettably and unfortunately that rises to the level of a crime,” Council said. “But we’re talking about an emotional setting, which may be at the root of it, and we’re going to subject these individuals to further trauma by charging them with a felony where they would be facing a mandatory minimum sentence.”

Sen. Mike Gloor was among those supporting the bill, saying assaults occur most frequently in domestic violence cases. And Lathrop said special treatment is justified, comparing the proposal to increased penalties for speeding or drug dealing in school zones.

“The idea is that there’s something different about this area or these victims,” Lathrop said. “And we do it with police officers. I think what makes the health care provider unique is that they are running towards the assailant, intending to help them, and unarmed and unprepared to deal with an assault.”

The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a vote.

On term limits, the Legislature’s executive board heard a proposal to allow senators to serve three consecutive four year terms, instead of the current two-term limit.

Sen. Carlson says the current term limits for state senators have inadvertently made the executive branch more powerful. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, sponsor of the proposal, said he doesn’t want to do away with term limits. He said their advantages include bringing fresh blood and new ideas into the Legislature, and preventing anyone from making a career of it. But Carlson said there are disadvantages, too. “I think without question the executive branch is more powerful and has more influence,” Carlson said. “I understand why they wouldn’t like to see this changed. I think the lobbyists have more power and influence. I think our legislative staffs have more influence. I think the political parties have more influence.”

Jerry Stilmock, a lobbyist for the volunteer firefighters, fire chiefs, and the Nebraska Bankers Association, supported the proposal.

He said the higher turnover among lawmakers requires lobbyists to review legislative history with newcomers, rather than having people in the body with that institutional memory. No one testified against the proposal to modify the term limits which were approved by voters in 2000.

If the proposed change were approved by the Legislature, it would be submitted to voters this fall.

In another hearing, the Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony on a proposal to deal with problems with Access Nebraska, the state’s web and call center based system for getting social services.

Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island described a letter one constituent got: “It says please call 1-800… at 8:30 a.m. central time so that we may conduct an interview, and then to add insult to injury we say ‘If you need to change the above date or time, please call 1-800…We’re pumping letters out here telling people to call at 8:30 when in fact what they’re doing is calling into a queue and waiting and waiting and waiting.”

Scot Adams of the Department of Health and Human Services said HHS is looking into the problem.

“We’ve begun down that pathway and I haven’t gotten to the end of the trail on that one at this point in time,” Adams said. “But I appreciate it, and I’m not exactly sure if that is in every letter, because that would create its own series of too many calls, or if it’s intended as a helpful ‘its usually a little lighter at that time,” but I will follow through with that.”

Sen. Danielle Conrad is proposing the Department station staff members at 30 community-based organizations to give people face-to-face help applying for benefits; Adams opposed that, saying the Department already meets with individuals on request, and the bill would cost too much.

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