Helmet loosening fails, prison overcrowding discussed in unicam


February 12th, 2014

Omaha, NE – A proposal to allow motorcyclists over age 21 to ride without helmets in Nebraska failed in the Legislature Tuesday. And a short-term plan to deal with prison overcrowding ran into criticism in a budget hearing.

After spending all or part of four mornings debating motorcycle helmets, senators finally reached a conclusive vote Tuesday. Leading up to that point, debate focused on the safety and health care cost savings from using helmets, weighed against the personal freedom of not being required to.

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, a supporter of keeping the existing helmet law, acknowledged that personal liberty is a core value. But she said it has to be weighed against others. “We do have to trade off some individual autonomy, some individual liberty, for the sake of helping to save lives. If you don’t have your life, then your autonomy, liberty doesn’t have much meaning,” she said.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, chief sponsor of the bill to loosen helmet requirements, finished the debate with an emotional plea. Earlier in Bloomfield said many motorcycle riders were veterans who wanted the requirement repealed. Just before the vote was taken, the Vietnam veteran talked about visiting the Vietnam War memorial in Washington. “I walked up to that long granite wall. Fifty thousand of my brothers cry out from graves across America. ‘This price we paid for freedom. This price we paid to defend freedom. What will you do now to protect it?’”

It would have taken 33 votes to cut off debate and vote on the bill itself. In the end, only 25 senators voted to do so, with 22 opposed, effectively killing the bill for this year.

Tuesday afternoon, prison spending was the subject of an Appropriations Committee hearing. Nebraska prisons currently hold  4,919 prisoners, 1,644 more than their design capacity. Gov. Dave Heineman has proposed putting 150 prisoners in county jails, putting 40 more in the McCook work camp, and freeing another 20 beds by returning federal prisoners. That plan for reducing overcrowding by 210 total prisoners would cost an additional $6 million over the next two years.

Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad told Corrections Director Mike Kenney the state needs a more comprehensive plan.  She said the proposals for dealing with overcrowding are important, but added they are really “bandaids in terms of dealing with these capacity issues and long term strategies.” Conrad said while the proposals are “better than nothing,” she is disappointed.

Kenney acknowledged the requested budget adjustments are by no means the final word. “I agree that this is short-term solution…intended to sustain us through the planning period,” he said. “In my mind its premature to have these overarching long-range plans while we’re in the middle of our strategic planning process right now.”

A new strategic plan, which might call for building a new prison, is due in late spring or early summer.
Kenney was also asked why the administration has not asked for additional money for mental health programs, since it’s been criticized for not offering enough in that area.

“If someone wanted to give us additional mental health or substance abuse programs, we would like that,” he said. However, he added, “I think the mental health services that we’re providing are adequate for our needs right now.”

Kenney also disagreed with a report that a lack of programs in the prisons was keeping more than 1,100 inmates from being eligible for parole. He said the real figure is 165.

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