Veterans’ court advances; wage discrimination bill debated


March 2nd, 2016

 (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

(Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The Nebraska Legislature Tuesday took a step toward creating a special court for veterans in Douglas County. And lawmakers began debating a proposal to give people who think they’re victims of wage discrimination another avenue of appeal.

Nebraska already has special “problem-solving” courts for people with drug convictions. The proposal by Sen. Matt Williams of Gering would add a number of other options for such courts, including for military veterans who get into legal trouble.

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, who introduced a similar bill, explained the need. “While most veterans return home strengthened by their military service, combat experience has unfortunately left a growing number of veterans suffering from substance abuse, mental health disorders and trauma,” McCollister said, adding “One in five veterans has symptoms of mental disorder or cognitive impairment.”

Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings said a lot has changed with the military in the 50 years he’s practiced law. “Young men used to be brought before the county judge and were told ‘You’ve got a week to sign up for the military or you’re going to jail. That changed after Vietnam. You can’t get in the military if you’ve got a criminal record,” Seiler said. “So what about these people coming back now? They weren’t criminals when they left. They now are mixed up and need treatment. And it’s up to us to step forward.”

Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln supported the idea, but suggested problems need to be addressed earlier as well. “Mental health courts have risen in part because of inadequate treatment services and resources in community mental health systems. Sometimes the lack of access to preventative care is what leads an individual to a crisis point,” Bolz said. “I think it’s important that we think about building capacity within our community-based mental and behavioral health systems as we try to build capacity in our problem-solving courts.”

Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha said veterans’ involvement with the court would be similar to probation where they could receive treatment for drug and alcohol problems, but people convicted of violent felonies would not qualify.

Williams said the Nebraska Supreme Court intends to set up a court for veterans in Douglas County if the bill passes. It would cost the state about $440,000 for the first two years, but Williams said that is a bargain. “The cost of drug court is estimated at approximately $5,000 per year per participant. Incarcerating that same person costs $36,000 per year,” Williams said.

Senators voted 35-0 to give the bill first round approval.

Also Tuesday, senators began debating a proposal that would let employees of small businesses go to the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission if they think they’re victims of wage discrimination. The bill grew out of a proposal by Omaha Sen. Tanya Cook to combat wage discrimination against women. Currently, the option of complaining to the Nebraska Equal Opportunity commission is available only to people who work for businesses with 15 or more employees. Employees of smaller businesses have to go to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The bill would change the law so people who work for businesses with as few as two employees could complain to the state commission.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus objected the proposal would force small employers to comply with a host of requirements, including one to post “abstracts” or copies of the law in a conspicuous place.

“Why do we need to make a change? IF there’s a federal law that covers it and we’re getting along fine, why? I don’t think we need to burden small businesses – guys who are struggling, who wouldn’t know what an abstract to maintain was if you hit them in the face with it, who are interested in going about their construction business, going about their small accounting business, employing two or three people — have got to be subject to these requirements,” Schumacher complained.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said Schumacher’s choice of words showed the depth of the problem. “You continued to use the word ‘he.’ ‘He won’t know.’ ‘How will he know what regulation he is supposed to follow?’ This is exactly the problem that we have, my friends. This is not even in laws, but in our language. We absently – because I do not believe that Sen. Schumacher intended this — but we dismiss an entire part of our population” Pansing Brooks said.

Lawmakers adjourned for the day without reaching a first round vote on the bill. Debate on the measure is expected to resume Wednesday.

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