Sex trafficking penalties, party ballot access advance in Legislature


March 29th, 2017

Nebraska lawmakers debate sex trafficking penalties Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Senators moved toward increasing penalties for sex trafficking and making it easier for political parties to maintain their place on the ballot in the Nebraska Legislature Wednesday.

Lincoln, NE – Near the beginning of Wednesday’s debate, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, sponsor of the human trafficking bill, made it clear what the bill was not about.

“Human trafficking is not prostitution. Yesterday, I had somebody say ‘Hey, it’s the oldest profession in the world.’ That person clearly does not get what we’re talking about. This is not about consensual sex between two adults. This is about nonconsensual sex. It’s about force, threat, fraud, coercion. It is the selling of human beings,” Pansing Brooks said.

Sen. Joni Craighead, supporting the bill, made note of who most of the victims are. “The bottom line of this is that this is an issue and this is mainly a women’s issue and a young girls’ issue,” Craighead said.

Currently, traffickers face a maximum of 20 years in prison, but there is no minimum, and Pansing Brooks said they often get only probation. Her bill, which she worked on with Attorney General Doug Peterson, would set a minimum of a year and a maximum of life in prison for trafficking.

Sen. Burke Harr said the bill is an example of politically popular legislation that led to prison overcrowding and the need for sentencing reform that passed two years ago.

“This bill was brought by the attorney general. Next year when he comes with the next bill that says ‘Hey, I want to ratchet it up again, I’m going to pick on something else that’s politically sexy at the time.’  And we continue to ratchet and ratchet and ratchet until we’re back to where we were two years ago,” Harr said.

The bill has become what’s referred to in legislative lingo as a “Christmas tree,” with other bills hung on it via amendments so they can all advance at once. Amendments in this case included measures preventing people under protection orders for domestic abuse from possessing deadly weapons, and allowing termination of parental rights for people whose children resulted from sexual assault.

Sen. Paul Schumacher said he supported the bill. But he said because the Legislature spent much of its first 30 days fighting over rules, the bill was being advanced too quickly without time to clarify some ambiguous language.

“Suddenly we all realize we’re kind of running out of time. And we’re packing these Christmas trees full of bulbs. And we’re making mistakes. And that’s a consequence of more than 30 days going in circles to end up right where we started,” Schumacher said.

With Pansing Brooks agreeing to work on clearing up any ambiguities, the bill got first round approval on a vote of 42-0.

Also Wednesday, lawmakers gave first round approval to a bill by Sen. Laura Ebke that would make it easier for political parties to maintain a spot on the ballot.

“Currently in… state election law, a political party has to have somebody poll at least 5 percent in a statewide race. This allows the maintenance of ballot access if the party has at least 10,000 registered voters and then they can run people at all levels and don’t have to worry about that 5 percent in a statewide race,” Ebke said.

The change could benefit the Libertarian Party, of which Ebke is the only registered member in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. In 2016, the party’s presidential nominee got just under 5 percent of the vote. But the Libertarian Party has more than 11,000 members. The bill advanced on a vote of 30-0.

Wednesday afternoon, senators debated a proposal by Schumacher to clarify in the event of a municipal or governmental bankruptcy, bondholders would have first priority to be paid. Schumacher said the bill would help everyone know where they stand.

“A law would make it clear: the bondholders go first. Bondholders could then feel comfortable and ask for lower interest rates. Unions in negotiating their pension packages would know where they stand and want more now, rather than promises later,” he said.

Opponents said the bill would be unfair to public employees. Sen. Mike McDonnell, a former Omaha firefighter, imagined a scenario involving someone who had held a 30-year city bond for 28 years, and the news that would be given to a city worker retiring after 30 years.

“We knock on their door and say ‘We’re not going to be able to pay you your pension, even though you contributed for 30 years every paycheck. Because what we’re going to do is we’re going to go ahead and pay that bondholder that has been paid for 28 years, we’re going to pay them for the next two years. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to ask you to survive for that two more years until we take care of that bondholder.’ That’s what this bill is doing,” McDonnell said.

Omaha police and fire pensions are only about 50 percent funded. Lawmakers adjourned for the day without reaching a first round vote on the bill.

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