May 6, 2015

On second thought; Unicameral confirms Acierno as Chief Medical Officer

Dr. Joseph Acierno/Photo courtesy of Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services

Dr. Joseph Acierno/Photo courtesy of Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services

State lawmakers reconsider, and this time, approve Dr. Joseph Acierno as the state Chief Medical Officer.

Acierno failed to get the 25 votes necessary for confirmation Tuesday, an extremely rare case of the legislature turning down a gubernatorial nominee.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha is critical of Acierno’s tenure in the Heineman Administration.

“My vote will continue to be ‘No’ not because I don’t like the governor and I don’t want him to succeed, but I don’t think Miss Phillips needs this anchor on her boat,” Krist tells colleagues during legislative floor debate.

Lawmakers have received assurance from the Ricketts Administration that new Health and Human Services CEO Courtney Phillips will have a free hand to discipline Acierno, even to fire him if necessary.

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue urges colleagues to vote for confirmation.

“I believe our concerns have been addressed, the shot across the bow has been executed,” Crawford says.

On Tuesday, legislators voted 22-15 to confirm Acierno, three votes short of the 25 needed for confirmation. After passing a reconsideration motion Wednesday, lawmakers voted 34-to-6 with eight legislators abstaining to confirm Acierno.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins expresses frustration about Acierno during his tenure in the Heineman Administration, even as he announces he will change his vote to ‘yes’ on confirmation.

“The man is arrogant,” Bloomfield says. “Hopefully, the vote that he received yesterday will tone that down a little bit.”

Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue tells colleagues he won’t change his vote against Acierno’s nomination.

“And I’m telling you colleagues, the experience of everyone in here with Dr. Acierno up to this point, how you think he’s going to change his spots just because we have a new administration and a new director of HHS, I think you’re sadly mistaken,” Garrett says.

Critics say Acierno has been arrogant and not responsive during his tenure, dating back to the Heineman Administration. Gov. Dave Heineman appointed Acierno in 2013. Gov. Pete Ricketts reappointed him in December.

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion tells colleagues arrogance shouldn’t be the standard.

“I’ve heard that this nominee is arrogant, dismissive; well, that sounds like half of this body at times,” according to Kintner. “This body can be very arrogant at times. If that’s the standard, we’re in trouble.”

Showdown with Gov. Ricketts over child aid avoided (AUDIO)

Sen. Kathy Campbell/Photo courtesy of Unicameral Information Office

Sen. Kathy Campbell/Photo courtesy of Unicameral Information Office

A compromise has been reached and a confrontation with the governor avoided on legislation to increase federal aid to poor families in Nebraska.

Gov. Pete Ricketts shocked lawmakers when he vetoed Legislative Bill 89, blocking an increase in Aid to Dependent Children for nearly 6,000 Nebraska families.

Though Ricketts spiked the bill, he left open a door for compromise.

The sponsor of LB 89, Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, took advantage of the opportunity, seeking a way forward to address the governor’s concerns about her bill’s sustainability while addressing the fact that families receiving ADC hadn’t seen an increase in aid since 1985.

Campbell agreed to reduce the increase proposed in her legislation from 60% to 55%. The aid also will be tied to the rate of inflation through the Consumer Price Index.

“So, that means that the family will get an increase this year, but we will steadily meet inflation going forward, so we should not fall 30 years behind again,” Campbell tells Nebraska Radio Network in an interview.

The practical effect of the legislation would be that a Nebraska family of three receiving aid would get around $72 more a month.

Nebraska budgets for about 6,400 families a year, yet rarely distributes federal aid for that number. Normally, according to Campbell, about 5,900 families receive the aid.

Over the years, Nebraska has accumulated a reserve totaling $68 million.

Gov. Ricketts expressed concern that the increase contained in the bill could drain that reserve in less than 10 years. The adjustments agreed to by Campbell, should reduce, but not eliminate that accumulation of federal block grant funds in 10 years.

Campbell points out that one in every five children in Nebraska live in poverty, according to federal standards. She sees an increase in aid as an investment in children; a smart investment by the state.

“Children living in poverty are at much greater risk of ending up in the child welfare system,” Campbell says, adding that it costs the state much more to pay foster parents to care for children than to keep them in their home.

The Unicameral approved LB 89 on a 30-15 vote, which would have been just enough votes necessary to override the governor’s veto. Campbell will push forward with the compromise and not seek a veto override.

The compromise should come up for debate in the next couple of weeks.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:50]

Controversy sparks 2+ hours of debate, still Rice confirmed as SHP superintendent

Col. Brad Rice/Photo courtesy of State Highway Patrol

Col. Brad Rice/Photo courtesy of State Highway Patrol

State legislators debated the nomination of Brad Rice as superintendent of the State Highway Patrol for more than two hours before confirming his nomination on a 32-to-7 vote.

Opponents claim Rice has discriminated against women, too freely shared his Christian faith with others on the job, and might have used excessive force during his 29-year tenure with the patrol.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus supported his nomination, mainly because he received a call from a female trooper who he trusts who told him Rice was OK.

“And, because of that opinion, I’m going to be supporting this nomination and recognizing we all say things, do things we might regret, but in the end, if we’re good people, we’re OK,” Schumacher told colleagues during the more than two hours of legislative floor debate.

That, though, didn’t strike Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln as good enough.

“We need more than OK, Sen. Schumacher,” Bolz stated. “We need someone who is excellent and someone who is taking extraordinary and exceptional steps to make sure that we are doing the best that we can in an inclusionary, community-based, smart, equal manner.”

Other senators made the same point, claiming the debate needed to be broadened. They say clashes between police and minorities in other cities should make Nebraska lawmakers more wary about someone accused of discrimination against women.

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion dismissed an accusation that Rice once claimed women shouldn’t be in law enforcement.

“Politics today is not a clean sport anymore,” Kintner said. “The ‘got you’ game is alive and well, especially in elective politics, but in these type of cases, also.”

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t believe this is a game of ‘got you’ at all. And I believe this is a game,” Haar said, then paused, “Not a game, this is a matter of appointment to a very high office within state government.”

Even whether Rice made the comment about women is in question. Conflicting statements were made by senators. Some said he never made the comment. Others claimed Rice said it was taken out of context.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte defended Rice, who served with the patrol for 29 years before retiring in 2010.

“Mr. Rice is a good man,” Groene stated. “If I went through life in a public position and to only have one person step forward and say I said something, I would be blessed.”

But, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks pointed out Rice is also accused of too freely sharing his Christian faith while on the job, among other accusations.

“Sen. Groene said he was a good man,” Pansing Brooks stated. “To me, I think we’re under the three strike rule. He had gender issues that had to be discussed. He had excessive force issues that had to be discussed. And he had proselytizing issues that had to be discussed.”

Despite the controversy, Rice was confirmed. He succeeds Col. David Sankey.

Omaha man sentenced for not registering as sex offender

An Omaha man has been sentenced to nearly three years in federal prison for failing to register as a sex offender after moving to Nebraska.

The U.S. Attorney’s office reports 31-year-old Timothy Kirsch had been convicted in Page County, Iowa in 2002 for sexually assaulting a child.

It isn’t the first time he has been convicted of failing to register as a sex offender, either. Kirsch failed to register in Louisiana.

Kirsch reported to Iowa authorities he would be moving to Nebraska. He lived in two different residences in Omaha. He failed to register with the Nebraska Sex Offender Registry at either.

Senior federal Judge Joseph Bataillon sentenced Kirsch to a 33 months in prison. Kirsch will serve 10 years of supervised release after serving his prison sentence.

Budget chair pleased with movement of state budget (AUDIO)

Appropriations Committee meets to discuss state budget

Appropriations Committee meets to discuss state budget

The legislature’s Appropriations Committee chairman is pleased with the progress of the $8.6 billion state budget in the Unicameral.

State lawmakers breathed a sigh of relief when the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board restored $10 million to its estimate of state revenue rather than lower the estimate. The board in February reduced its estimate of state revenue by $10 million. It restored that money during its meeting last week.

No legislator was more pleased by the revised revenue estimate than Sen. Health Mello of Omaha, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who says his committee greeted the news by funneling more to property tax relief.

“Utilize a very small portion of that for some minor tweaks and changes to the budget and then appropriate $8 million to the property tax credit fund,” Mello tells Nebraska Radio Network.

The increase brings the total budgeted to the property tax relief fund to $204 million each year of the biennium.

State legislators entered this legislative session proclaiming property tax cuts as their top priority. Efforts to reduce property taxes on farmland failed to make it to the floor. Other bills have been bottled up. The property tax relief fund has become the only avenue to cut the tax bills of property owners this session.

Mello is proud the proposed budget addresses the Unicameral’s key priorities.

“Property tax relief, public education funding, higher education funding, public-private partnerships, as well as addressing the challenges in the department of corrections,” according to Mello.

Legislators gave preliminary approval to the spending blueprint proposed by the Appropriations Committee last week.

The proposed state budget relies on a 3.1% increase in state revenue. It proposes increasing spending by more than $400 million.

If approved, state aid to schools would increase by nearly $80 million. State funding to Nebraska universities and colleges would increase by almost $54 million, with community colleges benefiting from an $8.6 million increase.

The budget must pass two more rounds of voting before it can be sent to the governor.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:50]