April 18, 2015

State lawmakers move closer to repealing death penalty in Nebraska

State legislators have advanced as bill that would repeal the death penalty in Nebraska.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha has succeeded in getting first-round approval to Legislative Bill 268 on a 30-to-13 vote, which if it holds would be enough votes to override a promised gubernatorial veto.

Gov. Pete Ricketts’ office released a written statement after the Unicameral’s action.

“Today’s vote for Senator Chambers’ plan to repeal the death penalty is out of step with Nebraskans who tell me that they believe the death penalty remains an important tool for public safety. If this legislation comes to my desk, I will veto it. I urge senators to reconsider their decision and to stand with law enforcement who need all the tools we can give them to protect public safety.”

Another avenue remains for opponents of the bill. Though they decided against a filibuster during the first round of debate, they could mount a filibuster when the bill returns for the second round of debate. The vote threshold to overcome a filibuster is higher than the threshold to override a veto. Supporters would have to get 33 votes to end a filibuster and force a vote.

Crime bill moves forward, compromise pending (AUDIO)

Legislators informally discuss compromises on LB 605 in the legislative chamber.

Legislators informally discuss compromises on LB 605 in the legislative chamber.

A compromise is promised and a crime bill meant to ease prison overcrowding and reform sentencing laws has moved forward in the legislature.

Debate on the merits of LB 605 began before the bill hit the floor of the Unicameral Tuesday afternoon.

Attorney General Doug Peterson held a news conference in his Capitol office about two hours prior to legislative debate, in which he raised questions about the bill. Peterson as well as county attorneys expressed concern that revisions to state criminal statutes contained in LB 605 could tie their hands in some criminal cases and, ultimately, threaten public safety.

Peterson pointed out that the Justice Reinvestment Working Group formed, in part, to suggest changes in light of the prison sentencing miscalculation scandal which released hundreds of prison inmates prematurely

Attorney General Doug Peterson discusses crime bills before the legislature along with other law officers

Attorney General Doug Peterson discusses crime bills before the legislature along with other law officers

“Early release by neglect, well this is early release by design and that concerns us,” Peterson told reporters.

The major contention in LB 605 was an amendment added that would return Nebraska to the “one third” rule. The “one third” rule requires a judge to impose a minimum sentence no more than one third of the maximum sentence. Prosecutors object to returning to a standard established prior to the state “good time” law which, in effect, cuts a prison sentence in half.

Later, during legislative floor debate, Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha stated that while the intent of LB 605 is to revise prison sentencing in order to reduce prison overcrowding, the bill must be put into perspective.

“But, LB 605 is not prison reform, it is sentencing reform,” Harr said.

The bill, according to supporters, actually seeks to address three problems: prison overcrowding, the Nikko Jenkins case, and the prison sentence miscalculation scandal.

LB 605 would use probation, parole, and short periods of jail time to handle low-level crimes. It would provide job training and programs to address drug abuse, alcoholism, and mental health issues. It would impose supervised release for inmates leaving prison.

Revisions to the criminal statutes, it is hoped, would reduce the prison population to approximately 140% of capacity, about a 10% reduction from the current prison population.

State lawmakers argue that supervised release and alternatives to an abrupt exit from prison would have prevented Nikko Jenkins from being released directly into the public after serving in solitary confinement. Jenkins has been convicted of killing four people in Omaha upon his release.

New personnel at the Department of Correctional Services have pledged to address the mistakes that led to early release.

The sticking point remains, though. Prosecutors are unhappy about the amendment which would reinstate the one-third rule.

The sponsor of LB 605, Send. Heath Mello of Omaha, promised to address those concerns during his closing on the bill.

“We’ll work between General and Select File to try to find a compromise in regards to moving LB 605 forward.”

With that assurance, lawmakers advanced LB 605 to Select File on a 35-3 vote.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:50]

Sponsor of Medicaid expansion measure willing to try again (AUDIO)

Sen. Kathy Campbell/Photo courtesy of Unicameral Information Office

Sen. Kathy Campbell/Photo courtesy of Unicameral Information Office

Even after defeat for three straight legislative sessions, the sponsor of the bill to expand Medicaid in Nebraska says she won’t give up.

Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln says she expected the battle to be tough and knew Gov. Pete Ricketts opposed expanding Medicaid.

“I wasn’t surprised with Gov. Ricketts’ comments and his position, because he was pretty clear about that position, I think, during the campaign,” Campbell tells Nebraska Radio Network in an interview.

The Unicameral moved to table LB 472 until the end of the legislative session after only three hours of debate. Similar measures to expand Medicaid under provisions of the Affordable Care Act in the past failed to overcome filibusters mounted against them.

Campbell heard the same arguments against the measure: skepticism over whether the federal government would continue to pay 90% of the cost, worry about how the United States Supreme Court might rule on another crucial case against the Affordable Care Act, and the cost of expansion.

Campbell expresses frustration supporters couldn’t convince enough senators about the financial benefits of expansion. She cites a University of Nebraska-Kearney study that projects Medicaid expansion could bring in $2.2 billion in federal funds to the state by 2020, more than offsetting the cost of expansion.

Expansion would have extended the state Medicaid health insurance program to approximately 77,000 needy Nebraskans without health care coverage. Campbell says there really isn’t any alternative to provide them coverage. She agrees with the governor that more money needs to be given to the state’s community healthcare clinics, but is quick to add that with only one clinic in western Nebraska, they cannot meet the need.

Going into debate, the stances of veteran senators were well known. What wasn’t known was how the 18 freshmen senators would vote.

Campbell says she worried she didn’t have the votes going into the debate, especially with the uncertainty of the freshmen and the opposition of the governor. She says a few freshmen have spoken to her since the vote to ask questions about expansion.

The issue, though, is dead for this session.

“But, looking at next year, I still have to believe that if there’s interest among some of the freshmen to talk to me about this proposal, it’s worth exploring.”

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]

Gov. Ricketts pleased Unicameral rejected Medicaid expansion (AUDIO)

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts is pleased the Unicameral has rejected a measure to expand Medicaid.

Ricketts is adamantly opposed to expanding Medicaid, casting doubt on the federal government’s promise to pay 90% of the cost and adding he doubts supporters could craft a bill he would sign.

“I don’t know how you could come back with something that I can believe in,” Ricketts tells Kevin Thomas, host of Drive Time Lincoln on Nebraska Radio Network affiliate KLIN. “You cannot rely on the federal government and therefore we’ve got to look for Nebraska-based solutions.”

Opponents of Medicaid expansion in the Unicameral effectively killed expansion after only three hours of debate Wednesday, tabling it for the remaining of this year’s legislative session.

Ricketts touts job training and funding community health care clinics as better options to help the approximately 77,000 Nebraskans not now covered by Medicaid and yet unable to afford private health insurance.

Ricketts rejects arguments that expanding the state Medicaid program would draw down billions in federal funding, which would stimulate the state economy. Ricketts claims Medicaid expansion would eventually become a drain on the state budget, pointing out that the current Medicaid program has grown from three percent of the state budget to 20%.

“And so if we would sign up for further unfunded liabilities, like this would be, that we don’t know how much it is going to cost that would take away from our ability to invest in roads, and education, and tax relief, and things we need to do to be able to grow our state.”

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]

No filibuster this year, foes find new route to sink Medicaid expansion

Sen. Campbell reviews notes during legislative debate.

Sen. Campbell reviews notes during legislative debate.

Opponents of Medicaid expansion didn’t need to resort to a filibuster this year.

They effectively killed the measure for the session after only three hours of debate.

Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln had re-fashioned her proposal to expand the state Medicaid proposal under provisions of the Affordable Care Act for the second time. The latest change was even implied in the name of LB 472: The Medicaid Redesign Act.

The bill would not only have expanded Medicaid, but proposed creation of a Medicaid Redesign task force that would study the current state Medicaid program, looking for ways to improve its quality and effectiveness.

Campbell told fellow state senators as floor debate began she made changes to tailor her bill to Nebraska.

“LB 472 pays for itself, returns our tax dollars, and saves Nebraskans money,” Campbell stated.

The fate of the bill, though, became evident after senators defeated an amendment 22-24 that made a needed change to the bill to ensure it would be constitutional.

Campbell proposed the bill to expand Medicaid to cover approximately 77,000 mostly working poor Nebraskans not now covered under Medicaid, yet unable to afford private health insurance. Campbell had failed twice before, both times unable to come up with the 33 votes needed to overcome filibusters against expansion.

This time opponents succeeded in approving a so-called bracket motion 28-16, which tabled the bill until the last day of the legislative session, effectively killing it for this year. The move, which came after three hours of debate, does keep the legislation on the shelf with the possibility of taking it down and debating it next year.

Supporters argue Nebraska has been passing up billions of federal funds offered through the Affordable Care Act by refusing to expand Medicaid. They say the state would not only extend health insurance coverage to needy Nebraskans, but would stimulate the state economy and create a more efficient health care system through expansion.

“This bill requires good things to happen that change our delivery model, that pays for performance, that encourages patients to stop using ERs for their headaches and start going to their primary care physician for those things they ought to see their primary care physician for,” Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island argued during floor debate.

But, Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala voiced the concerns of opponents by voicing concern about the federal health insurance law and expressing skepticism about its effectiveness.

“I understand that this is an important issue for folks that don’t have coverage,” Schilz stated. “The problem is that this is the wrong way to go about it.”

That was a theme Gov. Peter Ricketts struck in an interview with Nebraska Radio Network on the eve of the Medicaid expansion debate.

Ricketts said lawmakers should concentrate on providing job training so the working poor can upgrade to jobs with health care and on funding community health care clinics to serve those without insurance.