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Senators pushing for more progress in reducing crowded prisons

Senators are making another run at cracking the prison overcrowding problems in Nebraska with a stack of bills being introduced this week. 

The justice system oversight committee report showed that while progress has been made in the Department of Correctional Services, more work needs to be done on significant overcrowding and understaffing, said Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz. 

By law, prisons must declare a crowding emergency if prisons overall are not at or lower than 140 percent of capacity or lower by July 1, 2020. If the emergency is declared, the Parole Board must reconsider inmates for accelerated release until the population reaches 125 percent of capacity. 

The Legislature has a duty to examine the issues and do everything it can to support correctional officers, reduce overcrowding and ensure senators are doing everything they can to address problems brought forward by an ACLU overcrowding lawsuit, Bolz said. 

Several Lincoln senators have waded into the problem of crowded prisons because Lincoln has four major prisons including the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, Lincoln Correctional Center, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, and Community Corrections Center of Lincoln. 

Omaha also has a couple of state prisons. 

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist said the money exists in the budget to fix many of the problems, but it would need to be reinvested in certain ways. States that, like Nebraska, have had the Council of State Governments advise them on justice reinvestment are doing well and shutting down prisons. 

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus also hopes that before term limits push him out of the Legislature he can help the department in some way to get off "dead center" on overcrowding problems. 

"You talk and you talk. And you study and you study year after year, and you find out you're going to study some more," he said. "Because that seems to be the universal answer when you don't have money and are unwilling to finance what you know you have to do." 

One of his contributions will be to amend a bill he has in the Judiciary Committee that addresses double bunking, he said. It was "absolutely unconscionable" last year to put a young man who was in prison for a fairly minor offense into a cell with an inmate who had "nothing to lose."

Terry Berry Jr. was killed last year after he was put in a double-bunked cell at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. Department Director Scott Frakes blamed Berry's death solely on his cellmate, Patrick Schroeder, who was serving life in prison for murder. 

Frakes said in October he planned to continue double-bunking inmates in solitary confinement despite Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick's call for him to suspend the practice out of concern it increases dangers for inmates and staff.

The Legislature owes the men and women working in the Nebraska Department of Corrections a "deep gratitude and respect" for working in one of the toughest jobs that help keep the community safe, said Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart. 

She and her staff did major research on prison issues over the interim she said, and it is clear the Legislature must prioritize staff retention to address high turnover, increased costs of overtime and the health of employees. 

Senators are also concerned that inmates are languishing in prison because of a lack of programming. 

All kinds of ideas exist to help increase programming for inmates, said Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks. Think portable buildings like the schools use for classrooms, or the many volunteers in the community who are willing to help, she said. 

"All of the bills we are talking about today are about preparation, planning and public safety," Pansing Brooks said. "Ninety-six to 98 percent of those inmates are coming back into our community. Do we want them safer or not?" 

Despite law changes, lottery winners will face big tax bills

DES MOINES, Iowa — Pity the Powerball and Mega Millions lottery game winners.

Federal tax law changes would seem to promise that those who beat the odds and win a jackpot could keep more of their winnings from the government. But even as the new law cut top federal income tax rates, it also reduced the ability to deduct state taxes.

There are exceptions, as 10 states including California, Texas and Florida don't tax lottery winnings. But in most of the country, the newly rich won't be even richer because of the tax law.

"The changes roughly offset," said Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Tax Policy Center. "The new tax bill will not give any benefit to most lottery winners."

The issue arises because federal income tax bracket changes approved by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last month take effect at a time when jackpots for the nation's two national lotteries have grown enormous. The Mega Millions game offered a $445 million prize for Friday's drawing, and the Powerball game's top prize has reached $550 million for tonight's drawing.

The chances of winning the jackpots are incredibly small, at about one in 302 million for Mega Millions and one in 292 million for Powerball. Even for those who beat the odds, they might find that their dream paycheck is smaller than they thought.

In part, that's because nearly all winners take the cash option. For Friday's Mega Millions prize, that would mean winning not the much-trumpeted $445 million annuity paid over 29 years but $277 million in cash.

Of that, 37 percent, or about $102.5 million would be owed to the federal government in taxes. That's a savings of about $7 million from the old tax rate of 39.6 percent, but factoring in the state deduction change would wipe out the bonus.

Under the old law, unlimited state income taxes could be deducted from federal taxes, but that deduction is now capped at $10,000. State lottery taxes vary from about 3 percent to more than 8 percent, so on a $277 million cash prize, a winner's tax bill could climb by $15 million or more.

For someone suddenly showered with newfound wealth, would a few million more or less matter? Yes, said San Francisco tax attorney Robert Wood.

"Maybe someone shouldn't care if it's a million here or a million there," Wood said. "But anyone who looks at the size of a tax bill from a win like this is going to care at some level about taxes because the number is so huge."

For those mulling ways to avoid taxes, experts say, don't count on it.

Federal law lets people deduct up to 60 percent of their adjusted gross income to a recognized nonprofit, but for those not feeling so charitable, there's no way around the tax bill.

"I'm not aware of any other way to shield it," said Mildred Carter, a senior federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer, a Riverwoods, Illinois, tax and accounting analysis firm. "They'll have to pay."

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'Internet drives the economy now': Lincoln senator seeks to re-enact net neutrality rules in Nebraska

A Nebraska lawmaker introduced a bill Friday to restore rules preventing internet service providers from slowing your ability to binge television shows on Netflix or blocking search engines that aren't Google.

The “Internet Neutrality Act” (LB856), introduced by Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, would restore the federal rules at the state level, prohibiting broadband internet service providers from “limiting or restricting access to web sites, applications, or content.”

“For me, this is an economic development and consumer protection bill,” Morfeld said. “The internet drives the economy now and it’s critical people have open and fair access to the internet.”

Morfeld announced his intention to introduce the bill shortly after the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 along party lines to repeal the Obama-era regulations on Dec. 14.

Along with lifting the regulations that made it illegal for internet service providers to block or slow access to websites they did not own, net neutrality also prevents those providers from charging extra fees to customers, a "pay-to-play" arrangement in order to connect to certain websites or use applications that eat up large amounts of internet bandwidth.

Morfeld said the idea of reintroducing net neutrality rules at the state level received support from across the political spectrum.

“I knew I was passionate about it, but I was shocked at the support I received from Republicans, from Democrats and Libertarians,” he said.

Other states are also considering legislation to re-enact net neutrality rules on a local basis while activists groups and several state attorneys general have sued the FCC to stop the repeal of the rule.

Washington state lawmakers, anticipating the repeal to net neutrality rules, hope to force broadband companies to disclose accurate information about the price and speed of their services, while also preventing those companies from creating so-called “fast lanes” for consumers who pay more.

In California, a bill was introduced earlier this week to regulate internet service providers as public utilities and to block them from using utility poles unless they agreed to comply with the net neutrality rules. The California bill also prohibits government agencies from contracting with internet service providers who do not uphold net neutrality commitments.

The state-by-state legislation being introduced could become the subject of a second net neutrality-related lawsuit. In the 539-page declaratory ruling by the FCC published on Jan. 4, the commission indicates that the federal rules pre-empt any local legislation passed into law by state governments.

“(A)llowing state or local regulation of broadband Internet access service could impair the provision of such service by requiring each ISP to comply with a patchwork of separate and potentially conflicting requirements across all of the different jurisdictions in which it operates,” the ruling states.

LB856 echoes parts of the Washington bill requiring broadband providers to publicly disclose accurate information regarding management practices, service performance and prices to users.

Morfeld's proposal also aims to prevent internet service providers from blocking or restricting content and applications on certain devices, while also preventing those companies from practicing “paid prioritization,” or providing better internet service to customers who pay more.

Those provisions of the bill include exemptions for “reasonable network management” based on technical abilities and not business practices.

The Nebraska Telecommunications Association, which said it would study Morfeld's bill before taking a position on it, circulated a white paper among its 30 member companies last year describing the 2015 rules as trying "to fit a square peg in a round hole."

"We need common rules of the road that apply evenly to all players in the internet ecosystem," the paper states, adding that the net neutrality rules only applied to retail broadband providers and not major companies like Google, Amazon or Facebook.

ERIC GREGORY, Journal Star 

Adam Morfeld