Rotunda blog: State lawmakers head into home stretch

2013-05-19T04:00:00Z Rotunda blog: State lawmakers head into home stretchBy KEVIN O'HANLON / Column JournalStar.com
May 19, 2013 4:00 am  • 

Nebraska lawmakers return to work Monday and head into the home stretch of a session that has been marked by divisiveness and — in the case of two of the most contentious issues — inaction.

Monday is the 80th day of the 90-day session, and a logjam of bills — 655 were introduced — awaits.

But senators likely will not vote on measures to abolish the death penalty (LB543) or expand Medicaid (LB577) to some 54,000 uninsured Nebraskans because a group of conservative lawmakers mounted filibusters against the bills and there was not enough support to get 33 of the Legislature's 49 members to end debate.

Thus, the measures languish in legislative purgatory as lawmakers sprint to the June 5 finish line.

In truth, the only thing they're required to do — as spelled out in the Nebraska Constitution — is pass a two-year state budget of some $7.8 billion.

They are expected to give final approval to a series of measures Monday to do just that.

"I hope that we get that moved on to the governor," said Speaker Greg Adams of York. "Then we will step back and see what the governor says about the budget. And if there are vetoes that we have to deal with, that will be the next priority."

The budget invests in education — early childhood, K-12 and colleges and universities — and services for people with developmental disabilities. State employees would get 2.25 percent salary increases  each year.

Average budget growth for the two years is estimated at 5.2 percent, slightly higher than Gov. Dave Heineman's proposal. It includes a slightly lower increase for the University of Nebraska than Heineman proposed but keeps in place a two-year tuition freeze. And it includes an obligated state expenditure for school employee retirement funds, left out of Heineman's budget.

Also on the fast track is a cornerstone bill of a proposed overhaul of Nebraska's juvenile justice system. The bill (LB561) by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford won second-round approval Wednesday on a voice vote. It faces one more round of consideration.

It would reorganize the system to focus on mental health treatment instead of punishment. The mission of juvenile offender centers at Kearney and Geneva would change under the plan.

The measure is co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Krist of Omaha and Kathy Campbell and Amanda McGill of Lincoln.

Adams said several bills designated priority measures by lawmakers still needed to be discussed.

"We still have a handful," he said. "My goal is to try to get them some debate time."

Bills introduced this year will come back next session unless they are killed in committee or fail to pass on the floor of the Legislature.

"We also have a number of bills that are beginning to collect on final reading with fiscal notes attached," he said. "And once the budget's done, our next problem will be taking a look at all those different bills and deciding if they fit in what the budget allows."

One of those is the juvenile justice package, which at present has an accompanying appropriations bill calling for spending $10 million a year to establish community-based treatment options for young offenders. But that likely will be revised downward by the time the bill is passed, said Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Meanwhile, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers says he has plans for the group of conservative senators — which he calls a cabal — that led filibusters against Medicaid expansion and his bill to abolish the death penalty.

"Here you have a group of people … who will clump together and just be together on an issue. They are cowardly, because they need a lot of company before they take a stand," he said, adding that they appear to be doing the bidding of Heineman and the Republican Party.

"They have been obstructionist, and they are proudest when what they do seems to replicate what's happening in Washington, D.C.," Chambers said. "I know that there are issues on which I will play a greater role (in the waning days of the session) because some of them are going to be involved.

"They dished it out. I'm going to see if they can take it."

Reach Kevin O'Hanlon at 402-473-2682 or kohanlon@journalstar.com.

Copyright 2015 JournalStar.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.