You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Geoff Johnson, Courtesy photo 

Dan Leiting works Thursday at Lincoln Industries' new tube fabrication facility in the LNK Enterprise Park.

editor's picktopical
Senators hear why they should repeal death penalty again

The question came up during a legislative hearing Thursday, more than once, on a bill that would eliminate the death penalty.

Some of those testifying in front of the Judiciary Committee wanted to know why the bill (LB44) was even introduced when a majority of Nebraskans voting in 2016 endorsed capital punishment. 

The voters rejected the Legislature's 2015 repeal of the death penalty by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin. In all, 92 of 93 counties said no to repeal. Nonetheless, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers has asked the Legislature — in 2017 and again this year — to repeal it.

"If this bill is passed out of committee, it will send a message to Nebraska citizens that 'We hear you, but we don't have to listen,'" said Pierce County Sheriff Rick Everhardt, who opposed the bill. "Or is this truly a representative Legislature that respects the voice of its people?"

Amy Miller, legal director of ACLU of Nebraska, has some legal questions about that vote of the people. The involvement of the governor's office in the referendum was a problem, she said.

Her organization filed a lawsuit alleging that Gov. Pete Ricketts violated the separation of powers clause of the state Constitution when he initiated, funded, organized and operated an initiative petition campaign that allowed voters to reject the death penalty repeal.

"Our argument in the lawsuit was, and the claim that can remain to be brought forward by habeas (claims) now, is that the governor exercised his power when he vetoed the Legislature's action," she said. 

When the Legislative voted to override the governor's power, that was the end of his ability to influence, Miller said. 

Tom Riley, Douglas County Public Defender, questioned how the death penalty is used to get confessions, and how defendants' mental illness figures into convictions and death sentences. 

He pointed to the case of condemned prisoner Nikko Jenkins, who when his mental stability was questioned, state doctors continually said he was faking it. He was sentenced to death in 2017 for the murders of four people in Omaha. 

But a number of months ago, Riley said, doctors at the State Penitentiary had an administrative hearing to determine Jenkins was in fact seriously mentally ill, so they could force him to take medication. 

"That's the kind of stuff we're dealing with," Riley said. 

David Lopez, Nebraska deputy solicitor general, testified that Attorney General Doug Peterson opposed LB44, saying it was too soon after the 2016 vote. It would be a repudiation of the people's will and inconsistent with the fundamentals of democracy, Lopez said. 

Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington asked Lopez how long should the Legislature wait to vote again on repeal of the death penalty. Since 2016, young people have turned 18, and people have moved in and out of the state. 

"Whatever it is," Lopez said, "this is too soon."

Then Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne questioned the attorney general's office taking a stand against a bill it might someday have to defend.  

"Do you see the problem and the conflict of the AG taking a position on a bill that if we decide to pass you have to defend?" Wayne said. 

Lopez said the attorney general's office weighs in on policy decisions of the Legislature all the time. 

But Wayne pressed on. 

"I'm an attorney. ... If I was talking about how I disagree with what my client was doing publicly, what faith does my client have in me to make a sound argument to uphold the law ... in that situation that I am defending my client for?" Wayne said. 

Lopez said he agreed that whether or not to retain the death penalty was a policy matter. But the attorney general wears a policy hat as well as a legal one, and can oppose and still defend a legal matter. 

Chambers, as the bill's sponsor, had the ultimate answer to why the bill was introduced 28 months after the vote. 

"As long as I'm in the Legislature, I'm not going to be bound by the vote of people when it comes to a matter of conscience, human dignity, respect for all living things," he said. "That is not to be determined for me by the vote of people whose vote may have been purchased by the expenditure of a lot of money. Or anybody else.

"I will do what I feel compelled by my conscience to do. On this and every other issue." 

Nebraska's 12 death row inmates

Nebraska's 12 death row inmates

topicaltop story
UNL students vote to keep balloons after scores, ditch plastic bags

Students surveyed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this week said they want red balloons to keep soaring over Memorial Stadium.

Just more than half — 51.5 percent — of UNL students who participated in the student elections said they wanted the longstanding Husker football tradition to continue, while 42.5 percent said they wanted it to end.

Six percent of the 3,829 students who indicated their opinion on the nonbinding survey said they didn't care.

"This wasn't a campaign against Husker football," said Brittni McGuire, president of Sustain UNL, a student-led campus and environmental sustainability organization. "This is a campaign saying that we're better than this."

The sophomore fisheries and wildlife major from Omaha said the nonbinding survey is part of a broader conversation about the environment and climate change and what students can do to solve those challenges.

"We've grown up with the science, and we see it as a huge threat and something we have to deal with," she said. "My generation is thinking more about the future and the impact of our decisions now."

McGuire and others led an educational campaign before this week's elections, setting up tables on City and East campuses and talking to students about the impacts of the balloon tradition.

UNL uses biodegradable balloons tied with 100 percent cotton string, rather than plastic ribbons, in order to minimize the impact they have on the environment upon landing.

But McGuire said it can take years for the balloons to decompose, during which time they are a threat to birds, fish and other wildlife.

The helium-filled balloons can also fly hundreds, even thousands, of miles. A red balloon emblazoned with a white "N" was found on a New York beach last November.

Other high-profile efforts to end the tradition — as well as a nationwide helium shortage in 2012 — preceded UNL's vote this week.

In 2016, an Omaha man asked a court to order the university to stop the release. The lawsuit was dismissed after a judge said because NU is a state agency, it was immune from lawsuits under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Last year, a Florida-based organization bought several billboards in and around Lincoln encouraging the Big Red to end what it called "mass-littering."

McGuire said that although a majority indicated they wanted to continue seeing balloons fly out of sight over downtown Lincoln, students showed overwhelming support for a separate environmental issue.

Two-thirds of the 3,781 students who answered the question indicated they wanted to ban plastic bags from campus bookstores, convenience stores and other vendors, while only 22 percent disagreed.

Another 420 students, about 11 percent, said they were indifferent.

McGuire said that may indicate there is momentum building behind finding alternative ways to celebrate the Big Red's success in an environmentally responsible way.

"If we take away the balloons, we'll still be celebrating touchdowns," she said. "We don't change the game, but we do save the water and the wildlife."


Balloons fly over Memorial Stadium after the Huskers scored against Rutgers on Sept. 23, 2017. A group of students is trying to get NU to end the tradition.

Farmers show cautious patience on tariffs

WASHINGTON — Iowa hog farmer Howard Hill is feeling the pinch from President Donald Trump's get-tough trade policies — his pigs are selling for less than it costs to raise them. It's a hit that Hill is willing to take for now, but his understanding also comes with a caution flag for the president.

"We have patience, but we don't have unlimited patience," says Hill, who raises about 7,000 hogs a year near the central Iowa town of Cambridge.

The president's willingness to pick trade fights with multiple trading partners at once has set off volleys of retaliatory tariffs, driving down the price of pork, corn and soybeans in political bellwether Iowa and elsewhere, and contributing to a 12 percent drop in net farm income nationally last year.

At issue are trade talks with China over intellectual property theft and a new U.S. deal with Canada and Mexico to replace NAFTA that is awaiting congressional approval. Those efforts could take months to complete.

So scores of farm and business groups are pressing for quicker relief, a stopgap step to help them out until the more comprehensive trade agreements are resolved. They're urging the administration to remove Canada and Mexico from the list of nations hit with a 25 percent tariff on steel shipped to the U.S. and a 10 percent tariff placed on aluminum. Their hope is that action would give the U.S. neighbors cause to remove retaliatory tariffs they placed on U.S. goods, such as a 20 percent levy Mexico placed on U.S.-produced hams.

So far, the administration hasn't bit on that idea, but it dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Iowa this week to assure farmers that help is on the way.

For now, Trump is walking a political tightrope: Going to bat for steel and aluminum makers has endeared him to many voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where steel production is a matter of economic pride and legacy, but it could end up hurting him in ag-heavy states such as Iowa and Wisconsin that backed him in 2016.

In Iowa, which casts the first votes of the presidential campaign season, state Republican Party Chairman Jeff Kauffmann said he's surprised by how patient farmers have been with Trump. The Trump Agriculture Department did approve up to $12 billion in assistance to help compensate farmers caught up in the tariff battle.

"They all say it's hurting," Kauffman said of the trade disputes. "They're all saying the stopgap relief was definitely not a cure-all, but they all understand what the president is trying to accomplish. It's quite an interesting phenomenon."

But the defeat of two Republican House lawmakers in last year's midterm elections hints at some of the anxiety in farm country.

State Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said the political climate in the state has changed since Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points in 2016, in part because of trade.

"These tariffs are kind of a slow burn. People are getting more and more frustrated," Price said. "It's one of the reasons Donald Trump is going to lose Iowa in 2020."

Some of the Democratic candidates for president are starting to differentiate themselves from Trump on trade when talking to Iowa voters. Sen. Kamala Harris of California has criticized the president's "go it alone" attitude. Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland says "we're not going to succeed in the global economy by enacting protectionist policies."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is among the lawmakers urging the Trump administration to lift the steel and aluminum tariffs on products brought in from Canada and Mexico. He said it's a first step to getting the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement through Congress. He also said it would improve the financial picture for farmers.

"Unfortunately, we're starting to see more and more warning signs that farmers are running out of leeway with their bankers and landlords," Grassley said.

Pompeo sought to calm some of those nerves Monday even as he warned that Chinese theft of technology affects agriculture, too.

"The good news is this — help is on the way," Pompeo said. "American producers and Chinese consumers will both be better off. The outcome of President Trump's trade negotiations currently under way will pay dividends for people in each of our two countries."