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Most experienced lawmaker says Legislature has been weakened, but a new day is dawning

The legislative branch of Nebraska government convenes Wednesday morning with the swearing in of 13 new members and election of leadership.

But it begins with more than a few questions about the power of the Legislature in light of what some senators believe is disrespect that has been shown by the other two branches of government.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks complained in April that Gov. Pete Ricketts, in inserting a Title X reproductive health provision into a mainline budget bill, was the executive branch reaching into the legislative branch and "telling us what we will or will not do."

Then in May, Attorney General Doug Peterson and state Corrections Director Scott Frakes sued the Legislature's Judiciary Committee and Executive Board because the Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to compel Frakes to answer questions about the state's lethal injection protocol.

The Probation Administration, a part of the judiciary branch, has had a bumpy relationship with the legislative Ombudsman's office over attempts to prescribe how the Legislature's Inspector General for Child Welfare, Julie Rogers, can investigate cases of death or serious injury of children involved in the juvenile justice system, which it manages.

State Court Administrator Corey Steel said in late August that Rogers' attempts to investigate and question judges' orders, or lack of orders, pertaining to specific cases raised grave constitutional concerns. 

It also shows disrespect, said departing Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha, when senators need information from state agencies, to fulfill their lawful role of oversight, and don't get answers. 

Harr and others wanted to know why, for example, Ricketts had fired State Patrol Superintendent Brad Rice in 2017, and why at the end of that year, seven patrol members were fired, disciplined or allowed to resign or retire by the new colonel, John Bolduc.

The executive branch controls information within its agencies, and the Legislature was stonewalled, he said, on those and other questions.

Part of the problem is that senators are part-time, term-limited and a large number have narrow experience, Harr said. Term limits especially have weakened the Legislature's power. 

This session, 12 members will have no experience and a total of 30 members will have two years or less in the Legislature. 

On the other hand, lawmakers have the ultimate authority of the purse strings.

Last session, Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, spoke about the difficulty she had with a package of prisons-related bills because she was too concerned about how the executive branch would react. She forgot, she said, that separation of powers, enshrined in the Constitution, really means separation of powers

"You and I don’t take an oath to even care what the executive branch thinks," she told fellow senators. "We take an oath to the Constitution, which means that we must uphold the separation of powers, and act as a separate, equal branch of government. We make a promise to our constituents to do what we think is right in the policy process — not what the governor says we must do or not do."

Ebke did not succeed in her attempt for a second term, and her time as a state senator will end Wednesday when Tom Brandt is sworn in, but as a constitutional scholar, she is well-versed about the independence of the legislative branch. 

This country's founders, Ebke said, intended for the legislative branch of government to be the most powerful. And all the states were guaranteed the same system of government. 

Article I of the U.S. Constitution deals with the powers of Congress.

“There’s a certain logic that says that the thing that they mentioned first is the most important,” she said.

With discussions at the constitutional conventions and in the Federalist Papers, compromises were made to get to the idea of separate but co-equal branches of government. The legislative is not supreme, but has unique powers, Ebke said. 

In Nebraska’s Constitution, Article I deals with the rights of the people. Article II is the distribution of powers. Article III addresses legislative powers, and executive powers are covered in Article IV.

“The American way, liberty and justice and freedom ... is promoted when you have separation of powers, when everybody knows their limits," she said. "And it’s diminished when people don’t understand the limits of their powers.”

There are a limited number of current members who have that sense of protecting the institution and keeping it strong, she said, and she has found that disconcerting. 

Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has a total of 43 years in the Legislature representing Omaha's District 11, noted at an Executive Board meeting in December the weakening of the legislative branch and its powers in recent years.

"The other two branches threaten, they intimidate, and because of the kind of people who wind up in the Legislature, there's a tendency to become fearful and back off," Chambers said.

State agencies, political parties and senators who have been "purchased" by the governor have weakened the Legislature as an institution, he said.

"My last two years here I'm going to spend trying to put some steel into the spine of the Legislature. I'm going to give lectures. I'm going to fulminate on the floor of the Legislature," he said. "I'm going to serve notice to the judges, to the attorney general, to the Republican Party, to these people ... a new day is dawning and I'm saying that for the members of the Legislature.

"We are a branch of government and we are the paramount branch. The hand that controls the purse strings controls everything," Chambers said.

Meet the Legislature's 13 new members

Meet the 13 new members set to join Nebraska's Legislature

Trump pleads on TV for wall money; Dems say he 'stokes fear'

WASHINGTON — In a somber televised plea, President Donald Trump urged congressional Democrats to fund his long-promised border wall Tuesday night, blaming illegal immigration for the scourge of drugs and violence in the U.S. and framing the debate over the partial government shutdown in stark terms. "This is a choice between right and wrong," he declared.

Democrats in response accused Trump appealing to "fear, not facts" and manufacturing a border crisis for political gain.

Addressing the nation from the Oval Office for the first time, Trump argued for spending some $5.7 billion for a border wall on both security and humanitarian grounds as he sought to put pressure on newly empowered Democrats amid the extended shutdown.

Trump, who will visit the Mexican border in person Thursday, invited the Democrats to return to the White House to meet with him Wednesday, saying it was "immoral" for "politicians to do nothing." Previous meetings have led to no agreement as Trump insists on the wall that was his signature promise in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Responding in their own televised remarks, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused Trump of misrepresenting the situation on the border as they urged him to reopen closed government departments and turn loose paychecks for hundreds of thousands of workers.

Negotiations on wall funding could proceed in the meantime, they said.

Schumer said Trump "just used the backdrop of the Oval Office to manufacture a crisis, stoke fear and divert attention from the turmoil in his administration."

Overall, Trump largely restated his case for the wall without offering concessions or new ideas on how to resolve the standoff that has kept large swaths of the government closed for the past 18 days. Speaking in solemn tones from behind the Resolute Desk, he painted a dire picture of killings and drug deaths he argues come from unchecked illegal immigration.

Trump ticked off a string of statistics and claims to make his case that there is a crisis at the border, but a number of his statements were misleading, such as saying the new trade deal with Mexico would pay for the wall, or suggesting through gruesome examples that immigrants are more likely to commit crime.

Shifting between empathetic appeals and the dark immigration rhetoric that was a trademark of his presidential campaign, Trump asked: "How much more American blood must we shed before Congress does its job?"

Trump, who has long railed against illegal immigration at the border, has recently seized on humanitarian concerns to argue there is a broader crisis that can only be solved with a wall. But critics say the security risks are overblown and the administration is at least partly to blame for the humanitarian situation.

Trump used emotional language, referring to Americans who were killed by people in the country illegally, saying: "I've met with dozens of families whose loved ones were stolen by illegal immigration. I've held the hands of the weeping mothers and embraced the grief-stricken fathers. So sad. So terrible."

The president often highlights such incidents, though studies over several years have found immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.

Trump has been discussing the idea of declaring a national emergency to allow him to move forward with the wall without getting congressional approval for the billions he's requested. But he did not mention that Tuesday.

With his use of a formal White House speech instead of his favored Twitter blasts, Trump embraced the ceremonial trappings of his office as he tries to exit a political quagmire of his own making. For weeks he has dug in on a signature campaign promise to his base voters, the pledge to build an impregnable "beautiful" wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The partial government shutdown reached its 18th day, making the closure the second-longest in history. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are going without pay, and government disruptions are hitting home with everyday Americans.

Asylum seekers find it's catch and can't release fast enough

SAN DIEGO — President Donald Trump says he has ended "catch-and-release" for asylum seekers, but in cities on the U.S. border with Mexico it is catch and can't release fast enough.

Since late October, the U.S. has been releasing asylum-seeking families so quickly they don't even have time to make travel arrangements, which it blames on lack of detention space. Families are often given court dates without even having to pass initial screenings by asylum officers. They end up in shelters run by charities, or are dropped off at bus stations in border cities.

For one Salvadoran family, that dizzying series of events began when their 7-year-old daughter, Yariza Flores, landed on barbed wire after being hoisted over a border fence during their illegal crossing last month. She was rushed to a San Diego hospital to stop profuse bleeding.

Just four days later, U.S. authorities dropped her off at a San Diego shelter with her parents and 3-year-old brother. They had no money, the clothes on their backs and an order given to them during their stint in U.S. custody to appear in immigration court in Houston, where they planned to live with Yariza's grandmother and two aunts. They didn't even have time to arrange for relatives to buy bus tickets before they were released.

"I feel happy, because we're finally here, we're finally going to see my family," the girl's mother, Tania Escobar, said in the shelter dining hall after a meal of shredded chicken, rice and beans. Her daughter sat nearby, all smiles, wearing a silver crown that a Border Patrol agent gave her and holding a stuffed animal from a doctor who treated the severe cuts on her lower back.

From California to Arizona to Texas, volunteers are scrambling to help families until they can arrange transportation to relatives across the U.S. The San Diego Rapid Response Network, an advocacy coalition that runs the shelter that housed Yariza and her family, has served more than 4,000 people since opening in a church in late October, moving five times since then because it ran out of space.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement often coordinates with these shelters. On the December night that Yariza arrived, ICE brought 125 people in buses that came every half-hour. One night during Christmas week, the facility received 180 people, forcing it to use a church for the overflow.

The situation belies Trump's assertion, in a November tweet, that "Catch and Release is an obsolete term. It is now Catch and Detain."

The Trump administration announced Dec. 20 that it would make asylum seekers who enter the U.S. on its southern border wait in Mexico while their claims wind through clogged immigration courts, which can take years. But that "catch-and-return" policy has yet to take effect while the two countries work on mechanics; a legal challenge appears likely.

So, for now, many asylum-seeking families are being released in the U.S. before even they are ready. ICE dropped off hundreds of people daily at a bus station in El Paso, Texas, over the holidays. In Tucson, Arizona, charities have rented motel rooms when shelters are full.

ICE began shortening custody stays Oct. 23 in response to the growing numbers of families crossing from Mexico. Officials say ICE previously ensured that families had travel plans first but that it's not legally required to do so.

"After decades of inaction by Congress, the government remains severely constrained in its ability to detain and promptly remove families with no legal basis to remain in the U.S.," said ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez. "As a result, family units continue to cross the border at high volumes and are likely to continue to do so, as they face no consequence for their actions."

At the San Diego shelter, asylum-seeking families, largely from Guatemala and Honduras, are asked about their health at the front door. A mobile clinic in the parking lot tends to people with sore throats, dehydration, vomiting, fevers and other ailments.

Once inside, a large room manned by volunteers resembles a busy travel agency. Families lined up at rows of tables tell shelter workers their plans and get help calling family to pay for travel. A whiteboard in the corner marks progress buying tickets to New York; Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; and other cities across the U.S. Volunteers shuttle as many as they can to a bus station or airport to make room for the next night's arrivals.

Shelter organizers say it costs $350,000 a month to operate the facility, which provides food, showers, cots, clothing and sometimes travel expenses. The state of California has donated $500,000 for administrative costs, and the city of San Diego may turn a former juvenile detention camp into a shelter.

"We can't do everything ourselves, but I know we're capable of doing more," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said after visiting the shelter in November as governor-elect, calling it "a humanitarian crisis."

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LPS board approves limiting transfers to East and Lincoln High to ease overcrowding

Choosing to go to Lincoln East and Lincoln High schools just got harder for students who don’t live in those attendance areas.

The Lincoln Board of Education on Tuesday approved closing both schools to transfers for high school students who live outside those attendance areas.

And the schools won't consider applications by eighth-graders who live in other attendance areas to enroll in those schools after the Jan. 31 deadline.

The proposal, which doesn’t end the longtime policy of open high school enrollment, does add some limitations in an effort to curb overcrowding at both schools. The arrangement is the same one that’s been in effect at North Star since 2016.

Eighth-graders still have until Jan. 31 to turn in high school-choice forms to attend both East and Lincoln High, but none will be accepted after that. 

“I think it’s important to keep in mind LPS continues to believe it’s important for eighth-graders to have a choice of high schools,” said Matt Larson, assistant superintendent for instruction. “And they will and they do.”

But high school overcrowding is a problem — one that’s sparked discussion about building a new high school. A community task force researched the question and now a superintendent's advisory committee will consider the question as part of its review of building needs that will culminate in recommendations for the next bond issue.

This fall, five of the six public high schools have more than 2,000 students and three of them have more than 2,200.

LPS officials are predicting that enrollment at East — for years the smallest public high school — will be more than 2,300 students next fall, and Lincoln High's more than 2,400, Larson said.

LPS officials feel that existing spaces in the high schools — gymnasiums, classroom space and cafeteria space — are stretched too tight with more than 2,300 students, Larson said.

The Jan. 31 deadline for eighth-graders to send in their school-choice forms has been flexible at most schools and this policy will eliminate that flexibility. 

School board member Lanny Boswell said the flexibility at the remaining high schools helps the district, because some students choose to transfer out of the most-crowded schools.

The appeals process will still be there for East and Lincoln High for board members to consider extenuating circumstances, Larson said.

“The bottom line is, in the past, transfer requests or option choices after Jan. 31 were still accepted,” Larson said. “If this is adopted, students wishing to attend Lincoln High or East who fail to meet that deadline, those choice forms wouldn’t be accepted.”

The policy, which remains in affect at North Star, has reduced enrollment there by 200 to 300 students. But North Star enrollment this year is 2,202 and it still has five portable classrooms, Larson said.

Officials review the North Star policy annually and would do the same if it's adopted at East and Lincoln High, he said.

Breaking down Lincoln's public schools

Breaking down Lincoln's public schools: Enrollment, test scores and more