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Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt believed the votes were within her grasp to advance a bill from first-round debate that would allow food assistance for people who had lifetime bans from the benefit because of drug convictions. 

In the end, they weren't.

She had counted 37 senators that would vote to break a filibuster on the bill (LB169). Thirty-three were needed. But Wednesday, nine of those yes votes fell away by the time six hours' total debate time had elapsed.

"I guess you just have to take some inventory of who can be straight with you and who can't, and just remember that going forward," Hunt said after the 28-16 vote, in which five senators were present not voting.  

The cloture vote failed, even with a compromise amendment she worked through with opponents that would have disallowed SNAP, or food assistance, benefits for those convicted of dealing drugs and those with three or more drug convictions. Opponents had indicated they just couldn't allow the benefits for drug dealers or addicts. 

In the end, neither of the two senators who worked with Hunt on fashioning that compromise amendment — Sen. John Arch of La Vista and Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist —  gave her an affirmative vote.

The two were present not voting on the cloture motion to stop the filibuster and allow a vote on the amendment and then the bill. Geist said she did not vote on the motion because she was "frustrated with the process." She refused to comment further. 

Hunt said she was proud of the good faith efforts she herself made to work with people of different ideological backgrounds to find a compromise.

"I think that everything else that happened was just politics," she said. 

Senators should always make decisions based on policy, not personalities, she added.

During the debate, Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop reminded senators they were in the Legislature to make policy on some serious issues. He indicated some senators were worried about how a yes vote might be held against them at re-election time. 

"At the end of the day, this isn't about the next election cycle and what's going to look good on a mailer," he said. 

"We have an honest-to-god crisis in our Department of Corrections ... and the people that stand up and say 'drug addicts don't deserve SNAP' are missing an opportunity to have a conversation about a crisis facing this state."

The prisons have hit 163 percent of design capacity, he said, and a lawsuit has been filed by inmates on conditions in those prisons. And now senators have a bill that could address recidivism and prison crowding. 

The choice is giving former prisoners an opportunity to succeed, or seeing them go back to prison and contribute to more overcrowding, he said.

His office shared a 2018 study by Cody Tuttle of the University of Maryland, College Park, that showed denying drug offenders SNAP benefits increased their likelihood of going back to prison. That increase in recidivism, the study concluded, is driven by crimes that have a monetary motive, such as property crimes and selling drugs, rather than drug possession or violent crimes. 

But Sen. John Lowe of Kearney was not buying his argument. 

"Really? How does this help?" he said. "If we give them SNAP, free food, will they not still be drug addicts? ... We need to give them work. There is work out there now."

Work will give them another chance, he said. SNAP is not a chance, just another handout.

"Let's not suppress them anymore with government benefits," he said. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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