Ernie Chambers’ bid to repeal death penalty falls short

LINCOLN — State lawmakers fell far short of advancing a bill to repeal the death penalty on Thursday, with only 17 of the 49 senators supporting repeal.

Much of the sometimes contentious debate centered on whether repealing capital punishment would ignore the will of Nebraska voters, who voted in 2016 to overturn the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty.

State Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, the Legislature’s youngest member, said repealing capital punishment now would show “flagrant disregard” for the vote, which restored the death penalty by 61% to 39%.

Others disagreed, including Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has led the fight to repeal the death penalty during his four-decade tenure in the Legislature. LB 44 was his latest bill to eliminate the death penalty.

Chambers, the Legislature’s oldest senator, said matters like death should not be subject to a public vote, quoting from the 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down the states’ capital punishment policies then in effect. Many states then amended their policies and reinstated the death penalty, including Nebraska, which is one of 30 states that still have the punishment.

The senator said that many heinous murders do not result in the death penalty and that every other developed country in the world has banned its use.

“The death penalty is degrading,” he said, “and its very existence runs against what this country supposedly stands for.”

Chambers — who has only the 2019 and 2020 sessions to serve before he’s term-limited — said he does not believe in miracles and doubted that his effort to repeal capital punishment would be successful this year.

Debate on the measure delved into biblical teachings about killing, the evolving position of the Roman Catholic Church and the role of Gov. Pete Ricketts and his family in financing the campaign that restored capital punishment.

Some senators blamed the death penalty for the $28 million court judgment against Gage County, where six innocent people were wrongfully convicted in connection with a murder there after being threatened with the death penalty. Some gave false testimony, and others agreed to falsely plead guilty — but DNA evidence later tied the slaying to an Oklahoma man.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, said if it was any other state program, it would have been repealed long ago because it is so ineffective and so randomly imposed. He called it “death by incarceration” because inmates sit for 25 years or longer before their appeals are exhausted.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha said senators can’t consider themselves “pro-life” and support the death penalty. But Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln said that she’s “pro-innocent life” and that heinous crimes deserve the ultimate penalty.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said that if senators really respected the “will of the people,” they would join him in protest over the Ricketts administration’s slow progress in implementing another voter-approved measure, the one to expand Medicaid.

Debate became heated at times. One issue was whether conservatives in the body were forcing a vote on LB 44 so they could get lawmakers to record their support or opposition and use that in future elections. After the 2015 vote to repeal, three death penalty opponents lost reelection bids, in part because of their votes.

One death penalty foe, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, said the vote was taken Thursday in recognition of Chambers’ long effort to do away with capital punishment. This year might be Chambers’ last chance to get a vote on the issue, she said.

The vote was 25-17 against advancing the bill, with seven senators either absent or present and not voting. LB 44 is not likely to return to the agenda this year, but Chambers could introduce another repeal bill in 2020.

Chambers, who is a master of using legislative rules to block legislation, pledged to “get even” with senators who opposed him during the rest of the 2019 session. The session ends in early June.

Nebraska carried out its first execution in 21 years and its first by lethal injection on Aug. 14. Carey Dean Moore, 60, decided to drop all appeals of his death sentence for the 1979 killings of Omaha cabdrivers Reuel Van Ness and Maynard Helgeland.

Roughed up by opponents, tax plan gets another look. A day after a rugged, marathon public hearing, a state legislative committee is taking a step back in crafting a bill to reduce property taxes via a hefty increase in state aid to K-12 schools.

The Legislature’s Revenue Committee plans to take another look at some other ideas for raising tax revenue after its initial proposal, Legislative Bill 289, was roughed up by opponents in a seven-hour hearing that extended late into the night on Wednesday.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, one of the main authors of the bill, said Thursday that she’s still hopeful that the committee can get a bill passed but that right now, it is “highly tenuous, very difficult.”

The eight-member committee met for about an hour late Thursday afternoon to discuss their reaction to the public hearing, in which only four of the more than 60 officials and citizens who testified spoke in favor of LB 289.

More than half of the committee expressed doubt that the bill could pass in its current form. One senator doubted that even half of the Legislature supported it.

They agreed to hold another executive session on Friday afternoon and to discuss other competing bills and amendments to LB 289, such as lowering the proposed state sales tax increase from ¾ of a cent to ½ of a cent, and doing away with more sales tax exemptions.

Two farmers on the committee, Sens. Curt Friesen of Henderson and Tom Briese of Albion, said they could not support the bill unless it retained the state property tax credit program, a 12-year-old break that now gives $138 in credits for every $100,000 worth of farm- or ranchland, and $86 for every $100,000 in home or business value.

“That’s guaranteed property tax relief,” Briese said. “I’m not trading that for a spreadsheet.”

That was a reference to the complex computations, spelled out on a series of spreadsheets, on how LB 289 would affect every school district in the state. The bill is too complex, he and several others on the Revenue Committee said Thursday.

Linehan and another main author of LB 289, North Platte Sen. Mike Groene, disagreed. They said that the state aid formula for K-12 just takes time to understand.

LB 289 would need at least 30 votes to overcome an almost-guaranteed veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has railed against the proposal in recent days as “the largest tax increase in state history.” It’s likely to need yes votes from 33 of the 49 senators to overcome an anticipated filibuster against portions of the bill, which includes new taxes on pop, candy and bottled water, and repeals tax exemptions on some plumbing, moving and veterinary services.

Most senators said they would reconsider repealing more tax exemptions — such as those on haircuts, painting services and admissions to zoos — that had been deleted from LB 289 earlier.

Linehan said she didn’t think Wednesday’s hearing was as dismal as some portrayed it. She urged her fellow members to focus on the attributes of the bill, including the $575 million in additional state aid to local schools, which would push Nebraska from 47th among the states in state aid to schools to about 20th.

Linehan said the committee has already taken one step to quell the opposition of cities, counties and other property taxing entities. On Thursday, a request for a legal opinion was sent to the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office. Senators want to know if they can focus a proposed change only on school districts, for the purpose of computing school aid.

A parade of officials from cities, counties and community colleges testified against LB 289 on Wednesday, saying they would lose significant property tax revenue under the bill because it would lower the taxable value of land for all property taxing entities, not just schools.

Bonding authority. A bill allowing the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District to keep using bonds for flood-control projects overcame a legislative filibuster Thursday.

Lawmakers voted 36-9 for a debate-ending cloture motion, then advanced Legislative Bill 177 to the final stage of consideration.

The measure, introduced by State Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha, would extend the Papio-Missouri River NRD’s bonding authority for five years, until 2024. The metro-area NRD is the only one in the state allowed to issue bonds.

State lawmakers originally granted that authority for 10 years, starting in 2009. That authority is set to expire at the end of this year. The NRD has issued $70 million in bonds over the past decade for six projects; eight more projects are in the queue.

Under LB 177, property tax levies needed to pay off the bonds would have to fit within the state-mandated 4.5-cent levy limit for NRDs. However, opponents argued that the measure would mean higher property taxes for district residents.

NRD-built reservoirs and levees were critical in keeping floods at bay along Papillion Creek while the Western Sarpy Clear Creek Levee project along the Platte River helped contain the flooding around Omaha well fields.

Right to Farm. A compromise was struck Thursday on a once-controversial proposal that some said would have precluded a rural neighbor from ever filing a nuisance lawsuit against a neighboring farm that created a nuisance of dust, odor or flies.

Lawmakers gave second-round approval to LB 227 after adopting a compromise crafted by Sen. Steve Lathrop and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango.

Under the compromise, the Right to Farm Act would still protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits from neighbors who just moved into the vicinity.

But it would also put a two-year deadline on such lawsuits in the event that a farming operation expands. The two-year clock would begin running at the point the expansion created physical discomfort for a neighbor.

Hughes said the amended bill gives livestock producers some certainty about potential legal action, yet keeps them responsible for running an operation that doesn’t create a nuisance.

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