Campaign finance, cigarette taxes, jail fees dominate Legislature

Sen. Ernie Chambers, center, opposes a bill to charge jail inmates copays for doctor visits (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 15, 2016 - 3:48pm

A proposal aimed at preventing the misuse of campaign funds is gaining support in the Legislature. Meanwhile, a measure that would more than triple the state's cigarette tax has been introduced, while one that could force jail inmates to pay a share of their medical costs is bogged down in debate

The campaign finance bill is aimed at situations like that of former Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha, who earlier this decade borrowed more than $63,000 from her campaign treasury to gamble at casinos.

Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue wants to prohibit campaigns from making loans, and require them to provide the Nebraska Accountability bank statement once a year. Crawford was asked if that would help prevent abuse of campaign funds. "Absolutely," she replied. "The bill requires that the Accountabliity and Disclosure Commission can check to see if the amount in your bank actually matches the amount in your bank actually matches the amount that your reports say should be in your bank."

Crawford introduced the bill last year along with Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers. But it remains bottled up in the Government, Military and Veteran’s Affairs Committee. This year, she’s persuaded 28 other senators to sign on as cosponsors.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna, chairman of the committee, is not one of those cosponsors. Murante predicts the Legislature will do something on campaign finance this year. "Right now the question is ‘How do we provide necessary information to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission without creating an undue burden on people who aren’t doing anything wrong?’" Murante said, adding that work remains to be done on that.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island has introduced a bill that would increase the current 64 cents per pack cigarette tax to $2.14 a pack.

That would raise an estimated $120 million a year, which Gloor proposes to divide between various property tax relief and health promotion funds. He said Nebraska hasn’t increased cigarette taxes since 2002, and now has a lower rate than 39 other states. (For a map of cigarette taxes by state, click here). And Gloor said increasing the tax could discourage some people from smoking, and save on future health care costs.

Also on Friday, debate continued on a proposal by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill to let counties charge jail inmates a co-pay of up to $10 for non-emergency visits to doctors’ offices. Larson said county officials support the idea. "They understand though it may not be a large revenue gainer, in the sense that the copay will be very small, it will cut and curb costs because it will stop what they consider…frivolous visits to the doctors’ offices or dentists’ offices just to get out of jail for a little while," Larson said.

Chambers has been leading opposition to the bill using many different arguments, including a biblical one Friday. "When you take these people who have virtually nothing, and you want to be arrogant, you want to look down your nose, and say ‘they did this, they did that, therefore they’re not worthy,’ Jesus didn’t talk about prisoners like that. He said ‘Remember the prisoner as (if you were) imprisoned with him," Chambers said.

Chambers has been filibustering against the bill. This year, Speaker Galen Hadley is allowing six hours of first-round debate before a motion to cut off debate. That will be reached after about two more hours. If the votes so far are indicative, supporters will fall short, effectively killing the proposal.

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