Legislature moves toward easing police chase liability; Medicaid and prison proposals heard

Rounding up senators to vote on police chases (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 10, 2016 - 5:53pm

The Nebraska Legislature took a step toward easing cities and counties’ financial liability for people injured in police chases; while state senators began hearing proposals for expanding Medicaid and building more beds in community.

The police chase bill stemmed from a line of court cases on who is a so-called "innocent third party" whose injuries must be paid for if they’re injured in a chase. In a case in 2012, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that "innocent third party" applied to a passenger in a car that flipped on a gravel road while being chased by a Platte County sheriff.

The man became crippled, and Platte County had to pay, even though that man had methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia with him. In a concurring opinion, Judge William Cassel wrote the Legislature might want to limit the definition of innocent third party.

Sen. Dan Watermeier’s proposal would exempt people who had engaged in a felony prior to entering the vehicle. Watermeier said the change is justified. "We do have a clear suggestion from Judge Cassel. I have respect for the Supreme Court I have respect for the officers in this state whether they’re a deputy sheriff, a sheriff, (a) state patrolman or federal agent," Watermeier said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers opposed the bill, arguing it shouldn’t make any difference if someone had committed an unrelated crime if they did not encourage the driver to flee.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks cited statistics she said came from the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "Roughly 40 percent of all pursuits end in a crash, 80 percent of which are with another vehicle, another 20 percent end in traumatic injury and 1 percent in death. Innocent bystanders, uninvolved drivers, and pedestrians account for nearly one-third of these deaths. Ninety one percent of all police chases are precipitated on nonviolent crimes," she said. Brooks said the state should be discouraging such chases, not making them easier.

After six hours of debate stretching over several days, senators voted for cloture to shut down a filibuster against the bill, which they then gave first-round approval on a vote of 34-6.

Wednesday afternoon, the Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony on the latest proposal to expand Medicaid to cover an estimated 77,000 low-income Nebraskans. The proposal by Omaha Sen. John McCollister and others would use Medicaid funds to help buy private insurance policies.

Sen. Merv Riepe, like McCollister a registered Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, asked why the state should change its policy, when a new president and Congress could change the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. "Mrs. Clinton, who is a presidential candidate as we all know has said that in 2017 there will be changes to the Affordable Care Act. Obviously if Sen. Sanders is elected, there will be significant changes. My question in part would be is why would we ten months away from a new presidency, even though it may not be totally aborted, if you will, the Accountable (sic) Care Act will experience some changes regardless of who the next president is," Riepe said.

McCollister said regardless of who’s elected, it will be difficult to repeal popular parts of the Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid expansion. Merlin Friesen, testifying for the Nebraska Farmers Union and as a part-time emergency room doctor in Beatrice, supported expansion. "It feels to me, having observed this situation three years in a row I believe – where attempts to achieve expansion of Medicaid coverage funded almost entirely by the federal government have been stymied – stymied by partisan politics. I don’t like the thought of seeing our citizens, and our health care providers and our health care institutions in this state thrown under the bus," Friesen said.

The administrations of former Gov. Dave Heieman and current Gov. Pete Ricketts, both Republicans, have opposed Medicaid expansion. Republican supporters of expansion like McCollister argue it would bring billions of federal dollars into Nebraska. But Ricketts says the state would have to match that with hundreds of millions of dollars, taking up funds needed for other needs such as roads and schools.

Also Wednesday, Corrections director Scott Frakes went before the Appropriations Committee to present his strategic plan for dealing with prison overcrowding.

Frakes’ plan includes a proposal for a 26 million dollar expansion of Lincoln Community Corrections Center. It would add 148 beds for inmates on work release. But it wouldn’t be open for another three years.

That drew this question from Senator Heath Mello of Omaha about whether Frakes is planning on any stop gap measures to add prison beds in the meantime. "Knowing that we’re going to have to wait three years before we get that first new bed, has there been any internal discussions about looking at other short term options to help mitigate the overcrowding?" Mello asked. Frakes said the short answer was ‘no.’"

Frakes said he wants to put money toward building up the capacity of reentry programs that help prisoners transitioning back to the community. "If I thought the real urgent issue was around people don’t have enough room to sleep, I think that might be something I’d be more urgent about exploring," he said.

Frakes argued the prison sentencing reform law passed last year would start bringing down the inmate numbers in the short term. But he said the problem isn’t just the number of beds, but the lack of behavioral health care and job training.

Senator Bob Krist of Omaha told the committee that overcrowding is still the top problem for the prisons system. "The overall arching question here is we’re spending $26.1 million and we’re seeing the first bed in 3 years. That doesn’t go to the question of solving our bed problem," Krist said.

Krist warned lawmakers that overcrowding problems could still draw lawsuits from the ACLU or Department of Justice. "DOJ will come in here and cause chaos and havoc that the State of Nebraska cannot afford, nor does it it want the safety hazards that will exist," he said.

The committee is expected to make a recommendation on constructions in its budget proposal that the rest of the legislature will vote on.





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