Nebraska Legislature begins 2018 session with hope, prayer -- and politics

Sen. John Murante, right, holds his 14-month-old daughter Natalia as he speaks to Sen. Curt Friesen, left (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 3, 2018 - 4:31pm

The Nebraska Legislature began its 2018 session Wednesday, with senators introducing proposals affecting everything from where drones can fly, to when prisoners must be released, to how much it costs to buy ammunition.

It was the opening day of what is expected to be a tough legislative session, with calls for more budget cuts competing with calls for tax relief. Leading off the session in prayer, Sen. Matt Williams sought divine intervention, and had some suggestions about what form that might take. “Please bring us an epiphany,” Williams asked. “Let something simple or striking bring on an illuminating discovery or disclosure of new solutions.”

Then senators got down to the more mundane task of introducing bills, as Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O’Donnell read them into the record. One of the first bills (LB675) introduced was by Sen. Bob Krist, to require the governor to declare a prison overcrowding emergency this year, instead of waiting two more years as the law currently stands. That could trigger releasing people from prison on parole. Krist says he’s trying to force a conversation on a problem that’s not going away. “Let’s have a discussion. It will force the administration to show us why they think that they’re going to be able to handle this situation,” he declared.

Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the administration has been working on prison problems. “Working together the last three sessions, the governor and Legislature have made significant investments in corrections facilities, team members and security measures. While the governor’s office does not comment on legislation early in the legislative process, declaring an emergency and letting violent criminals out of prison would threaten public safety,” Gage added. The state faces a lawsuit from the ACLU on its overcrowded prisons, which currently house about 60 percent more people than they were designed to hold. 

Sen. Carol Blood of Omaha introduced a bill (LB693) to prohibit people from flying drones lower than 300 feet in some situations. Blood says she doesn’t want to get in the way of drone operators making a living. But she says she wants to protect public safety. “When people think to use a drone for something such as dropping contraband into a prison yard, or observing other people’s children in a schoolyard, or flying over critical infrastructure without permission, we want to make sure the state’s protected,” Blood said.

Sen. Justin Wayne introduced a bill (LB730) to impose a 10 percent excise tax on ammunition. Wayne said half the proceeds would be used for wildlife conservation, and half for crime prevention measures such as counseling and treatment for kids with PTSD who have been exposed to gun violence. “This is a way for urban owners of firearms to solve some of the violence problems that we have, particularly in Omaha, and for the rural state of Nebraska, for those who like to hunt and do those type of sporting events, a way to make sure that there’s a future there, too,” he said.

Rod Moeller of the Nebraska Firearm Owners Association called Wayne’s proposal an “atrocious attack on individual liberty.”

Those proposals were among more than 100 introduced on the first day of the session, which lasts until mid-April. Sen. Jim Scheer, speaker of the Legislature, acknowledged some people have low expectations for what lawmakers will get done. But Scheer stressed the positive. “I may be more optimistic than most. I think we’ll have a great session. I think we will accomplish much. Not everybody will win everything; not everybody will lose everything. But we’ll do the people’s work. And we’ll be glad of it,” Scheer predicted.

The session continues with more bill introductions this week, and Ricketts will discuss his proposed tax changes in his state of the state speech next Wednesday.



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