Nebraska Legislature resumes with discussion of YRTCs

The Nebraska Legislature resumed its 2020 session Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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July 20, 2020 - 7:11pm

The Nebraska Legislature resumed its 2020 session Monday, moving to slow down the Ricketts administration’s plans to move a youth rehabilitation and treatment center.


In a legislative chamber divided by plexiglass partitions, senators – many, but not all, wearing masks – resumed their session that had been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic in March.

One of the first subjects they took up had to do with the future of the state’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, or YRTCs. The centers are places where young people who have committed violations like assault or burglary are sent. Until last August, there was one for boys in Kearney and one for girls in Geneva, Nebraska. But the one in Geneva was evacuated when mold and other problems made it uninhabitable. The girls were then moved to Kearney, despite concerns about housing them near the boys.

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the girls would be moved to a building on the campus of the Regional Center in Hastings. That led Hastings Mayor Corey Stutte to complain the city got only four hours advance notice before the plan was published. Sen. Sara Howard, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, complained the move was hasty.

“This plan was not the result of planning and consultation with critical stakeholders in our juvenile justice systems or the impacted communities. This new plan, which raises significant and critical questions, highlights the need to reinforce that true planning is needed before more programs are disrupted and more taxpayer money is spent,” Howard said.

Howard said the building DHHS wants to use was intended to be used for a drug treatment program.

“It was built for a medical program, so the walls haven’t be hardened, the glass is breakable, the sprinklers aren’t covered, the furniture can be thrown. They were built for a program for chemical dependency. They were not built for the kind of offenders that we see at the YRTCs,” she said.

Howard proposed an amendment to her bill mandating a planning process to prohibit the department from moving or establishing a new YRTC before March 30. Sen. Mike Groene urged caution about the amendment.

“My biggest concern is that this body starts micromanaging the executive branch…that’s not what we do here. We appropriate the funds. The executive branch brings us their budget. We debate those funds and we decide how much we give them. That’s the purse strings, that is the checks and balances in government,” Groene said.

Howard responded.

“I agree with Sen. Groene that our role is to appropriate funds, and in 2017 we did appropriate funds: $5 million for a chemical dependency program for youth at Hastings. We didn’t appropriate funds for a YRTC in Hastings. And so I don’t want to set the precedent that when the Legislature appropriates funds, that later you can sort of do whatever you like with those funds,” she said.

Senators voted 32-3 for Howard’s amendment, then gave her bill second-round approval on a voice vote.  

Senators also advanced a bill to require counties that conduct mail-only elections to have at least on (one?) physical polling place, and one box where people can deposit ballots in advance. Sen. Curt Friesen expressed concern about the privacy of mail-in ballots.

“When you send it back, the person opening the envelope with your signature, your name is right there, they open up the envelope, they take out your ballot, they have the opportunity to look at the ballot and the envelope it came from, and it is no longer a secret ballot,” Friesen said.

Sen. Tom Brewer, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs, said one possibility would be legislation next year to put the ballot inside a second envelope. The bill then advanced.

Much of the day was taken up by Sen. Ernie Chambers, criticizing Sen. Julie Slama for a Republican Party flyer that linked the positions of her opponent, Janet Palmtag, to Chambers, who is Black. Chambers said it was an example of racism, and drew a parallel with Thomas Jefferson’s relations with one of his slaves.

“Suppose I had raped White women? Suppose I enslaved Sen. Slama, and used her the way that I wanted to. You think Thomas Jefferson was a great man? Do you realize that he had a room in Monticello for Sally Hemmings?” Chambers asked.

Slama did not respond most of the day. But toward the end, she had a message to people who were watching the proceedings.

"Do not think that it is appropriate to talk to a female that way. It is sexist, and it is disgusting,” Slama said.

One other moment of note came when Sen. Mike  Moser, who was hospitalized for several weeks with COVID-19, urged his colleagues to wear masks.

“Are the odds high that you’ll get COVID? Probably not. Are the consequences dire? They may or they may not be. Some of us have had it, and breezed through it. Some of us came close to croakin’ going through it. And I’d encourage all of you to wear a mask -- if not for yourself, for your loved ones. For your friends. Is it a sacrifice? A small one. But it may save your life, or your family member, or your friends,” Moser said.

The session continues Tuesday, with 16 business days remaining.

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