Bills would attack discrimination based on sexual orientation; reduce future prison sentences

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks addresses gay rights supporters (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 21, 2015 - 5:51pm

Proposals to fight discrimination against gays and lesbians, reduce future prison sentences, and legalize medical marijuana were among measures introduced Wednesday in the Nebraska Legislature.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks was one of several senators to address a crowd of several hundred gay rights supporters in the Capitol Rotunda. She referred to a proposal that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to other characteristics, like race and religion, that could not be used to discriminate in hiring or keeping employees. Pansing Brooks said with businesses needing more workers, not having such protections doesn’t make sense. "For us as a state to discriminate and limit part of the working pool that’s available to us is purely shortsighted and stupid," she said, to laughter and applause.

Another bill would prohibit the state Department of Health and Human Services from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity when placing state wards in out-of-home care. A third would allow two people, regardless of their marital status, to adopt children. Similar bills have been unsuccessful in the past, but Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, introducer of the employment bill, said he thinks this year will be different. "I think that this issue’s time has come. Personally, I think it’s past, in the sense of we should have taken care of this a long time ago. But I think the issue’s time has come and I think the crowd that we see in the Capitol here tonight (sic) displays that," Morfeld said after the lunchtime gathering.

Also introduced Wednesday were bills dealing with Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons. Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said one of the proposals would provide "a lot of reduction of sentences so that we can get ‘em (future prisoners) out on supervised release, and get ‘em back to become productive citizens, and hopefully cut down on the recidivism rate that we’ve got going on right now."

A bill to legalize medical marijuana was introduced by Bellevue Sen. Tommy Garrett. It would allow the patients to use marijuana for debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, Alzheimers and other diseases, as approved by the Department of Health and Human Services.

A bill setting up an independent commission to oversee redistricting was proposed by Sen. John Murante of Gretna. Redistricting is currently handled by the Legislature, where it tends to be one of the few issues that breaks down along strictly partisan lines in the officially nonpartisan body.

During the last redistricting, in 2011, Democrats accused the Republican majority of manipulating the lines to make the hotly contested Omaha-area 2nd Congressional District more Republican. Murante, himself a Republican, said taking the politics out of redistricting would increase public trust. "I think it’s very important that the public have confidence in the districts that are drawn and in the work of the Legislature. Nebraskans clearly support the nonpartisan nature of the Unicameral, and I think that including that spirit into a redistricting process is a very good thing," he said.

Also on Wednesday, Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha introduced a bill to allow drivers licenses to be issued to people who were brought into the country illegally when they were children. The bill would apply to roughly 2,700 so-called "Dreamers" in Nebraska who have been protected from deportation by President Barack Obama’s administration. One of them, Juan Gallegos of Lincoln, said he is currently limited to applying for jobs that he can walk to or that are on a bus route. "Today, I’m excited that somebody is finally doing something about it and introducing a bill so that we can have the same opportunities that everybody else (does), because some of us have been working hard for it and it feels kind of like a glass ceiling that we can’t get past," Gallegos said.

Advocates say another 7,000 young people in Nebraska could be eligible for drivers’ licenses in the future, and if President Obama’s recently announced executive action is not blocked by Congress, another 12,000 adults could eventually qualify.

Wednesday was the last day to introduce bills. Gov. Pete Ricketts will deliver his state of the state speech Thursday, in which he will propose another $60 million a year in property tax credits. That would be in addition to the current $140 million a year currently spent on the program, which provided about $72 in property tax relief for the owner of a $100,000 house.

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