Prison reform touted; voter ID heard; Niobium tax withdrawn in Unicameral

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 23, 2015 - 5:44pm

Proposals to address what one senator called a "dysfunctional" prison system and to require photo IDs for voting were discussed in the Nebraska Legislature Friday, while a bill to tax Niobium was withdrawn.

Senators supporting a package of bills to reform Nebraska’s troubled prison system held a news conference Friday to stress the need for action. Omaha Sen. Bob Krist said lawmakers want to talk to Scott Frakes, named by Gov. Pete Ricketts as the new Director of Correctional Services, who starts Feb. 2. But Krist said with prisons nearing 60 percent overcrowding, doing nothing is not an option. "It’s also very important that we move in a direction because we will face litigation," Krist said. "The ACLU is watching. The Department of Justice is watching. We have an obligation to clean up what is a culture in the Department of Corrections."

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello called the department "dysfunctional." Investigations last year found that hundreds of prisoners were released too early, a result many senators say resulted from pressure to reduce overcrowding.

Bills introduced this year would try to reduce overcrowding by reducing sentences for certain crimes, and by diverting people to probation instead of prison. Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings also said prison education programs that have been cut over the years to save money need to be restored, to prevent released inmates from winding up back in prison.

"The reason many of these people are back in prison time and time again is because, one, they come out of prison and they have… mental health problems or they don’t have any training whatsoever," Seiler said, adding that it doesn’t take them long to get back in the old habits that landed them in prison in the first place.

Seiler has also introduced a proposal to spend $44 million to open a behavioral health facility for prisoners on the old Hastings Regional Center Campus. Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash has a bill to spend $262 million to add 1,000 more prison beds.

Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said prison construction can’t be ruled out at some time in the future. But at least for this year, he predicted, the price tag for prison reform would be less, in the range of $33 million to $45 million.

Friday afternoon, there was a public hearing on proposals by Sens. Tyson Larson of O’Neill and Paul Schumacher of Columbus to require voters to show a photo ID before voting. Larson said 34 states now require voter ID, including 16 that require photo ID.

Among those testifying in favor of the idea was Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach said similar legislation passed in Kansas in 2011 had not suppressed voter turnout. "It actually went up from 2010 to 2014. You’re comparing two nonpresidential election years. Our turnout in 2010 was 50 percent; our turnout in 2014 was 51 percent," Kobach said. "We also exceeded the turnout in our surrounding states. Here in Nebraska your turnout was 47 percent; our turnout was 51 percent, again, with photo ID."

But Bri McClarty of Nebraskans for Civic Reform cited a report from the Government Accountability Office that found, after controlling for varying degrees of competitive elections, turnout declined by 1.9 to 3.2 percent in Kansas and Tennessee. And Jeanette Jones-Vazansky of Delta Sigma Theta, a predominantly black sorority, called the proposals unnecessary. "There’s no voter impersonation or fraud problem in the state of Nebraska. I’ve testified, I think now is my third time, and I still have not seen that evidence," Jones-Vazansky said. "I think that the financial burdens that will be placed on our state to enact these laws and the provisions that are in these laws would be prohibitive and Nebraska voters will be prevented from voting," she added.

Committee Chairman Sen. John Murante of Gretna said the committee would put off voting on the bills until after Friday.

Also on Friday, Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis withdrew a bill he had introduced calling for a tax on the rare earth mineral Niobium. Developers have said there’s a large deposit of the mineral in southeast Nebraska near Elk Creek.

Davis said officials from Niocorp, the company that wants to develop a mine there convinced him pursuing his tax legislation now would endanger their ability to raise needed capital. But he said he expects the mineral will eventually be taxed. "I can only speculate that the Legislature in the future will say the same thing about Niobium as they said about uranium, which is that the taxpayers of Nebraska are due some compensation for taking the natural resources out of the state," Davis said.

Former state senator Tony Fulton, now on the Niocorp board of directors, said the company is not opposed to a tax in principle. "Ultimately this Niobium is part of the fruits of Nebraska’s earth we’d be taking out of Nebraska. So we’re not opposed to a severance tax," Fulton said. "It’s just the timing of this …could very well hinder the project before the project even gets off the ground."

Fulton said the company has pushed back the expected completion of a feasibility study of mining the Niobium deposit. He said Niocorp now hopes to have the study done in the second quarter of this year.



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