Death penalty repeal moving ahead; winner-take-all could be in trouble

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March 9, 2015 - 5:55pm

A proposal to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty is moving forward in the Legislature; but another bill -- for winner-take-all electoral college voting for president -- may be in trouble.


Since he was first seated in the Legislature in 1971, Sen. Ernie Chambers has pushed to abolish Nebraska’s death penalty. Monday, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 to send Chambers latest proposal to the full Legislature for debate. Afterwards, Chambers said other senators are questioning the death penalty. "Conservative Republicans have voluntarily signed on as cosponsors, and … some of the types of questions are going now to the practicality of this penalty. They want to know when the last execution was, how many people have been executed in the history of the state since there have been executions going on, and to a person they are surprised," he said.

So far, 10 Republicans and one Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature have signed on as cosponsors of Chambers bill. One conservative Republican who has not is Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy. McCoy helped wage a successful filibuster against death penalty repeal the last time it was debated, two years ago. At that time, supporters of repeal got 28 votes to break the filibuster and vote on the bill, with 21 senators opposed.

McCoy promised to renew his fight this year. "I certainly intend to mount a very vigorous defense of the death penalty here in the state of Nebraska. I’ve done that my entire legislative career," he said. "It’s an issue I feel very strongly about and I believe the majority of Nebraskans side with me, and that the most extreme punishment possible is due those who have committed the most heinous crimes against their fellow Nebraskans."

Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley said it will probably be April before the repeal bill appears on the agenda for debate. If it were to pass, it would need 30 votes to overcome a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts. Spokesman Taylor Gage said Monday Ricketts has said for the last two years he supports the appropriate use of the death penalty, and Gage said Ricketts would veto its repeal.

And in other news, debate resumed on a proposal for Nebraska to return to the winner-take-all system for allocating the state’s electoral votes in presidential elections. The proposal narrowly survived a filibuster on the first round of debate, with the minimum 33 of 49 senators voting for "cloture," to cut off debate and vote on the bill, which then advanced. But Monday, one of those who voted for cloture last week indicated she is inclined not to do so again. Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete explained her thinking in an interview. "I think that the principled position on this is to maintain the current system," Ebke said.

"If you look at the history, there’ve been countless cases in the early days of the Republic of states splitting their electoral votes for President. And so I think that it is pretty clear that the Founders intended, or at least expected, that there would occasionally be splits amongst the state. So they probably anticipated that what we’ve got here in Nebraska is what we would have nationwide," she added.

Nebraska is one of only two states, the other being Maine, that grants presidential candidates some electoral votes for winning the popular vote statewide, while allocating the rest according to whichever candidate wins each congressional district.

In 2008, that allowed Democrat Barack Obama to pick up one vote from the Omaha-area congressional district, while Republican John McCain picked up the other four. The state Republican Party has gone on record favoring a return to the winner take all system that the state used until the early 1990s.

On the first round cloture vote last week, two registered Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Unicameral voted against cloture. If the vote remains the same but Ebke, also a Republican, joins opponents in voting against cloture, that would be enough to doom the bill.

Speaker Hadley indicated that the Legislature will move on to debate other subjects this week, and the crucial vote on winner-take-all could come next Monday.

 

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