Death penalty repeal advances amid charges of vote-trading; lower minimum wage for younger workers falls short

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May 15, 2015 - 5:50pm

The Nebraska Legislature gave second round approval Friday to LB268, a bill that would repeal the state’s death penalty, amid charges of vote-trading.

Debate on repealing the death penalty fell along familiar lines. Repeal supporters argued the death penalty is immoral or ineffective; opponents argued it should be kept as a deterrent and as punishment for the "worst of the worst." With repeal supporters having a majority, the real suspense was whether they had the two-thirds super majority for cloture. That’s the motion used to cut off a filibuster in which opponents try to talk a bill to death.

Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner, a death penalty supporter, emphasized the importance of the cloture vote to his fellow senators early in Friday’s debate. "I know when you got here, some people just said ‘Hey, a cloture vote – it’s just a procedural thing. It doesn’t really matter. You can vote for cloture and then turn around and vote against the bill. Hogwash. It doesn’t work that way. Cloture is the vote that matters," he said.

While it takes 25 votes to pass a bill and 30 votes to override a governor’s veto, it takes 33 to invoke cloture. And if that falls short, the other two votes don’t take place.

There was something new brought into the debate by freshman Sen. David Schnoor of Scribner. Supporting a proposal by Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy to put the death penalty on the ballot, Schnoor suggested some senators were trading votes to help repeal it. "I want to give you another reason why this needs to go to a vote of the people. There’s – (I’ve) been informed there’s deals being made. We’re making deals on the death penalty. That’s the extreme that people will go to to win their bill. They will sell their soul. So, this needs to be voted on by the people. Because it’s hard to say who you can trust in here sometimes. So that’s what’s happening. And the public needs to be aware of that," he said.

Schnoor declined to name the senators he thought were involved. But four senators voted for cloture, ending the filibuster and allowing a vote to take place on repeal, even though they did not vote for repeal itself. They were Sens. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, Tyson Larson of O’Neill, Ken Schilz of Ogallala and Jim Smith of Papillion.

Top: Vote on cloture

Bottom: Vote on advancement

Source: Legislative Journal

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, lead sponsor of the repeal legislation, was later asked by reporters later if he’d made any deals to support other senators’ legislation, or go easy in his opposition to it, in exchange for support on the death penalty. Chambers brushed the question aside. "Ask what people what they mean. But these kind of vague questions, I don’t blame you for asking because you’re with the media. But if you’re trying to make a story, you’re not going make it with me. And ordinarily I would have just walked away but I should at least tell you once: when you all come with those rumors, I’m not even going to respond to it," he said.

Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, who led the unsuccessful filibuster against repeal, also said he thought votes were being traded. McCoy also declined to name names. But when asked about Gloor, Larson, Schilz and Smith, McCoy said "All four of those senators were here two years ago when this issue was pushed to a cloture vote. I would strongly encourage you to go look and see what their vote was two years ago."

On May 14, 2013, Gloor, Larson, Schilz and Smith all voted against cloture on LB543, that year’s death penalty repeal debate, killing the bill. All four denied Friday they had made a deal to support cloture this year, even though they did not vote for repeal.

Larson voted for cloture, but did not vote on the repeal bill itself. "I have for a long time always supported the death penalty. But at the same time… I also understand its being used times like the Beatrice Six case to get wrongful convictions or to get people to admit things that might not be the actual truth. I see both sides of it. And therefore I do believe it deserves an up or down vote, regardless," he said.

The Beatrice Six were six people who served decades in jail for a murder committed by someone else. Some of them were threatened with the death penalty in order to get them to plead guilty.

Schilz also voted for cloture, but did not vote on the repeal bill. "I’ve struggled with this issue from the very beginning. And so I told people I couldn’t support the bill itself. But when they asked me if I would allow an up or down vote, I agreed to that. And whether that’s right or that’s wrong, once I give my word on something, I don’t turn around and break that," he said.

Gloor voted for cloture, but against the repeal bill. "My vote for the death penalty has been one of those that I’ve wrestled with and had a chance to vote on in the past during my six and half years here. And so I was consistent with how I voted and felt in the past, but I also felt it’s an important enough issue so that it deserves a straight up and down vote," he said.

Smith also voted for cloture, but against the repeal bill. "I’ve always struggled – had difficulty with this particular one (issue). It’s very emotional. I just believe that they needed to have an up or down vote. And that’s what that was about," he said.

When the time came for a cloture vote, it succeed on a vote of 34-14. On the vote to advance the bill itself, with Larson and Schilz not voting, and Gloor and Smith voting no, the bill advanced on a vote of 30-16. The bill would still need one more vote for final passage before being sent to Gov. Pete Ricketts. Friday afternoon, Ricketts said the death penalty "remains an appropriate tool in sentencing the most heinous criminals."

And in another legislative development, a proposal that would have allowed a lower minimum wage for workers 18 and younger fell short of final passage. The measure sponsored by Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete would have required 33 votes to pass, because it would have amended an initiative passed by voters last year to raise minimum wages for workers regardless of their age. It received only 29 votes, with 17 senators opposed.








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