Ricketts veto sets up final death penalty repeal vote; packer hog ownership gets first-round approval

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May 26, 2015 - 7:06pm

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the repeal of the death penalty Tuesday and made a another appeal for senators to support him in a veto override vote Wednesday. And lawmakers debated a proposal to allow meatpackers to own hogs, with both sides invoking the future of agriculture in the state.

As promised, Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill repealing the death penalty Tuesday afternoon. At a news conference to sign his veto letter, Ricketts was surrounded by death penalty supporters from law enforcement and the Legislature, as well as murder victim’s families, as he pleaded with senators for support. "I urge all the senators who will be making this vote, please, sustain my veto. Please stand with the citizens of Nebraska and law enforcement for public safety. Do not vote with Sen. Chambers to weaken public safety. We do not want to send a message to criminals that we are soft on crime," Ricketts said.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, lead sponsor of the repeal effort, said Ricketts is desperate. "The governor can say whatever he chooses. And when he makes statements like that, it’s a sign of desperation. People are not voting with me. They’re voting on the basis of their conscience. If you’re going to have them voting with somebody, they’re voting with the conservative movement around the country. They’re voting with Pope Francis and the Catholic Church, and with their colleagues who are of the same party and persuasion," Chambers said.

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson joined in Ricketts appeal, saying he and the governor are committed to getting the drugs to carry out executions. "I would ask those senators to give us the opportunity. Give us this term, give us this period in time in which we who are committed to carrying out the death penalty provisions for those most heinous of crimes, give us the opportunity to execute it," Peterson said.

Chambers said delay in getting lethal injection drugs the Ricketts administration announced 12 days ago it had ordered from a company in India raises important questions. "Mail delivery is not that slow. And somebody did ask about the drugs and all he said was ‘Well we purchased them but we haven’t got them yet.’ So I think he ought to be pressed on that. What’s the holdup? What’s the delay? Has the FDA approved of this guy who’s sending em? Have they approved of the quality of the drug?" Chambers asked.

One senator said the prospect of getting the drugs and being able to carry out executions has changed his vote. Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo voted for repeal last week, but said Tuesday he will vote to sustain Rickett’s veto of the bill. "I intend to be on the governor’s side. I would like time to see if we can get the right chemicals – to see if the new laws that we put in place and the new director can change the culture. And all 49 of us will be back next year. If that doesn’t happen, we can repeal it then," Johnson said.

The bill passed with 32 votes in the 49 member Legislature. It takes 30 votes to override a governor’s veto. Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley has scheduled the override debate for 1:30 p.m. Central Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile in the Legislature Tuesday, lawmakers debated a bill by Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz that would allow meatpackers to own hogs in Nebraska. Schilz said the current prohibition is putting the state at a disadvantage. "Nearly every state that surrounds us are seeing significant growth in their hog industries. Nebraska is not keeping pace with those leading hog-producing states," Schilz said.

And Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango said running hog confinements for big packers would be a way for current farmers to help the next generations overcome the hurdle of high land costs and get into farming. "You can take a very small footprint on a pivot corner or a couple of acres that’s too rough to farm and build a hog building. And you can bring that son or daughter back; that grandson or granddaughter back," Hughes said.

Sen. David Schnoor of Scribner disputed the notion that the bill was intended to help young farmers. He said if corporations own the hogs, the market for hogs owned by individual farmers would disappear. "If an independent producer wants to raise hogs, it will be impossible, because there will be no place to sell ‘em, because the packer will control the market. Because this bill is not for family farmers. This bill is for corporate farming. It’s for corporate agriculture," Schoor said.

Several senators expressed concern about the corporation they said would be the primary beneficiary of the bill. Among them was Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids. "The corporate entity in many cases here in Nebraska is a corporation owned in part by a corporation in China and the Chinese government. Do they care what happens to the rural population, to the rural environment in Nebraska? They’re concerned about the contract to get those hogs, that livestock into the facility that they own," Sullivan said.

Sullivan was referring to Smithfield Foods, which was purchased in 2013 by a Chinese company. Other senators pointed out the importance of the Chinese market, and said the Legislature should not be engaged in protectionism. After eight hours of debate, senators voted to invoke cloture and then voted 28-10 first-round advancement of the bill.  

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