Child welfare and foster care bills advance; horseracing stalls

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March 6, 2012 - 6:00pm

The Legislature gave second-round approval today (Wednesday) to a package of bills to change the child welfare system, advanced a proposal to restructure the Foster Care Review Board, and continued debate on allowing betting on historic horse races.

Included in the child welfare package are measures to hire an outside evaluator to look at the child welfare system, created the position of an Inspector General to investigate trends, and establish a Children's Commission to come up with a strategic plan.

There's also a requirement for the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee to recommend by April 1, 2013, whether a pilot program should be changed or continued. That's a reference to private management of child welfare cases in Douglas and Sarpy Counties - the one area of the state where private agencies have not dropped out or been terminated for financial reasons.

While the Department of Health and Human Services remains in charge of the overall system, there are ongoing requirements for reports to the committee on how it's functioning. Sen. Ken Haar asked Sen. Kathy Campbell, chairwoman of the committee, about that. "We are to a certain extent really putting our nose into the business of an agency that is really overseen by the governor. When do you see us withdrawing from this?" Haar asked.

Campbell, whose committee has reported that the Legislature wasn't involved in the original privatization plan, said that senators have an important role to play. "What we're trying to do is put into place systems of oversight. I would hope, Sen. Haar, that for a long time the Legislature continues to have an involvement, along with the Executive Branch and the Judiciary. It's going to take all three of us to work on this system over time," she said.

The bills were all advanced on a voice vote, and need one more vote of approval before being sent to the governor.

Senators also gave first round approval to restructuring the Foster Care Review Board, the watchdog of the foster care system. The bill by Sen. Bob Krist would say that members of a new Foster Care Advisory Committee should have no financial interest in the foster care system and would not be employed by the Department of Health and Human Services, a county, an agency that cares for or places children, or a court. Senators supporting the proposal said it was designed to eliminate conflicts of interest.

In the afternoon, senators returned to debate on a proposal to allow betting on so-called historic horse races.

The horseracing industry wants to allow the betting as a way to expand its revenues and help finance a new track in Lincoln. Lynne Schuller of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association estimated it would increase track's profits by about $10 million a year statewide.

Opponents say the machines for betting on pre-recorded races are more like slot machines than horse races.

Opponents filed a slew of amendments in a filibuster against the bill. But sensing that supporters were missing, opponents suddenly withdrew their amendments, forcing supporters of the bill to stall.

Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, the bill's sponsor, did his part, talking about the difficulties of the Health and Human Services Committee. "I don't know if I'd be able to sit through those hearings and hear the stories they hear day after day. On the first day of the session. Well, on the first day of committee hearings at least. Then on the second day of hearings, then on the third day of hearings. Then on the fourth and fifth days of hearings too I presume would be just as bad as the first three. And it would just go on and on like that," Lautenbaugh intoned. And it did go on, with Sen. Mike Gloor, another racetrack supporter, reminiscing about a woman who made salads at the old Dreisbach's steak house in Grand Island, and Sen. Tyson Larson quizzing Sen. Norm Wallman about 4H activities. Senators then adjourned for the day without reaching a first-round vote on the bill.



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