Death penalty repeal advances to full Legislature for debate

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March 19, 2013 - 5:28pm

A proposal to replace Nebraska’s death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole is on its way to the floor of the Legislature for debate.

The Judiciary Committee voted 7-0, with one abstention, to send the bill sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers to the full Legislature for debate. Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha called the vote very significant, saying it was the first time he can recall that a death penalty repeal has advanced from committee without a dissenting vote.

"There’s a very common sense approach taken by these senators on the committee to say, ‘We’ve heard the arguments now, it just doesn’t make sense to go through these death penalty cases that never result in an execution,’" Ashford said. "Public safety is not enhanced by having the death penalty on the books, and the cost is great. I think those factors are compelling."

Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial was the lone senator on the committee who abstained from voting. Christensen has supported the death penalty in the past. But he said he was struck by the fact that only two people, both representing the county attorneys association, testified against the bill in a public hearing last week.

Christensen said he hasn’t heard much from constituents on the issue this year, adding that his position will be influenced by public opinion. "I’ve always been very pro-death penalty. But there doesn’t seem to be anybody testifying. Have people changed their minds? I need to hear from people," he said.

Ashford said he thinks the bill has a reasonably good chance of passing with 25 votes in the 49-member Legislature. He said it would be more difficult to get 30 votes to override a veto by Gov. Dave Heineman.

Heineman has said he would veto similar bills in the past. He could not be immediately reached on Tuesday, but spokeswoman Jen Rae Hein said "The Governor continues to oppose the repeal of the death penalty."

Ashford said he expects the Legislature to begin debating repeal in the next two or three weeks.

In other matters Tuesday, an attempt by Sens. Beau McCoy and Charlie Janssen to move a tax break for people on military and Social Security retirement income out of the Revenue Committee failed.

McCoy said Nebraska is one of only a handful of states that does not do something to ease the burden on retirees. The scaled-back proposal would have cost the state an estimated $130 million to $137 million over the next five years.

Revenue Committee Chairman Sen. Galen Hadley said changes should wait until after the Legislature does a comprehensive tax study. "I hate to pass something out now that next year we might have to change. And once you give something to taxpayers, it is very difficult to give it back," he said. "I have nothing against the bill – but I just think it has to wait until after we’ve done our study and decided how we’re going to handle retirement income from a tax standpoint in the state of Nebraska."

And in an afternoon budget hearing, University of Nebraska officials asked the Appropriations Committee to fund the University’s full budget request.

The committee’s preliminary recommendation is for $26 million less over the next two years than the amount the governor recommended, which Heineman said would enable a two-year tuition freeze. University officials have said they would have to raise tuition by about 4 percent a year if they got the lesser figure.

Under questioning, Regents Chairman Tim Clare said university officials would work with the committee to keep tuition affordable if they did not get the full amount requested.

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