Human trafficking, "historic" horse racing bills advance, phone taxes debated

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March 20, 2012 - 7:00pm

Fighting human trafficking was the subject of a bill advanced Wednesday in the Legislature.

You might think of human trafficking as something that takes place far away from Nebraska. But according to state senators debating the topic today, it's a problem in this state as well. Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it's a serious problem in Douglas County. In many cases, girls running away from home become embroiled in the sex trafficking business, he said.

Omaha Sen. Pete Pirsch, a former prosecutor, said young people become addicted to drugs and get trapped into prostitution. Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege stressed that theme of entrapment, saying "Certainly there are individuals that are in the midst of this by their own choosing. They've made bad choices. But when I think of human trafficking I think of slave trade Human trafficking is a form of slavery to many of the young people that are caught in it."

To try and combat trafficking, the bill by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill would increase the penalties for pandering, or pimping. It would require posting signs in rest stops and strip clubs with a hotline number for people caught up in human trafficking to call. And it would establish a task force to study the issue and make recommendations to the Legislature.

The task force would also work with law enforcement on training that, according to the bill, would include the need to treat victims of human trafficking - such as people forced into prostitution -- as crime victims rather than criminals. No one spoke against the bill, and it advanced on a vote of 35-0.

On another issue, senators debated a bill to expand broadband telecommuncations services.

Sen. Deb Fischer, chairwoman Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, said her bill would apply if a customer couldn't get broadband service from the local landline telephone company. It would direct the Public Service Commission to consider broadband, not voice service, in deciding on requests by customers to get service from a neighboring landline company. Although it would not affect wireless carriers, Fischer said it would be a small step toward expanding broadband services.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus objected to a provision he said could require customers to pay for both construction by the new company and to reimburse the old company. He proposed those payments should come from the Universal Service Fund, which comes from a 7 percent tax on phone bills.

Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery supported the amendment, saying Nebraska has the highest taxes and fees on phone service in the nation. "When you look at your bill, if you can understand it all, fee after fee after fee and one of the most oppressive of those fees is this universal service fund. If it's not to be used for purposes like this, what is it used for. Seems to me that it's mostly a subsidy to the company, and every time there is a need to use it, we have to have a bill like this so they're not on the hook for it," Avery said.

Fischer opposed the amendment, saying the Universal Service Fund is needed to reimburse companies for the cost of providing service everywhere in their own territories. She acknowledged that Nebraska has the highest phone taxes in the antion, but she blamed local taxes, like the one in Avery's city of Lincoln, for contributing to that. "Part of that is due to state and local taxes. You can't blame the Universal Service Fund if your city has a 6.25 (percent) occupation tax on telecommunications services," she said.

Schumacher later withdrew his amendment, saying it was late in the session and he wanted to provoke future discussion of the universal service fund and the role of public power in telecommunications. Senators then voted 27-0 first round approval of the bill.

They also gave first round approval to a bill allowing betting at the state's horsetracks using video machines showing clips of previous races without enough information to identify them. Supporters say profits from increased betting will help the industry by funding a new track in Lincoln. Opponents say the betting on the machines is more like betting on a slot machine than betting on horse racing. The first round vote in favor of the bill was 26-18.

 

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