Legislature may investigate Jenkins case; ban on sex-orientation job discrimination stalls

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February 10, 2014 - 5:54pm

A special legislative committee may investigate what a high-profile murder case says about Nebraska’s prison system. Meanwhile, a proposed ban on job discrimination based on sexual orientation remains tied up in committee.

The murder case involves Nikko Jenkins, who is charged with killing four people in Omaha last August. Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said he wants to find out if the case shows there are systemic problems with Nebraska’s prisons.

 Lathrop cited a report by State Ombudsman Marshall Lux about the way the prison system handled Jenkins. “This guy’s in prison telling people he’s going to get out and kill, and before he’s released he’s asking for a commitment to the Regional Center where he can get some help. And promises to kill people and we turn him loose,” Lathrop said.

No one spoke against the proposed investigation. The Executive Board – the Legislature’s internal governing body -- voted to send the proposal to the full Legislature for debate. Jenkins has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The Exec Board also endorsed another proposed investigation, of the Access Nebraska phone and online system of signing up for benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. A series of reports have found problems like long waiting times on the phone for people to talk to state workers to get signed up.

But Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton said state workers tell her the problems go deeper than that. “My office and the Ombudsman’s office are in regular contact with employees who are beyond frustrated with how this program is working. But they’re also very fearful about speaking out. They fear for their jobs,” Dubas said.

Thomas Pristow of the Department of Health and Human Services conceded there were problems with Access Nebraska, but said things are getting better. “The experiences of our citizens in (the) Access Nebraska delivery system for the last few years has been inconsistent, and the interest of the Legislature has been deservedly understandable,” Pristow said. However, he added “The department would like to highlight the improvements that have been made to the service in the past few months. Affirmatively,  the department will continue to make improvements to service delivery in the coming months, and we are committed to do that.”

In legislative debate Monday, lawmakers continued to argue the pros and cons of relaxing Nebraska’s motorcycle helmet law to allow riders over age 21 to ride without a helmet. Opponents are trying to talk the bill to death, and a test vote Monday suggested they have enough strength to stop it.

 Meanwhile, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 4-3 Monday against endorsing a bill to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. The move came after the Nebraska Catholic Conference and  the Nebraska Family Alliance said the committee should hold a new hearing because the proposal had been expanded to include gender identity, among other changes.

There are eight senators on the Judiciary Committee, and it takes five to advance the bill. Monday, three senators voted to advance. Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop was involved in debate and did not vote. Hastings Sen. Les Seiler said he had received proposed changes in language less than an hour before the meeting and had not had time to review them. Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad said she’ll continue to push the bill, and predicted the Legislature will debate it yet this year.

And, Attorney General Jon Bruning has begun campaigning for the Republican nomination for governor. Bruning jumped into the race, which already has five candidates, over the weekend.  Bruning said his experience of six years as a state senator and 12 as attorney general distinguishes him from his opponents.

Bruning said he holds no grudge against another leading candidate, Pete Ricketts. Ricketts father Joe Ricketts bought ads critical of Bruning’s personal finances that helped Deb Fischer defeat Bruning for the U.S. Senate nomination two years ago. “Frankly when you go through the whole cancer scare thing it starts to put in perspective that family matters – (a) negative ad, not so much. The little stuff just doesn’t bother you as much.”

Bruning underwent apparently successful surgery for colon cancer in December.

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