A move to add 10 new Nebraska state troopers and beef up liquor law enforcement got bogged down amid budget concerns in the Legislature Thursday. But lawmakers did advance a compromise proposal on sentencing juvenile murderers.
The trooper bill was introduced by Sen. Russ Karpicek of Wilber, chairman of the General Affairs Committee, which oversees liquor legislation. Karpicek said the state’s Liquor Control Commission used to have 12 investigators before they were transferred to the State Patrol in 1987. Now, he said, the State Patrol has the equivalent of about 9 full-time investigators devoted to alcohol enforcement. Their duties include responding to complaints about liquor law violations, doing background checks, and handling liquor license applications. There are about 1,300 more liquor licenses now than in 1987, but the smallest number of state troopers since 1986, Karpicek said.
"This bill is intended to help the Liquor Control Commission keep up with the increased number of licenses, but also to help the State Patrol by providing it with much-needed funding for additional troopers. I believe the State Patrol is doing a tremendous job with the resource it has, but those resources aren’t where they need to be," Karpisek declared.
Karpisek originally proposed adding 15 troopers, but scaled his request back to 10. But Omaha Sen. John Nelson said enforcing liquor laws could be cheaper if handled by agencies other than the State Patrol. "I think they have more important things to do," Nelson said. "I think it probably is a waste of their time."
"Why don’t we let local law enforcement handle most of this?" Nelson asked. "Let the State Patrol do the things they were originally supposed to do: enforcement of our traffic laws, criminal matters, and things of that sort."
Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill, a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, objected to the cost of adding 10 troopers, estimated at $870,000 a year. "We have to decide what our priorities are, because there’s not enough money for everything," he declared.
Larson added that funding Karpicek’s proposal could endanger other bills he and others support, including sales tax breaks for wind power developers and for farmers buying repair or replacement parts.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus suggested the proposal could result in enforcement overkill. Schumacher used the example of "special designated licenses" that groups can get to sell liquor up to six times a year.
"What are those? Those are community days, those are charities trying to raise an extra buck. And they’ve learned that if they get a special designated permit and they put a snow fence up around the church and sell a little beer that they can have a better church bazaar," Schumacher said. "We certainly don’t need armed, uniformed officers with bulletproof vests and big powerful guns walking around to make sure that some kid doesn’t get a can of beer" at such events, he added.
The Legislature moved on to another bill before taking a vote on Karpisek’s proposal. But he said later he thinks it could come up again, and he’s willing to scale it back even more.
The next proposal the Legislature took up was one on sentencing young people who commit serious crimes, like murder, before reaching age 18.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled requiring a sentence of life in prison without parole for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment. After considerable debate between those who wanted a lower or higher number of years to be the minimum sentence, lawmakers compromised on a sentence of 40 years to life. That means, with credit for good behavior in prison, someone could be eligible for -- but not guaranteed -- parole after 20 years.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, closely paraphrased the Supreme Court’s opinion in urging his colleagues to accept the compromise. "A state is not required to guarantee eventual freedom as it relates to juveniles who have committed capital crimes of premeditated murder. But it must provide some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation," Ashford said.
"By making youth and all that accompanies it irrelevant to that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment, and that scheme where the only option is life in prison without parole is unconstitutional," he declared.
Senators then gave the compromise bill first round approval on a vote of 30-2.