Senators wrestle with open meetings, youth murderer sentencing

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February 8, 2013 - 5:18pm

A proposed change in duties for a low-profile community college association turned into a heated debate Friday in the Legislature over open meetings laws. Lawmakers also wrestled with the sentencing of young people who commit murders.

The proposed open meetings change involves a group called the Nebraska Community College Association. All the state’s community colleges used to belong to the group, and the Legislature required its meetings be open to the public.

Two years ago, after disagreement on how state funding should be divided up, the Omaha-area Metropolitan Community College withdrew from the Association. But the law still provides for the group to exist, and requires it to submit the biennial budget request for state aid to community colleges, which are getting about $175 million in the current two-year budget.

Sen. Greg Adams of York wants to take any mention of the group and its budget-submitting requirement out of state law. At the same time, he wants to eliminate the requirement that the group’s meetings be open to the public.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm objected to that. Haar said the association is funded by $300,000 of taxpayer money, and helps form public policy. Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus asked senators why they would not support Haar’s proposal, to continue to require the Association to meet in public.

"What’s wrong with it? What’s impeded by having it done in public? Why should we permit it to be done in secrecy when $300,000 in taxpayer money may be financing it?" Schumacher asked. "This is the public’s business in the public’s house."

Adams argued that following that logic, lawmakers would have to require all kinds of groups to meet in public, from school boards associations to the League of Nebraska Municipalities. "The issue here really for this body, on the vote on this amendment, is for us to decide how far are we going to reach," he said. "There isn’t anybody in here opposed to transparency. How far are we going to reach? What is reasonable?"

In the end, Haar withdrew his amendment. He said later he would work on the wording and offer it again on the next round of debate. Senators then voter 34-1 to give the bill first round approval.

Friday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on a proposal about sentencing children younger than 18 years old who commit murders before age 18. The U.S. Supreme Court has said they cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford has proposed a sentence of 20 years to life.

The Nebraska County Attorneys Association recommended 60 to life. Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, referring to scientific evidence that juveniles don’t think like adults, said "We have to pick a number here, right? We have to pick a number that recognizes all the science, but also recognizes the need for justice."

The Judiciary Committee is expected to forward a recommended number to the full Legislature for debate.

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