Chief Justice Says Governor’s Budget Would Halt Justice Reforms

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January 18th, 2017

 

Sunlight glints off Nebraska's State Capitol Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Sunlight glints off Nebraska’s State Capitol Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican said Tuesday Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposed budget reductions would halt the progress that’s been made to reform the state’s justice system. Meanwhile, maneuvering continued on proposals affecting abortion and property taxes.


Nebraska Chief Justice Mike Heavican wears at least two hats: He’s one of seven judges on the Nebraska Supreme Court. But he is also head of the state’s judicial branch. It’s that second hat Heavican was wearing Tuesday, as he testified before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee on the effect of Gov. Pete Ricketts proposed budget cuts.

Heavican said the cuts totaling $8 million this fiscal year would affect the entire court system. But he said the main impact would be on reforms the Legislature adopted in LB605 two years ago. Heavican said that bill, which was supported by the governor and the judicial branch, was supposed to reduce the prison population – and the need to build more prisons – by spending more money on services like probation and community corrections to decrease crime and recidivism. “Unfortunately, the governor’s recommendations would halt the progress already made with LB605,” he declared.

Heavican said the proposed cuts are “not prudent.” For example, he said, probation would have to suspend paying for all short term residential substance abuse care except for people already in treatment. And Heavican said cuts like that would have ripple effects. “Our judges are not stupid,” he said. “If they can’t be assured that probation can adequately provide supervision and services to adult probationers, they will exercise the other sentencing option they have available. They will use the option they always have: they will incarcerate.

The chief justice concluded his unusually blunt remarks to the Appropriations Committee with this thought. “It costs $35,000 a year to warehouse a convicted criminal in our corrections system. It costs $8,000 to $10,000 to successfully complete probation. Good community corrections saves lives and saves money. Eight million dollars of budget cuts will do neither.”

Asked for reaction to Heavican’s testimony, Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage said almost every agency single state agency, including the Governor’s Office, is being asked to demonstrate fiscal restraint, adding the Governor’s budget proposal allows the court system the flexiblity to “prioritize reform with the resources provided to them.”

In legislative floor action Tuesday, Sen. Ernie Chambers lost another battle to have the Judiciary Committee he serves on keep control over a subject it has traditionally handled that is now going to another committee.

Last week, it was a gun bill that was taken away. Tuesday, the subject was an abortion proposal that will be heard by the Health and Human Services Committee, where it is expected to have a greater chance of being advanced.

Sen. Bill Kintner has proposed the bill, LB59, which would require abortion providers who have a website to include a link to a state web page which would display pictures of fetal development.

Sen. Merv Riepe, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee which will hear the bill, said his committee was the right place for the bill to go, because it imposes a mandate on the Department of Health and Human Services. “LB59 has nothing, I repeat nothing, to do with the right or restriction of an abortion, nor does it have any legal ramifications. LB59 requires DHHS to develop and maintain a webpage to allow for a searchable word such as ‘abortion’ or ‘abortion information.’ DHHS is mandated to provide a video of ultrasound images at two-week gestation intervals, period.”

Tuesday’s fight was the latest ripple effect from the Legislature’s contentious reorganization fight on the first day. On that day, senators on the losing end of the reorganization fight say, a bloc of 27 mostly conservative Republican senators dominated committee chairmanships and assignments by voting as a bloc, breaking tradition in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.

One senator on the losing side was Sen. Bob Krist, who was ousted by Sen. Dan Watermeier as chairman of the Executive Board, which also decides which committees get which bills. Krist, who sponsored similar abortion legislation in the past, said he thought it should still be handled by the Judiciary Committee.

And Krist pointed out to senators that voting as a bloc of 27 would not be sufficient to advance legislation if opponents stage a filibuster, which takes 33 votes to overcome. “So start at this point maybe thinking about another way of doing business – independently evaluating what you’re hearing, and voting up or down, yes or no, for your constituents and the constituents of Nebraska,” Krist suggested.

When senators voted, only 11 people sided with Chambers and Krist to send the bill to Judiciary, with 23 opposing the move and the rest not voting or absent. So the bill will be heard by the Health and Human Services Committee.

Also Tuesday, senators continued to introduce bills to be considered this session. So far, just under 500 proposals have been introduced, including two by Sen. Tom Briese that would expand the sales tax base and raise that tax by one cent, with the proceeds going to offset property taxes. Briese’s proposals also contain an increase in the earned income tax credit, to combat criticism that sales taxes disproportionately affect low income people. Briese said he’s trying to have a more significant impact than previous efforts at property tax relief. “I support the efforts that have been done in the past to provide property tax relief for Nebraskans. But a lot of those efforts are working around the edges, not making a whole lot of headway. This is an effort to provide the property taxpayers with the relief that they are demanding and the relief that they deserve,” he said.

Briese said he does not yet have detailed numbers for how his proposal would work. But he said he has a goal. “I would like to see a 20 percent reduction in property tax bills,” he said, adding “I don’t know if we’ll get there.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts has opposed raising the sales tax, and has proposed a different method of valuing agricultural land as a means of property tax relief.

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