Prison reform, water project bills one step away from passing

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April 8, 2014 - 5:34pm

The Nebraska Legislature moved ahead Tuesday on prison reform and water project funding, as time dwindled in this year’s legislative session.

Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha introduced the prison reform legislation. Ashford said the bill is a first step in a three- to five-year process of improving the system. "It’s not going to be overnight. But it’s going to happen," he predicted.

Supporters said reform will help relieve overcrowding, and possibly avoid the need to build a new prison, by not incarcerating some people in the first place, and helping others released from prison avoid going back.

It would spend nearly $4 million to establish and staff so-called "reporting centers" in Grand Island, probably Columbus, and either North Platte, Norfolk or Fremont. Reporting centers are places where people who commit drug crimes, or crimes based on a drug problem, or are at high risk of returning to prison, can be supervised and get services like group therapy.

The legislation would also spend $5 million on mental health services for people on probation or parole. And it would spend another $5 million on efforts to help people leaving prison, through programs like vocational education at community colleges.

Debate on the bill centered on a provision that would prohibit most public employers from asking someone’s criminal history before determining if that person’s otherwise qualified for a job. Supporters say the idea is to allow ex-offenders to be considered on their merits, and not have their applications tossed out immediately. There are exceptions for law enforcement agencies, and schools could still ask about sexual or physical abuse.

Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber asked why schools could not get a complete exemption from the ban on initial questions about criminal history. "If these people are not going to get the job in the very first place, why not ask it right away and be upfront and not waste their time and the schools’ time?" he asked.

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello said schools would still be able to check criminal histories under the bill. "It doesn’t endanger children. The reality is this: it’s giving people the ability to apply for a job based on merit, and whether or not they meet the qualifications and they have the abilities do the job. If they have been convicted of a serious crime that will come up in the background check and the school will make a decision -- likely not to hire them," Mello said.

Senators gave the bill second-round approval on a voice vote.

They then debated a bill restructuring the Natural Resources Commission to make decisions about spending on water projects. Lawmakers have already set aside $31 million for the next three fiscal years. Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha objected to the bill’s setting aside 10 percent of annual appropriations for that city’s sewer project. "We’re saying all of these water projects across the entire state of Nebraska – as important as they may be – are only competing for 90 percent of these dollars. But Omaha gets the first 10 percent," McCoy said. "Aren’t these projects so important – and I believe that they are, in agriculture and all of rural Nebrasaka, that all of these projects should compete equally for 100 percent of the funds?"

Mello said Omaha needs help with its sewer project. "Storm water management in the greater metropolitan area will be one of the biggest challenges we face in the next fifty years," he said. "The greater metropolitan area is growing faster than anywhere else in the state. And our development laws haven’t changed dramatically when it comes to dealing with storm water management. And there’s been no financing mechanism to deal with storm water management."

The bill also requires a plan for reaching a sustainable balance between water uses and water supplies in the Republican River basin within 30 years, while maintaining the economic viability of basin. Senators gave the water bill second round approval on a voice vote late Tuesday afternoon.

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