Nebraska’s death penalty law will remain in place for at least another year, as senators who want to repeal it fell short of getting enough votes to overcome a filibuster Tuesday.
Meanwhile, senators voted to override Gov. Dave Heinemans’ veto of a teachers’ retirement bill.
The failure of the death penalty repeal had been forecast by a test vote Monday, and little changed as senators debated the bill Tuesday.
Death penalty opponents like Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue argued that because it is used so infrequently, the death penalty does not work. "If you think executions are important for justice, you have to face the fact that they are not happening. Having the death penalty on the books is not leading to the deaths of those accused of heinous crimes, and it is not giving the families closure," she said.
Sen. John Nelson of Omaha said the lack of executions in recent years was not justification to change the law. "Just because we haven’t been able to carry those out is no reason to do away with the death penalty. Sooner or later, regardless of what you hear on the floor, it will be done," he said.
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh defended the process used to arrive at death sentences. "No one is rushed through this process. No one’s conviction goes unrevisited, unexamined. This process is fair. This process is just. It is not arbitrary," he said. "This is a just penalty. It should be maintained. And I think it is our job as a society to actually mete out this most serious penalty."
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said it’s just a matter of time before the death penalty is abolished. "As the Supreme Court reviews the death penalty, and whether it is or is not cruel and unusual punishment, that is an incremental process. It will not happen overnight. But it will happen gradually," he said. "It will happen as more states repeal it, for whatever reason. And the standards of decency in this country will ultimately result, as I said yesterday, in the Supreme Court concluding that this is cruel and unusual punishment."
With repeal opponents vowing to talk the bill to death, supporters tried to invoke cloture, which would cut off debate and produce a yes-or-no vote on repeal. It received 26 votes, including those of Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo, a death penalty supporter, and Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, who had not declared his position. Both said they thought the Legislature should vote on the issue, regardless of their position. But while the 26 votes represented a majority of the 49-member Unicameral, legislative rules require a 2/3 vote, or 33 senators, to invoke cloture.
On another matter, senators took up Gov. Dave Heineman’s veto of changes to the teacher retirement system. The bill would reduce future retirement benefits of new hires, and increase the state contribution by $20 million a year. In his veto message, Heineman complained that teachers were not being asked to contribute more. Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, the bill’s sponsor, argued their contribution had gone up from 7.28 to 9.78 percent of salary two years ago, when the state had no additional money to contribute. Senators voted 32-1 in favor of his proposal to override the governor’s veto.
And in other news,
Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning has been fined $19,000 by the Federal Election Commission for violating campaign finance laws during his run for U.S. Senate last year.
The FEC determined Bruning did not file candidacy paperwork in a timely manner for his run for U.S. Senate in 2012, among other violations. Bruning agreed to a settlement with the FEC last month.
The fine stems from a complaint filed against Bruning by the Nebraska Democratic Party shortly after Bruning announced he was launching an exploratory committee for a Senate run in late 2010.
Bruning was defeated in the Republican primary in May 2012 by then-state Sen. Deb Fischer, who went on to win the election.