Taxes, child welfare, death penalty discussed by Legislature

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January 25, 2012 - 6:00pm

Proposals to cut taxes and return child welfare case management to the state sparked controversy at the Capitol, and senators began debating repeal of the death penalty.

In the Revenue committee, senators heard testimony for and against Gov. Dave Heineman's tax cuts. The governor himself showed up to promote his proposal. "Nebraska's income tax system is unfair to middle class families. Because if your adjusted gross income is greater than 54 thousand dollars, you pay at the same marginal rate as Warren Buffett," Heineman said. "I want to emphasize that Sen. Cornett and I focused our efforts on the middle class. And seventy five percent of the tax relief in this plan goes to middle class Nebraskans with a combined adjusted gross income of less than $150,000."

The governor's income tax proposal drew support from groups including the Omaha, Lincoln, and state Chambers of Commerce. But Renee Fry of the recently-created Open Sky Policy Institute disputed that the majority of its benefits would go to the middle class. "More than half the proposed cuts are going to the wealthiest 20 percent. And only 20 percent of the cuts go to Nebraskans making less than $57,000 a year who make up well over half our state's residents," Fry said. "With the median household income in Nebraska $48,000 LB970 does little to lower the taxes of Nebraska's middle class."

The governor is also proposing to lower the corporate income tax rate and eliminate the inheritance tax, which is collected by counties. Supporters say that will make the state more competitive with the 42 other states that have no such tax.

But Larry Dix of Nebraska Association of County Officials said counties rely on that money, which others put in the range of $40-50 million per year, for emergency funds.

In the Health and Human Services Committee, the lead-off witnesses were those supporting the return of child welfare case management from private agencies to the state. Foster parent Janae Vanevery became emotional as she told of the problem she had experienced with picking up a child being placed by private contractor KVC. "They were in Kvc's care from about 3 that morning until about 1 p.m. when we picked them up. And nobody had washed their hands, washed their face, washed anything on them. They were covered in their own poo," she said. "The little three year old's clothes were torn on her rear end. So her little bottom was hanging out." By late afternoon, defenders of privatization were just getting started testifying. In a statement released before the hearing, the Department of Health and Human Services which opposes taking back case management said the situation is improving. HHS said since privatization, Nebraska has improved in five of six critical areas measured by the federal government.

Scot Adams of HHS quoted to the hearing from a study of privatization in Kansas and Florida from Casey Family Programs: "Commitment to change is essential. (The) most consistent message echoed throughout the interviews is that the first few years of the transition were extremely difficult. That a strong level of resistance from all sides to such a massive systems overhaul should be expected."

Brandi Conner, a former state ward and state worker now employed by KVC, said she sees her clients once a month, a big improvement over what she experience under the old state system.

And on the legislative floor, senators began debating the latest


Sen. Colby Coash

proposal to repeal the death penalty. In addition to arguing over its morality and fairness, senators split on whether or not it's effective. Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash was among those arguing that it is not, and that repeated appeals re-victimize the victims' families. "We are done executing folks in this state. You see what happens. This gets litigated and litigated and litigated. We get drugs, can't use the drugs. Can't find the drugs to use to put this current law in force," Coash said.

Coash was referring to litigation over the way Nebraska got the drugs needed for lethal injections. The state has not executed anyone since 1997. In 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled electrocution unconstitutional, and no lethal injections have been carried out.


Sen. Bob Krist

But Omaha Sen. Bob Krist argued that's not the fault of the law: "Most of the arguments I've heard have been Omisgosh, let's not carry this out for a long time. It'll never happen in the state of Nebraska.' Whose fault is that? That's our fault," said Krist. "Find the drug that we need to do what the law says we need to do. Have the resolve to follow through. Then let's look at the statistics. Then let's look at what happens in deterrence."

Lawmakers adjourned for the day without reaching a vote. Debate on the bill is scheduled to resume Friday.

 

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