2015 Legislature leaves its mark on Nebraska

June 3, 2015, 6:45 a.m. ·

The 2015 Nebraska Legislature. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

From repealing the death penalty to increasing gas taxes, the 2015 Nebraska Legislature left its mark on the state. And there’s a wide range of perspectives on what senators did – and didn’t – do.

Senators enacted tougher regulations on puppy mills. They allowed nurse practitioners to practice independent of physicians. Those are just two examples of how the Nebraska Legislature acted on subjects large and small in its just-completed session.

But few would dispute three of its most significant actions were to repeal the state’s death penalty, to allow driver’s licenses for so-called "Dreamers" – young people brought to this country illegally when they were children -- and to raise the gas tax six cents a gallon to repair more roads and bridges.

And those three actions produce a wide range of reaction, depending on whom you ask.

"All of that is a good message to say, ‘Look. People of different perspectives can come together to address real problems," Omaha Senator Jeremy Nordquist said.

Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner views things quite differently.

"I think it’s been a tough year for the people of Nebraska. The stuff the Legislature has done to them – nobody imagined it would be like this," Kintner said.

Nordquist is a Democrat, and Kintner is a Republican. But in the nonpartisan Unicameral, votes didn’t break along party lines on the death penalty, Dreamers driver’s licenses, or the gas tax. In a body with 35 Republicans, 13 Democrats and 1 independent, Republicans provided more votes than Democrats on all three issues, overriding vetoes by Republican Governor Pete Ricketts.

Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley, himself a Republican, says the big turnover this year had a lot to do with it.

"I think our 18 new senators are aggressive. They want to be in on these momentous decisions," Hadley said.

In addition to deciding on the death penalty, driver’s licenses and gas taxes, senators took significant action on other issues as well. They cut the growth of spending by about half, to three and a half percent. They added another $64 million a year to the property tax credit fund – that will offset about $50 of taxes on a $150,000 house in Lincoln. They reduced sentences for some lower-level crimes in an effort to fight prison overcrowding.

Senators also considered, but rejected, a number of significant changes: They did not lower the value of farmland for tax purposes. They did not require photo ids for voting, or change Nebraska back to winner-take-all electoral voting. They did not expand Medicaid. And they put off a decision on legalizing medical marijuana until next year, although they approved a pilot study involving cannabis oil.

Nordquist said legislators’ actions on issues like the death penalty show that they’re looking out for their constituents.

"The support of the moderate, fiscally conservative bloc in this Legislature of these policies is a rejection of extreme ideology, but rather an embracing of a problem-solving mentality," Nordquist said.

Kintner clearly disagrees, but sees a potential bright spot from his perspective.

"I think people (were) kind of sleep walking, thinking ‘Aw, they’re not going to get rid of the death penalty. The governor will stop it. The conservatives will filibuster it.’ And finally when it looked like it was going to happen, they went ballistic. The letters and the calls that came in -- I’ve never seen anything like it. Every letter was written differently by a person that had a deep-seated concern about the death penalty. So I’m hoping these people stay engaged. That may be a lasting benefit of this out-of-control Legislature," Kintner said.

Immediately after the Legislature repealed the death penalty, Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy announced formation of an organization to explore putting the issue up to a vote of the people via the initiative petition process. Another organization says it will sponsor a referendum drive to repeal the repeal.

Speaker Hadley says that raises an interesting question about the Legislature. He draws a possible parallel between citizen efforts to restore the death penalty, and proposals last year to raise the minimum wage.

"Do we (the Legislature) get everything right? Let’s take the minimum wage. We soundly defeated the minimum wage. (A) petition drive gets it on the ballot, and it passes," Hadley said. So on the death penalty initiative, "I’m going to be neither for or against it. I think that’s up to individual people to sign the proposal, the initiative, or not. And if they do, it’ll go up to a vote."

Hadley added battles in the Legislature on major issues like the death penalty reflect the diversity of views among citizens as a whole. After the final death penalty debate, "One of the senators came to me, and he happened to be on the other side, and he said ‘Well, I lost on that one,’" Hadley recalled. "I said, ‘No you didn’t. There weren’t winners and losers in that debate. There were just people who had very differing views of how this should be handled.’"

As the schedule now stands, senators are now done expressing those differing views, on the death penalty and other issues, until the Legislature reconvenes in January.