Bills to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, tighten campaign finance laws introduced; Bounds named NU president

Jan. 12, 2015, 5:32 a.m. ·


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Proposals to end mandatory minimum prison sentences and tighten campaign finance reporting requirements were among bills introduced in the Nebraska Legislature Monday

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers introduced the proposal to do away with mandatory minimum prison sentences. Chambers said the sentences got their start four decades ago. "This all started in the 70s with the so-called ‘War on Drugs.. They said ‘You’ve got to make sure that they serve a harsh sentence, so we’re going to put (a) mandatory number of years they’ve got to serve so that these miscreants know what it is,’" he said.

But Chambers said the strategy backfired. "About all the mandatory minimums did was to increase the number of people who were in prison, and lengthen the time they had to stay there. And it created problems on the back end with a lot of elderly and very ill people who, because they were in custodial care of the state, had to be paid for," he said.

Chambers said his bill, LB172, would not apply to people currently in prison. "In Nebraska, because the only entity that can mitigate a sentence once it becomes final is the Pardons Board, it wouldn’t have any immediate impact on reducing overcrowding. But prospectively or from here on it could stop it from becoming worse," he said.

The Council of State Governments, a group lawmakers have been working with on the problem of prison overcrowding in Nebraska, is expected to release its final report Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue has introduced legislation to tighten Nebraska’s campaign finance laws. Crawford’s bill, LB166, would require campaign committees to file year-end bank statements which auditors could check against what the committees say they have in campaign reports. It would also prohibit campaign committees from making loans. And it would allow the Accountability and Disclosure Commission to require committees to make restitution for funds that were used improperly.

Crawford says she thinks most campaigns are clean. "This bill is being introduced to make sure that we have important protections in place. It’s not that I think there’s rampant fraud. It’s more the case that we do have some high visibility cases that happen," she said.

There have been at least two such high visibility cases in the last decade involving members of the Legislature. Former Sen. Brenda Council pled guilty in 2013 to wire fraud, after being accused of borrowing more than $63,000 in campaign funds for gambling. And in 2005, former Sen. Ray Mossey agreed to pay more than $14,000 in fines after using campaign funds to pay an Internet dating service and a tattoo parlor.

Also on Monday, the University of Nebraska announced its new president will be Dr. Hank Bounds. Bounds is currently commissioner of higher education for the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning. Bounds said Nebraska is well-known for both its athletic and academic programs, and he wants to "win national championships" in the classroom, laboratories, and hospitals, as well as in athletics.

Bounds also said Nebraska is well-positioned because it has one state university with different campuses, compared with Mississippi, which has eight separate institutions. "I think the University of Nebraska really is in, I think, one of the strongest positions in the country from a system point of view, to be able to make the whole bigger than the parts," Bounds said.

Bounds was also asked if he had any tips for Nebraska football, based on Mississippi State and the University of Mississipi having been rated 1rst and 3rd in the nation at one point this season. He said when he was asked at the time, he said "Clearly it was because Mississippi hired the right commissioner," adding "I’m rethinking those comments now." Mississippi State finished the regular season ranked seventh, with the University of Mississippi ranked 9th. Nebraska was unranked.

Bounds will succeed acting President James Linder, who took over when former President J.B. Milliken left last June to become chancellor of the City University of New York. Bounds begins his new job April 13.