Convention of States stuck in Legislature; prison back-and-forth continues

April 10, 2017, 5:42 a.m. ·

Convention of states proposal stuck in Legislature; prison back-and-forth continues

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A move to have Nebraska join other states trying to restrain the federal government remains stuck in the Legislature. And senators are continuing to discuss problems in the state’s prison system.

The U.S. Constitution allows for two ways it can be amended. The first is for Congress to submit proposals, which have to be ratified by the states. The second way, which has never been used, is for the Legislatures of two-thirds of the states to ask Congress to call a convention. So far, 10 states have done so; Sen. Laura Ebke, a registered Libertarian in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, wants Nebraska to join that list.

Monday, Ebke listed the purposes for which such a convention would be called, to consider amendments which would impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and members of Congress.

Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat, opposed the resolution, arguing things like balancing the budget and limiting the power of government could already be accomplished without amending the Constitution. “Right now, the presidency and both houses of Congress are under control of the Republican Party – the party that has said time after time they’re for limited government, and that they plan to bring and impose limited government to the United States, and to balance the budget,” Morfeld said. “Let that play out.”

But Sen. Curt Friesen, a Republican supporting Ebke’s resolution, said political parties are not the solution. “I don’t like where our country’s headed. And I don’t care whether Republicans are in charge or Democrats are in charge or if we put independents in charge. We keep heading down the same path of overspending, overreach by our federal government, and no ability it seems to turn it around,” Friesen said.

Sen. Sue Crawford, a Democrat, said there are times when requiring a balanced federal budget could hurt the state. “The federal government is an important counterbalance in times of economic downturn. In times of economic downturn, we as a state have received additional aid. In times of emergencies, we as a state have received federal aid. In times of conflict, the nation has to be able to defend itself. So there are times and instances where it’s critical that the nation and that Congress can spend what’s necessary to deal with the crisis before it,” Crawford said.

Some opponents also expressed concern that a convention would not remain limited to the purposes for which it was called. But Sen. Mike Hilgers, a Republican, said any proposals would still require approval of three-quarters of the states for ratification. “Whatever comes out of that convention has to and must be ratified by 38 states. And we’ve had a lot of discussion about the political discord we have in our country and how divided it is, and I would submit that in order to reach a threshold of 38 we would have to have something that had broad based support, that would have support across ideological divides,” Hilgers said.

Morfeld said the way politics currently works, the convention could produce unforeseen results. “There is no safeguard against a runaway convention. Three fourths of the states ratifying is not a safeguard, particularly with money in politics, particularly with our political climate. What we need right now is stability. And what we need is to put pressure on our structures and systems to rein in the budget if that’s what we feel is necessary,” he said.

But Ebke said current technology would prevent the kind of surprises Morfeld was talking about. “Sen. Morfeld tweets. He Facebooks. Nothing is going to be secret at a convention of the states. Everybody will know what’s going on. And if there is a problem, you can bet that those who sent commissioners will go and fetch them and send them back,” she said.

Lawmakers debated the measure for three hours without reaching a vote. The way Speaker Jim Scheer is scheduling debate, that means it will now be off the agenda unless the sponsor can show him she has 33 votes to overcome a filibuster. Ebke said she has about 30 votes, and will continue to work on getting more.

In other news, fallout continued from problems in the state’s prisons. Last week Governor Pete Ricketts said he was “very disturbed” the Appropriations Committee had cut money for 96 new corrections officers. Monday, Sen. Bob Krist said the ACLU is moving closer to filing a lawsuit charging prison conditions in Nebraska are unconstitutional. Krist said think the committee’s reduction for new positions is the right thing to do, and the administration should concentrate on filling current vacancies. “The governor needs to take immediate action to fill the current staff vacancies – an issue this Legislature has been thrown under the bus for in the last week. The Appropriations Committee did the right thing in reducing the 96 number of new money, new positions, when the director cannot fill and hold 140-plus positions that are unfilled currently,” Krist said.

Asked for response, Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage said Krist was “backtracking” on funding Corrections reform.

Regarding retention, Mike Marvin, the director of the union representing prison employees said he’d written Ricketts March 21 offering to negotiate merit pay or other means of increasing retention for current employees, but had not yet heard back. Gage said raises already negotiated have reduced turnover 11 percent in the last six months.