Drug crime mandatory minimums would be abolished; Stinner proposes reducing budget reserve

March 8, 2017, 5:40 a.m. ·

Sen. John Stinner is proposing to reduce the state's required budget reserve (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Mandatory minimum sentences would be eliminated for people convicted of certain drug crimes, under a proposal advancing in the Nebraska Legislature. And a key senator proposed reducing the state’s required budget reserve, as senators began focusing on legislation to cut taxes.

Sen. Ernie Chambers had proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for a wide range of felonies. The proposal was supported by groups including the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group supported by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch. But it drew opposition from Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson and the Nebraska County Attorneys Association.

Wednesday, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan proposed an amendment narrowing the scope of the bill, to eliminate crimes such as being a felon in possession of a weapon, from those that would have the mandatory minimum dropped. Linehan proposed restricting it to those convicted of certain drug offenses. “I am absolutely for putting the bad guys in prison and putting them away for a very long time. Sex offenders, murderers, rapists – I want them put away a very long time. And I want prisons where we can keep them safely. But I don’t see the purpose for having a mandatory minimum for somebody on drugs,” Linehan said.

Sen. Suzanne Geist opposed the amendment. Geist gave an example of someone who would currently get a mandatory minimum, but whom the bill would now exempt. “This is an individual who has up to 140 grams of meth, cocaine or heroin, with a firearm. And this individual will not have a mandatory minimum. And for that reason, I don’t see this as a nonviolent offender. That is a lot of meth, cocaine or heroin. And for that reason I’m opposed to this,” Geist said.

Sen. Burke Harr said eliminating the mandatory minimums would not necessarily lessen sentences, but would leave them up to judges’ discretion. “We still think this activity is wrong. We still think this activity deserves a harsh punishment. But we are going to turn it over to the judge who knows the specific facts of the crime, and the mitigating factors, and the aggravating factors, to determine what is or is not the proper sentence,” Harr said.

Senators adopted Linehan’s amendment, then gave the bill the first of three approvals it would require on a vote of 25-22. Attorney General Peterson released a statement that said “With drug use on the rise, and the heroin epidemic developing around the country, this is the wrong message for the lawmakers to send to heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine dealers.” And Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a statement urging lawmakers to reconsider.

If the bill passes and Ricketts vetoes it, it would take five more senators than voted for it Wednesday in order to override.

Also Tuesday, senators advanced a bill that would require health care facilities that perform mammograms to notify patients if they have dense breast tissue, which can make cancers harder to detect and can influence screening decisions. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Joni Craighead.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is proposing to reduce the reserve lawmakers are required to build into the budget they adopt by one percentage point, from three percent to two percent, for the next two years. Stinner said that would free up about $85 million.

Stinner said the state needs some cushion against fluctuations in revenue and unexpected expenses. If twopercent is not enough, “then we go immediately to the rainy day fund and borrow from the rainy day fund,” he said, adding “It isn’t like the state of Nebraska is going to run out of cash.”

The committee’s preliminary budget projects the cash reserve to contain just over $550 million four years from now– about 6 weeks worth of state spending. The budget reserve Stinner is proposing to reduce is separate from that. It is a cushion the state is required to build in when it prepares the budget, so that projected revenues exceed projected spending by at least three percent.

Sen. Paul Schumacher expressed skepticism about Stinner’s proposal to reduce that cushion. “This is one of a number of ideas that are basically pulling down the cushions -- the shock absorbers in the system. And when you do that, you make for a much rougher ride, unless the road gets smooth really soon,” Schumacher said.

Stinner said if something isn’t done, proposed budget cuts might have to go deeper. “Without this type of flexibility, if I didn’t have it and it was three percent, then I would have to look at additional cuts if something would happen with the forecasting board, or some… new expenditure comes up, or we take another revenue hit. Certainly we’d have to look at everybody again,” he said.

Schumacher, who serves on the Revenue Committee, said there are other alternatives. “Really, what we should do is something that’s unpopular. We either cut more, and I think we’ve cut about as much as we can if not too much, or we raise some taxes,” he said.

The exchange comes on a day when the Revenue Committee began meeting to discuss how to accomplish Chairman Jim Smith’s and Gov. Pete Ricketts’ desire to cut both property and income taxes. A public hearing on Stinner’s idea will be held next Wednesday at 1:30 at the Capitol.