Efforts fail to stop or scale back canal, prison projects

May 4, 2023, midnight ·

Senator John Cavanaugh debates Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator John Cavanaugh debates Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature continued debate on the state’s budget Thursday. Two of the main discussions focused on plans for a canal and authorization for a new prison. Together, the proposals would cost about a billion dollars, and senators rejected attempts to stop or scale them back.

The budget bill debated by the Legislature Thursday would transfer money from the state’s cash reserve for a $630 million canal to carry water from the South Platte River in Colorado to Nebraska. It would also transfer money to build a new prison, estimated to cost $335 million.

Sen. John Cavanaugh tried to scale back the canal project. Instead of building a canal that could carry 1,000 cubic feet per second of water, Cavanaugh proposed cutting it back to 500 cubic feet per second. He said the larger capacity would be useful only sporadically, in years with high river flows. And, he said, building the larger canal would cost $125 million more than the smaller one. “Should we be spending that amount of money to divert water into the reservoir that we would already get?” Cavanaugh asked.

Sen. Rob Clements said the extra spending for the larger canal would only add 28 percent to the costs, while doubling the capacity. And Sen. Bruce Bostelman said the additional expense would be worth it, for wet years.

“We want to make sure, as we're building the canal, that it is able to handle those flows, so that it can meet that need of being able to store that water rather than, as I think Sen. Erdman said, once it goes underneath the bridge, it's gone. Once it goes down the river it's gone. We're gonna want to capture that water and hold that water where it's at so we can use, utilize it at a later date,” Bostelman said.

Sen. Danielle Conrad questioned the value of the canal at any size or capacity. She suggested the state’s misusing extra revenue it got from federal stimulus spending during the pandemic.

“I am very skeptical of this canal, as are my constituents. When I was out knocking doors people said ‘What the heck are they doing in the Legislature?’ The COVID money that came here was supposed to help the people that were hit the hardest. They weren't supposed to be utilized for pet projects, like a canal and water battle with Colorado, or a big lake that benefits private developers. And that's what we're continuing to see,” Conrad said.

The “big lake” is a reference to a lake proposed for a location somewhere between Lincoln and Omaha. The Legislature set aside $100 million toward that project last year, but the project is on hold pending further study.

Sen. Jane Raybould questioned why Nebraska should tie up $575 million for the canal now, when it’s estimated to take 10 years or more to build it.

Clements’ answer? “Mainly to show Colorado that we are serious. They didn't think we'd ever do it, and this is making a statement that Nebraska is going to do this. Without allocating money, they wouldn't really believe that we're serious about it.”

Senators voted 32-11 against Cavanaugh’s proposal to scale back the size of the canal.

The Legislature also spent time talking about building a new prison. Sen. Terrell McKinney renewed his efforts to oppose it. Advocates of the prison have said it’s needed to replace the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary, where problems like water pipe bursts have required some inmates to be relocated. But McKinney charged the state has no intention of closing the old prison.

“Although there will be a vote to build a prison, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, which has been advertised as a facility that is in disarray, inhumane, needs to be closed will not be closed, no matter what. Because the state would like to keep its options open, because they know, like we all know, Day One of the new prison opening, it will be overcrowded,” McKinney said.

Sen. Myron Dorn said parts of the Nebraska State Penitentiary should be kept open.

“I will agree 100% with Sen. McKinney: part of that just needs to be bulldozed in. But there's some -- there's one building down there that's only like three or four years old. There are buildings (that) are part of that facility could be used as other options,” Dorn said.

McKinney originally proposed an amendment requiring that funds for a new prison would depend on the old penitentiary being demolished. But he withdrew that in favor of an amendment requiring completion of three studies before a prison can be built.

One study, already authorized, would look at how prisoners are classified as needing maximum, medium, or minimum security, which could affect the type of new prison that is built.

Another would have examined the effectiveness of programs that are designed to prepare prisoners for release.

And a third would have looked at staffing needs.

Sixteen senators voted for the amendment, and sixteen voted against it. Since it required 25 votes, it was not adopted, as the Legislature moved toward an expected vote Thursday evening on the budget bill.