Initiative Changes Proposed in Wake of Medical Marijuana Failure

Jan. 15, 2021, 5:23 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Proposals to change Nebraska’s initiative petition laws, stemming from last year’s failure of a medical marijuana drive, are among measures introduced in the Nebraska Legislature.

Sen. Anna Wishart helped lead last year’s initiative petition drive to put the question of legalizing medical marijuana on the ballot. Voters never got to vote on the measure, because the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that while the state constitution requires initiatives contain only one subject, that initiative contained more than one, including language on who could use medical marijuana, or cannabis, and who could grow it. Wishart said that inspired her to introduce a bill.

“The idea behind this came because of the loss we suffered last year with the medical cannabis ballot initiative. After going through a revisor of statutes, having a legal team look at the constitutionality, having the secretary of state look at the constitutionality, we still found ourselves across the finish line and getting kicked off, even though we collected above 190,000 signatures -- well above the constitutional requirement,” Wishart said.

Wishart’s bill would require the attorney general to issue an opinion when initiatives are first proposed on whether the proposed language violates the single subject requirement, and to suggest what changes were are needed to make it comply. The revised language would then be presumed constitutional, although the Supreme Court would have the final say. Wishart also introduced a constitutional amendment saying initiatives could contain one general subject, which may include provisions that have a connection to the general subject.

Also this week, Sen. Tom Briese proposed a constitutional amendment which would require the state to pay for all the cost of classroom expenses for schools in Nebraska. Currently, local property taxes provide the bulk of school funding, and Briese said he wants to change that.

“Our failure to adequately support public schools, at the state level, has led to a property tax crisis. And this is intended to require the state to pick up their fair share, to end that crisis,” Briese said.

Briese estimated the classroom expenses his proposal would cover amount to about 60 percent of total school costs, and do not include things like administration, buildings, and extracurricular activities. He said while the state currently supplies over $1 billion in aid to schools annually, this proposal would up that to around $2.5 billion. Asked where that money would come from, Briese said that would be dealt with later, if voters approved the proposal.

“It would be up to the Legislature to decide how to fund this. Basically we would let Nebraskans decide if they want us to do this, and then we would have to figure out a way to do it,” he said.

Briese said options would include increasing state taxes, redirecting current property tax relief funding, and relying on revenue growth, or some combination of those.

Also, Sen. John Cavanaugh introduced legislation to prevent defending against charges of assault, for example, by arguing that someone’s discovery of a victim’s gender identity or sexual orientation caused him to lose his mental faculties – the so called “gay panic” defense.

“What this bill does, it says that your discovery of those -- gender identity, sexual orientation – cannot be used as a reason for lack of intent to commit the crime,” Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh said the bill also sends a larger message.

“It’s not just the legal argument, but it is a point about recognizing the inherent value of all lives of individuals, and making sure that we are protecting all Nebraskans. And that someone doesn’t carve out a special defense against one class of Nebraskans because of their own personal beliefs about that,” he said.

And, the Rules Committee has decided not to recommend a change in the rule that allows the media into executive sessions of legislative committees, where discussions are held about whether or not to advance or amend bills.

Sen. Dan Hughes had proposed excluding the media, saying their presence had the effect of chilling frank discussion. Media representatives pushed back, saying their presence helped ensure government accountability. Sen. Rob Clements, chair of the Rules Committee, said committee members decided not to push the proposal.

“I described that as a ‘hot potato’ that nobody wanted to handle. And I asked senators if they wanted to make comments and nobody really even wanted to comment on that issue. And Sen. Hughes had a strong opinion but there was not support in the committee to bring it forward as part of the committee report,” Clements said.

The Legislature is now adjourned for a three-day weekend. Rather than set a time for returning on Tuesday morning, senators left that up to Speaker Mike Hilgers, who said he wanted flexibility because of the possibility of disruptions between now and Wednesday’s scheduled inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden.