Investigating Crimes in Prison, Raising Property Taxes to Help River Flows Discussed in Legislature

Jan. 30, 2019, 5:17 p.m. ·

Sen. John Stinner (center) testifies as Sen. Mike Groene (foreground) looks on. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

Changes in how crimes in Nebraska’s prisons are investigated, and proposals highlighting conflicting demands for water from Nebraska’s rivers, were among subjects discussed in the Legislature Wednesday.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on two proposals – one (LB94) by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, the other (LB438) by Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln – to have the State Patrol investigate crimes committed within the state’s prisons.

Currently, those investigations begin with an internal investigation by the Department of Correctional Services. But Jim Maguire, president of the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police, a union that represents prison employees, says the system isn’t working.

“Last year, I was – I’ll use the word appalled – I was appalled that there were only two investigators to investigate all of the ten institutions within the Department of Corrections. So if you have an investigator that has to go to Omaha one day and then he may have to drive to McCook the next day, that entire day is going to be wasted just driving. And in talking to a lot of the guards, and this is their personal views on this, that if they are assaulted, it is not being properly investigated,” Maguire said.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes opposed requiring the State Patrol to investigate. Frakes says the current system’s working well. “I get the information I need as the director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to oversee and operate the agency that I’m responsible for. The State Patrol gets the information they need to proceed when there’s criminal action to be pursued. The prosecutors get the information they need to prosecute the cases. And the system works,” he said.

Col. John Bolduc, superintendent of the State Patrol, also opposed the proposal. But Sen. Wayne said the proposal makes sense. “There are significant problems with investigating yourself. And with all of the issues that we hear about in Corrections – and I think they’re making strides and making progress – it’s not unreasonable to take the idea of investigating crimes off of their plate,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action.

Meanwhile, the Revenue Committee held a public hearing on a proposal (LB134)affecting demand for water from Nebraska’s rivers. The bill introduced by Sen. John Stinner of Gering would let Natural Resource Districts along the Republican and Platte Rivers increase property taxes by up to three cents per hundred dollars of valuation for water management projects.

Stinner said it was an important tool. “This is not a tax increase. This is a continuation of a program which has been in place over 10 years, and an important tool for our NRDs,” he said.

Natural Resource Districts where water was found to be fully- or over-appropriated were given the extra taxing authority in 2006. But faced with complaints about property taxes, the Legislature let it lapse last year.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who objects to some spending by NRDs, reminded Stinner of that history. “For clarification, this is a tax increase,” Groene said.

“It is not a tax increase until they utilize the three cent(s). There, for a short period of time, it is a tax increase. And if you look at the history over 10 years, NRDs have moved that up from time to time and judiciously moved it back down, because they are much aware of what the impact is from property tax,” Stinner replied.

Groene also noted the North Platte NRD, which includes Stinner’s district, has not used its ability to tax irrigators $10 an acre. That’s a tax that falls only on farmers, not on city residents. Stinner said he thought that would be unfair to farmers who use surface water, and didn’t cause the problem of low streamflows by overusing groundwater. And he added that municipalities use the water as well.

Stinner’s proposal is kind of the mirror image of one (LB368) introduced by Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango. Hughes’ bill would not restore NRD’s ability to raise property taxes. Instead, it would remove the designation of sections of the Platte as “over-appropriated.” In theory, that could eliminate requirements for farmers to cut their use of water for irrigation. In practice, it could trigger federal intervention to preserve water for endangered fish and wildlife. John Berge is general manager of the North Platte NRD, which regulates how much water farmers can draw from the ground in Scotts Bluff, Morrill Garden and Banner counties. Berge says if Nebraska still has to ensure there’s enough water in the Platte, the NRD has only two tools. “One is regulation -- we lower our allocation more, which is going to be wildly detrimental to the economy of our area,” he said. Using that tool, the NRD would have to tell farmers they could use less water to irrigate, reducing yields or forcing them to switch to less profitable crops.

Berge prefers a second alternative. “We move to be more aggressive with some of our incentive-type programs where we do an allocation buy-down, or we enter into some surface water arrangements where we’re using intentional recharge, or things like that,” he said. In other words, they could pay farmers to use less water, or let water in irrigation canals sink into the ground to recharge underground supplies, instead of using it to grow crops.

However, programs like that cost the NRD money, unlike simply regulating the amount farmers can use. And that’s money the NRDs would have less of, with the expiration of their extra three-cent levy authority.

Hughes’ proposal is scheduled for a public hearing Feb. 20th.