Legislature upholds Pillen veto of needle exchange bill

March 12, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Megan Hunt during debate Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Megan Hunt during debate Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature Tuesday upheld Governor Jim Pillen’s veto of a needle exchange bill whose sponsor, Sen. Megan Hunt, accused him of acting out of personal motives against her.

At issue was a bill that would allow cities in Nebraska to establish needle-exchange programs for intravenous drug users. Supporters say that cuts down on diseases that can be transmitted by reusing dirty needles, and helps get people into treatment. Opponents argue it can increase drug use and pose a danger to others.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Megan Hunt. Last year, Hunt helped bring the Legislature nearly to a halt over opposition to limits Pillen backed on health care for transgender youth, including Hunt’s son. Tuesday, Hunt told her colleagues she has changed her approach.

“I rose above the nonsense of last year this year. I played it straight. I have been a model colleague to all of you. This bill went through three rounds of debate. It came out of the committee with full support. We modified the bill with an amendment to fix concerns that people had about the bill. We played it straight. We did it right. It's a good bill. And you understand the policy more than Governor Pillen does,” Hunt said.

Hunt cited some of the people who supported her proposal:

“If you don't want to trust me, you can trust people like the chancellor of UNMC; the director of the addiction psychiatry and public health at UNMC; Dr. Jerome Adams who served under Governor Mike Pence during Indiana's HIV outbreak, and then became Surgeon General under President Trump,” she said.

And Hunt accused Pillen of acting out of personal spite:

In: This veto is not about me. It's not about your feelings about me. It's about Governor Pillen’s feelings about me. And we know that because Governor Pillen said to many of you, who then came and told me that this is personal for him. He told many of you the reason. He said -- and I quote from one of you -- ‘I don't know why any of you are working with Hunt this year. We can't let her have anything.’”

Pillen denied the charge, saying, quote “With full respect to Sen. Hunt, that statement is simply untrue. I opposed this bill for the same reasons commonsense Nebraskans did; because it would amount to government facilitation of illegal drug use.”

Speaker John Arch also disputed that the veto was personal:

In: To me this is strictly a disagreement as to what is the best policy for the state of Nebraska. It's not political, it's not personal with me. I have heard it said there's room for disagreement between reasonable people and that is how I perceive this,” Arch said.

Arch supported Hunt’s attempt to override Pillen’s veto, reading a letter from Dr. Jerome Adams, the former Trump and Pence health official Hunt cited, in support of needle exchange -- syringe service programs, or SSPs:

In: While the provision of sterile syringes is absolutely essential to combating HIV and hepatitis C, these programs represent so much more than syringes. As with our efforts in Indiana, SSPs can build trust and empathy with community members struggling with substance use disorder. They can create pathways to treatment and recovery, and they can distribute overdose reversal medications that save lives every day,” Arch read.

Opposing the veto override, Sen. Dave Murman cited criticism by Analisa Packham, a researcher cited by Pillen, related to needle exchange programs.

“First they distribute free supplies, which lower the expected cost of the drugs. Second, they provide a safe space to interact with other drug users, which expands access to new drug partners and supplies reduced stigma. Third, they may signal support for police leniency of drug users, in turn lowering the legal risk for using drugs,” Murman read.

Thirty senators voted to pass the bill before Pillen’s veto, and that would have been just enough to override the governor. Sen. Danielle Conrad faulted senators who had supported the bill but were now switching to side with Pillen.

“Many members who supported the measure and spoke in support of the measure have not got on the mic to explain why they're flipping, and are flipping because the governor called them,” Conrad said.

One of those who switched, Sen. Carolyn Bosn, said later she had changed her mind after getting more information, including from Pillen’s office.

But Bosn rejected any suggestion that she had caved because of political pressure, pointing out that she had opposed the governor for rejecting a summer food benefit program that he ultimately approved.

Another lawmaker who switched, Sen. Mike Moser, said senators always have the right to change their minds.

When time came to vote, 27 senators voted to override the governor, with 20 opposed, so the veto stands.

Also Tuesday, senators began debate on changes to the existing two year budget. No votes were taken, and debate is expected to continue though at least Thursday.

Here’s how senators voted on passing the needle exchange bill:

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Here's how they voted on overriding Pillen's veto:

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