McKinney says deferred maintenance used to promote new prison

March 13, 2023, midnight ·

Trent Loos testifies on his confirmation to the Racing and Gaming Commission Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Trent Loos testifies on his confirmation to the Racing and Gaming Commission Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Sen. Terrell McKinney Monday accused the Department of Correctional Services of deferring maintenance at the Nebraska State Penitentiary to create pressure to build a new prison. The acting head of the department denied that charge. And senators continued prioritizing bills on hot-button social issues that opponents say will lead to even more delays in getting other business accomplished.

Monday’s floor debate was moving along at its typical, of late, glacial pace. Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh has been using up time to prevent consideration of bills she doesn’t like, including one that prohibits certain medical treatments for transgender youth. During Monday’s filibuster, Sen. Terrell McKinney brought up a completely different subject, the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

Water service was knocked out for about 600 penitentiary inmates around 2:30 Friday afternoon. The Department of Correctional Services said inmates were provided bottled water and portable toilets, and water service was restored around 4 p.m. Saturday.

The department has proposed building a new, 1,500 bed, $340 million prison to replace the current facility.

McKinney blasted the Department of Correctional Services for not keeping the Nebraska State Penitentiary well maintained.

“The department has deferred a lot of maintenance at the Pen. And in my opinion, the maintenance has been deferred because they want to build another prison. And they want to subject the men inside of our state pen to inhumane conditions under the guise of ‘Oh, we need a new prisoner be built in the state of Nebraska,’” McKinney said.

McKinney noted this wasn’t the first time something similar has happened at the penitentiary. Another break occurred last November.

“The last time the water main broke I went down there and toured the prisons and just about every unit I walked through smelled like feces. The men inside had to scoop feces out of toilets just to be able to use the restroom,” he said.

Asked for reaction to McKinney’s assertion that the department had deferred maintenance to build the case for a new prison, Interim Director Diane Sabatka Rine said in a written statement that McKinney’s accusations are “completely false.”

She added, “The term ‘deferred maintenance’ does not mean that we are simply not making repairs; rather, it means that the required repair or replacement is more significant than routine maintenance and, therefore, is managed by the agency’s engineering division. And, she said, because the projects are costly, they require competitive bidding.

Sabatka Rine said both prison staff and population had handled the disruption caused by the pipe’s breaking “incredibly well."

Doug Koebernick, inspector general for the prison system, said a study was proposed to look more closely at the plumbing of the state prison.

“I think it would be really helpful for the department to tell the Legislature and the public the status of the plumbing study and any plans as far as maintaining that facility and getting it up to speed while they wait on the decision whether to build a new prison or not,” he said.

Koebernick said this is the third such issue in the last few years with the penitentiary, and Friday’s problem was relatively minor compared to the one in November.

Aside from discussion of the penitentiary, most of Monday’s debate was taken up by Cavanaugh’s ongoing filibuster against a routine bill tweaking the state’s liquor laws. But soon, the Legislature will be considering more controversial measures, such as proposed restrictions on abortion. Each senator gets to designate one bill as a personal priority, which increases the chances it will be scheduled for debate. Sen. Danielle Conrad urged her colleagues to think carefully about what bill they prioritize.

“Is it addressing top issues related to workforce development that impact the business community, working families, our bottom line and our future? Or will it be a selection, will it be a clarion call that this body's priorities are on nothing more than divisive social issues that impact our ability to conduct the people's business, negatively impact brain drain, and send the wrong message about our beloved Nebraska?” Conrad asked.

Sen. Kathleen Kauth has already prioritized her proposed ban on medicine or surgery to help youth transition between genders. And shortly after Conrad spoke, Sen. Dave Murman prioritized his proposal to create a conscience exemption that allows medical professionals to opt out of providing services they disapprove of. Conrad said 17 senators have yet to name their priorities.

Cavanaugh said the kinds of bills being given priority make her continued filibuster even more important.

“I'm not sure if I should take it as a compliment, like, you want me to keep talking for the rest of session you want me to take seven hours and 45 minutes on every single bill. Is that what we're doing? Is that why we're prioritizing the things we're prioritizing? Because I will,” she said.

After eight hours of debate over four days, senators advanced the alcohol bill.

And Monday afternoon, the General Affairs Committee held a public hearing on the confirmation of Trent Loos to the Racing and Gaming Commission. The commission oversees racetracks and casinos in the state.

Loos, appointed originally by Gov. Pete Ricketts last year, is now up for confirmation by the Legislature. He hosts a rural-oriented radio show called Loos Tales, and has been heavily involved in causes like resisting some Biden Administration environmental initiatives.

Loos pled no contest in 2002 to a misdemeanor involving a cattle sale. He said Monday the sale involved a single cow for which he had failed to get the proper brand inspection. Sen. John Cavanaugh asked him how the incident would affect his work on the commission.

“There's some folks who, in the racing gaming industry, if you have a criminal record that can prevent you from getting a license and working with these facilities… Does your experience inform that kind of approach towards issuing of these licenses, or maybe how we restrict who can participate?” he asked.

“If you are asking me, ‘Do I believe because I made a mistake and had paid the price that I make a better commissioner?’ I would say ‘Absolutely,’” Loos replied.

The committee took no immediate action on whether to recommend Loos’s confirmation.

Correction: earlier audio versions of this story misstated Trent Loos's plea in 2002 to a misdemeanor charge involving a cattle sale. He actually pled no contest.