New Prison Proposal Questioned; R-Project Delay Boosted

Jan. 22, 2021, 5:41 p.m. ·

Corrections Director Scott Frakes testifies Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

Corrections Director Scott Frakes’ argument for a new prison got a skeptical reaction from some lawmakers today (Friday). And the senator representing the Nebraska Sandhills district pushed for a two-year moratorium on building a controversial power line there.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes argued for a new prison, which is supported by Gov. Pete Ricketts, in a briefing for members of the Appropriations and Judiciary Committees Friday. Frakes said Nebraska’s prisons currently hold about 5,300 people, 47 percent more people than they were designed for. And the prison population is expected to grow to 6,400 by four years from now. He wants to build a new, 1,500-bed prison at a cost of $230 million. He said that would be more efficient than rebuilding the existing state penitentiary, at a cost of $170 million, which would actually reduce capacity there.

“It’s time. It’s time for a new location on fresh ground, and do it right,” Frakes said.

The proposal drew a frustrated response from Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a member of the Judiciary Committee. She pointed to efforts to reduce the prison population by easing sentences and adding new programs to get people out of prison earlier that Ricketts has not supported.

“Why hasn’t there been an effort by you or someone in the administration to help us? For seven years we could have been working on programming. We could have been working on sentencing reform. I had a bill two years that cut us down to 124 percent of capacity. But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to build and build and build,” Pansing Brooks said.

Frakes was hired by Ricketts when the governor took office six years ago. He said his role is to run the prison system, not to advocate for changes in sentencing. And he said when he first took his current job, he didn’t want to add a new prison, but one is now needed to make the system run safely.

Sen. John Stinner, chair of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, questioned the feasibility of hiring another 400 to 450 employees to run the prison, when the Department of Correctional Services already has 200 to 300 vacant positions. And Stinner also questioned the cost of the proposal compared to other expenses the state is facing.

“We just passed a tax package that’s going to be about $375 million at the top, we’ve got Medicaid expansion, we’ve got a host of other initiatives that we’ve got to address within the state… $235 million, lots of money. So we’re going to take our time, we’re going to take a look at alternatives,” Stinner said.

The Appropriations and Judiciary Committees are expected to play key roles in shaping the legislative response to the proposal.

Also Friday, Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon named a bill to delay a controversial transmission line proposed for construction in the Sandhills his priority bill for this year. The so-called R-Project would stretch more than 200 miles, from the Gerald Gentleman Power Station near Sutherland, north to Thedford, and then east to Clearwater. Brewer says it’s an important issue for his constituents.

“My district is the most affected by the R-line. And as I campaigned this past year, everywhere I went that was an issue that kept being brought up,” Brewer said.

Critics say construction will damage the fragile Sandhills environment, and the lines and the wind farms that may be connected to it will spoil the view. Supporters say the line will promote economic development. The Nebraska Public Power District, which would build the line, says it would improve the reliability of electric service and could connect to wind farms in the future.

Last summer, a federal judge ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hadn’t adequately considered the impact of the line when it granted a permit, at least temporarily halting the project. But NPPD’s website says the project is still needed, and it continues to work on finding a path forward.

Brewer said the project could take another, less disruptive route. His bill calls for a two-year moratorium on construction while the Legislature conducts a study of the project.

“We just want to slow the wheels down to make sure it’s the right course of action, and we’re not going to hand-jam this thing through for the convenience of wind companies,” he said.

Brewer’s designating the proposal his priority bill for the year increases the chances it will be debated by the Legislature, but only if it advances after a public hearing by the Executive Board. Sen. John McCollister, a wind power supporter and a member of that board, said Friday he doesn’t think the bill will get a friendly reception there.

And, Speaker Mike Hilgers has released new procedures for participating in public hearings during the pandemic. (To see a memo about the new procedures, click here).

Options include submitting written testimony that will be posted as part of the transcript of the hearing, emailing in a letter stating a position on a bill, and searching for the bill on the Legislature’s website – -- and submitting a written comment there. People will still be able to testify in person, as well. Hilgers asked his fellow senators for patience with the new procedures, which he said are designed to keep people safe and respect health concerns.

“Please give us patience and grace in this process. We will get better. There’s going to be some hiccups. You should expect some hiccups. If you have ways to improve the process please let us know. I’m always looking to try to get better. So I appreciate your patience throughout and I look forward to a successful session with committee hearings starting next week,” he said.