North Omaha, AltEn Proposals Advance; Criminal Justice Reform Deadlocked

March 31, 2022, 3:25 p.m. ·

Senator Justin Wayne speaks in the Nebraska Legislature Thursday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)
Sen. Justin Wayne speaks in the Nebraska Legislature Thursday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)

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Plans to revitalize north Omaha and study the effects of pollution from an ethanol plant in Mead, Nebraska advanced in the Legislature Thursday, while lawmakers apparently remain deadlocked over proposals for criminal justice reform.

The proposal for north Omaha aims to use a combination of federal ARPA funds and state funds for projects including housing, small business development, environmental cleanup and a business park near the Omaha airport.

In its latest form, it would use $250 million in federal funds and $85 million in state funds, with the possible use of another $126 million in federal funds yet to be determined.

The proposal includes at least $35 million for predominantly Hispanic south Omaha, $36 million for Lincoln and $11 million for the rest of the state, but the bulk of the funds are to go to north Omaha, a predominantly black area that suffers from high poverty and unemployment.

Sen. Justin Wayne, who co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Terrell McKinney, predicted it would have widespread benefits.

“This isn’t just a big step for north Omaha. This is a huge step for the state. Not only the billion-dollar impact, but what it says to generations of people who may have felt that they were left out. May have felt that the capitalistic society we live in doesn’t work for them. This actually will provide them with hope, and give them a opportunity to compete in this society with the resources that is needed to be successful,” Wayne said.

Senators gave the bill the second of three approvals it would need for passage on a voice vote.

Senators also considered a proposal to give the University of Nebraska $1 million to continue studying the environmental and health effects of pollution from a now-closed ethanol plant near Mead in eastern Nebraska.

The AltEn plant produced ethanol using seed corn treated with fungicide, producing toxic waste that piled up on the ground and wastewater that spilled millions of gallons when a pipe burst last year.

Researchers from the University of Nebraska and Creighton University have begun studying those effects, funded by a private donation. Sen. Carol Blood originally asked for $10 million for a long-term study, but scaled down the request in order to keep the study going.

Sen. John Cavanaugh supported the proposal.

“With these sorts of things, with contamination, especially with chemicals – toxins -- that we don’t fully have a grasp of what the harm is that they’re going to cause people, it’s important that we are testing the groundwater, testing the soil, and tracking individuals for years to come,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Steve Erdman argued Blood was violating a legislative rule called the “germaneness” rule by offering her proposal as an amendment to an unrelated bill on expanding behavioral health services. Erdman has feuded with the university on subjects including critical race theory and what he views as unfair treatment of conservative students. Thursday, he sarcastically criticized senators who support the university and its claim of producing $9 worth of benefits for every state dollar it receives.

“Perhaps we should just give all of our money to the university and avoid all these discussions. Because you know they return about a gazillion dollars for every dollar we give ‘em in economic advantage. So we just give ‘em all our money and then we won’t have any budget problems because they’re gonna make so much more that we’ll just have a free-for-all like we did this year. I’m tired of giving the university money,” Erdman said.

Blood responded to Erdman.

“You say this all the time and I respect this, that you’re tired of giving the university money. But you know what I’m tired of? I’m tired of Nebraskans being collateral damage to big business,” Blood said.

Senators voted to rule Blood’s amendment was germane, or relevant to the bill, then adopted it on a vote of 31-6. They then gave the bill it was attached to first-round approval.

The Legislature is now off for a four-day weekend. Sometime after it reconvenes Tuesday, debate will resume on criminal justice reform. That debate officially began Wednesday night, with Sen. Steve Lathrop leading off.

“What we will talk about tonight is not about sacrificing public safety, it’s not about letting people out early. It’s about making an investment, making a policy decision that will keep the citizens of this state safer and will allow us to spend taxpayer dollars more wisely,” Lathrop said.

Lathrop wants to reduce the number of people going to prison by moves including reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of drugs, and changing sentencing to make people eligible for parole earlier.

Those proposals are opposed by some law enforcement officials, Gov. Pete Ricketts and Sen. Suzanne Geist, who said she favors more emphasis on rehabilitation.

“Rehabilitation is a large part of what I think is important and something we as a state have rarely focused on, if ever, exclusive of lowering penalties (and) changing sentences. In my opinion, those cost nothing, except public safety,” Geist said.

Lathrop says the reforms proposed in LB920 will reduce the prison population in 2030 by about 1,100 compared to what it’s now projected to reach. But Sen. Julie Slama said a similar effort seven years ago in LB605 promised to cut prison population by 1,000, but actually achieved a reduction of only 70.

“So yeah, you can sit here and you can put up charts saying ‘Well, we’re going to reduce our inmate population by a thousand people.’ Because that’s literally the same line that was given to us in LB605. And it didn’t work out,” Slama said.

Sen. John Cavanaugh said that was because proposed sentencing reforms back then were watered down. And Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said opposition from law enforcement threatens to repeat that history.

“There were a number of people who are the same people today saying ‘Oh no, we can’t do this. We’re not going to be tough enough on crime.’ It’s the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” Pansing Brooks said.

Speaker Mike Hilgers says he expects debate on the bill will resume early next week.

Editor’s note: By way of full disclosure, some Nebraska Public Media employees are university employees.