Pillen vetoes needle exchange; override attempt planned

March 4, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Megan Hunt talks to Senator Myron Dorn about her attempt to override Governor Jim Pillen's veto of her needle exchange bill  (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Megan Hunt talks to Sen. Myron Dorn about her attempt to override Gov. Jim Pillen's veto of her needle exchange bill (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen has vetoed a bill allowing Nebraska cities to establish needle exchange programs for drug users. Sen. Meghan Hunt, chief sponsor of the legislation, says she’ll try to override the veto.

It was Gov. Jim Pillen’s first veto of any bill this session, and it came against Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt’s LB307. That’s a bill that would allow cities or other local governments approve needle exchange programs for people who are using drugs. In legislative debate earlier this year, Hunt said “syringe service programs” help reduce the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.

In an interview with Nebraska Public Media News, Pillen explained his opposition to the bill.

“As the bill is written, it actually opens the door for kids to be able to get needles and syringes and, and doing drugs. Absolutely crazy. Makes no sense…It enhances more drug use, instead of decreasing it. And then when it comes to communicable diseases, you know, the the data is crystal clear that most of the problems are, are not related to syringes or needles,” Pillen said.

The governor also said similar laws elsewhere have led to more problems.

“If you would go and study what's taking place in other urban communities that have adopted with a start, they evolve to drug-free streets, and they get clean needles and syringes to do drugs. It's just not a path that Nebraska needs to go down,” he said.

In his veto message, Pillen cited several studies that he said support his conclusions.

Hunt said Pillen is cherry-picking research to support his pre-existing views, and cited research she said shows the benefits of needle-exchange programs.

“People who use programs like those authorized in LB307 are five times more likely to get treatment for substance use and addiction…it connects them to other social services that can help them get out of addiction: wound care, all kinds of things that they would not be receiving if not for LB307,” Hunt said.

And the senator said she would try to override Pillen’s veto:

“Today I filed a motion to override the governor's veto on LB307. I think my vote count looks good. I think the governor -- his intention is coming from a good place, you know, he wants to protect Nebraskans the same way I do. But respectfully, he doesn't understand the bill,” she said.

For his part, Pillen said he respects where Hunt is coming from, but he disagrees with her approach.

lt takes 30 votes to override a veto – the same number of senators who voted for the bill when it passed last. Lawmakers now have five legislative days in which to vote on an override.

Speaker John Arch, who sets the schedule, said Monday he has not yet decided when to schedule the vote. But Arch, who supported passage of the measure, said he intends to keep supporting it, calling it a good bill.

In other action Monday, senators gave second-round approval to a bill containing a package of government reforms. LB43 would say laws and regulations should be interpreted to maximize individual liberty. It would strengthen religious freedom protections, require allowing public comment at all public meetings, prohibit requiring charities to disclose their donors, authorize indigenous students to wear tribal regalia, and allow some cybersecurity records to be withheld from the public.

It would also ease the costs people have to pay for public records. Currently, people have to pay for the time it takes staff to search for the public records they have requested, if that time amounts to more than four hours. The bill would raise that to eight hours, and allows record-keepers to waive fees if the request is in the public interest.

Sen. Danielle Conrad said the bill is a response to what she termed a “clamping down” on the public’s right to know.

“At almost every hearing on these bills, numerous government lawyers and lobbyists appear and oppose these reforms. The opposition is mostly centered upon some sort of burden or inconvenience to the government, without any concern to the inconvenience and burden those bad acts put on the individual citizen and the public. They've got it wrong colleagues: the government is there to serve the people, not the other way around,” Conrad said.

By a voice vote, senators gave the bill the second of two approvals it would need to be sent to the governor.

Also Monday, senators gave first-round approval to a bill, LB894, requiring county sheriffs to be certified law-enforcement officials before being elected or appointed. The bill is in response to a situation involving former Dundy County Sheriff C.J. Smith, who was recalled last year after failing to become certified within eight months on the job. Under an amendment by Sen. Justin Wayne, DACA recipients could also serve in law enforcement, if they met all the requirements. Senators voted 36-8 for Wayne’s amendment, then advanced the bill on a vote of 42-2.