Prison Programming, Health District Funds Get Second-Round Approval

April 13, 2021, 5:56 p.m. ·


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Nebraska lawmakers continued to shape the state’s next two-year budget Tuesday. They shifted $15 million from prison construction to other solutions for prison overcrowding, and approved increased funding for public health districts, before voting second-round approval for the budget.

Senators still haven’t given final approval to Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal for a new $230 million prison to relieve prison overcrowding. But they’ve taken a step in that direction, giving preliminary approval for nearly $15 million for planning and design, and setting aside another $115 million that could be spent for construction, if and when they give the go-ahead.

Tuesday, they took a step in a different direction. They took $15 million from that construction fund, and put it instead into a fund that could be used to increase programming, like classes and training, for inmates. Sen. Justin Wayne sponsored the amendment.

“All this does is explore this option so we’re running two parallel tracks at the same time while we’re getting a study done,” Wayne said.

The amendment includes $200,000 for a study by the University of Nebraska at Omaha of how the state’s prison system classifies inmates to determine where they need to be housed, from maximum security on down to work release status. Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said a 2019 study found the classification system appeared to work 84 percent of the time, but was often overridden by other considerations.

“Staff were often required to override the classification tool’s recommendation in over 40 percent of the assessments that were completed. Part of that is overriding because of a lack programming; part of it is overriding because of lack of space, and correct space. So clearly things are not working as we have them right now,” Pansing Brooks said.

Sen. John Stinner, chair of the Appropriations Committee, supported Wayne’s amendment.

“This is a better balanced approach because I think it sends a message to all Nebraskans that prison overcrowding is not just about building. It’s about programs and programming,” Stinner said.

Critics of Nebraska’s prison system have often argued that a lack of programs prevents inmates from qualifying for parole and contributes to overcrowding. The funding in the amendment, and the studies that will be done, could determine how much and what kind of prison construction will eventually be approved. Wayne’s amendment was adopted on a vote of 28-0.

Another budget issue senators confronted Tuesday was how much funding to provide to the state’s 19 public health districts. Sen. Mike Groene proposed to keep the funding at the level he said Ricketts and the Appropriations Committee had preliminarily recommended, about $16 million for the next two years. But in its final proposal, the committee upped that recommendation by $4.5 million. Groene objected.

“This is not good government. It’s as simple as I can say it. You do not throw money at things because you feel that they did a good job, or you feel that more money would be helpful. There’s no rationale here for it,” Groene said.

Groene said the districts have received more than $50 million in federal funds during the pandemic, and are in line to get more.

Sen. Carol Blood defended the increase in state funding. Blood said health districts had to discontinue their regular work and had lost staff during the pandemic.

“This funding is for long-term survival of these departments. It’s not an either/or thing. Funding for the pandemic was for the pandemic. This funding is for the betterment and longevity of these important health departments,” Blood said.

Groene also objected to the power of the health districts.

“We need to have a debate about the public health districts and the power they’ve acquired/were given them by irresponsible elected officials who didn’t want to take responsibililty so they dumped it on -- major decisions about our constitutional liberties and rights -- about where do we want, at the end of the day, the part that these districts play in our lives. We haven’t had that debate,” he said.

Sen. Tony Vargas praised the districts for helping Nebraska bounce back from the pandemic, and disputed how much power they actually have.

“Public health departments were targeted as a source of information or a source of credit to trying to get something out and trying to improve our situation. And they’ve been held under an extreme level of scrutiny when the majority of them, with the exception of Lancaster, don’t have the authority to put in their own DHMs,” Vargas said.

DHMs are directed health measures, that is, orders for things like mask mandates. Under state law, only the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department has the power to issue its own DHMs. The rest of the state’s public health districts do not, although during the pandemic, individual cities have asserted the right to issue mask mandates, and the state has not challenged their actions.

Groene’s amendment was defeated on a vote of 23-10. Lawmakers gave second-round approval to the budget bills by voice vote, leaving one more round of voting before the bills are sent to Gov. Pete Ricketts for his approval or line-item vetoes.