Prisons, Teachers, Redistricting, School Aid in Legislative Mix

Jan. 7, 2022, midnight ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services says it’s considering sites in Lancaster, Douglas and Dodge counties for a proposed new prison. And senators are introducing bills on everything from recall elections to teachers’ student loans and redistricting.

Last year, the Legislature gave the Department of Correctional Services $15 million for an engineering study on what it would take to rehabilitate the Nebraska State Penitentiary, for design work on a new prison, and for work on selecting a site where a new prison could be built.

Friday, the department announced the results of that study. It found it would cost more than $220 million to rehabilitate the penitentiary in Lincoln. That’s in the same neighborhood as the $234 million the department proposed last year to spend building a new, 1,500-bed prison somewhere to replace the penitentiary.

The Legislature also authorized work on finding and taking options on possible sites for a new prison. Friday’s announcement says the sites under consideration are all in Douglas, Lancaster, or Dodge Counties. It says exact locations are not being disclosed while negotiations begin with property owners. But Sen. Steve Lathrop, chair of the Judiciary Committee, says Corrections Director Scott Frakes told him there were sites in north Omaha, Waverly, and Fremont.

And the parade of new bills being introduced as the legislative session gets underway continues. Among the proposals introduced is one that would allow voters to recall governors and senators. Sen. Tom Briese, its sponsor, said a local elected official in his district complained to him about the way the law currently stands.

“They can be subject to recall out there however, the governor and legislators can’t. And his point was, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And I agree with that. Nebraskans ought to have the right to recall us as well as their local elected officials if the necessity arises,” Briese said.

Briese also introduced a proposal that would say no new casino could be built within 50 miles of another. Casinos are expected to be built at the state’s existing racetracks, in Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, South Sioux City, Columbus and Hastings. But proposals have now cropped up for new racetracks and casinos around the state. The 50 mile-limit would appear to endanger proposals for Bellevue and York; one proposed for Norfolk could be close to the limit, and proposed casinos in North Platte, Ogallala and Gering would appear to be far enough away.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan said she’ll introduce a proposal to have the state pay up to $5,000 a year in student debt for four years for young teachers to remain teaching in Nebraska. Linehan says economics is driving many young people out of the profession and contributing to a shortage of teachers.

“What I am proposing is if you teach for one year in the state of Nebraska, the state will forgive $5,000 of your student loan. If you teach another year, another $5,000; third year, another $5,000; and the fourth, final year another $5,000 so if you taught for four years, you could eliminate $20,000 of your student debt,” Linehan said.

Linehan said her proposal would let the state help a thousand teachers at a cost of $5 million.

Sen. Megan Hunt is proposing an independent commission to recommend redistricting maps to the Legislature. That’s instead of having lawmakers themselves redraw the maps every 10 years. Hunt says it would cut down on partisanship.

“You look at other states that have independent redistricting commissions, and it really does take a lot of the political rancor and a lot of the partisanship out of the process. I do think that redistricting is always going to be partisan – like it’s a literal partisan process and everybody has their own interest at stake. But the more transparent it can be, the more active the public can be, especially in Nebraska where the public is our second house, the better process it’s going to be. And it’s important that we talk about that now, instead of 10 years from now when it’s too late for us to change our process,” Hunt said.

The proposal is a constitutional amendment that, if approved by the Legislature, would also have to be approved by voters.

And a trio of senators introduced bills to rework the state’s system of aid to schools. Sens. Lynne Walz, Brett Lindstrom and Mark Kolterman are proposing to increase aid by setting aside half a cent of the state sales tax and 20 percent of the income tax. Part of the idea is to relieve property taxes, with the maximum levy for schools being reduced from $1.05 per hundred dollars of assessed valuation to 95 cents. The sponsors cross party lines. Walz, chair of the Education Committee, is a registered Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature and the party’s most recent candidate for lieutenant governor. Lindstrom is a Republican running for his party’s nomination for governor, and Kolterman is a Republican as well.