Lawmakers advance budget with money, but without authority, for new Nebraska prison | Government and politics
Nebraska jail woes again dominated the day on Thursday as state lawmakers wrapped up second-round debate on a $9.8 billion budget.
Senators ended a long day pushing the package forward without substantive changes. But they also ended without substantial progress toward criminal justice reform, the goal of a filibuster led by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop.
He said he wanted to block any attempts to appropriate money for a proposed new prison until the state changes sentencing and parole to bring down the state’s prison population. These changes are incorporated into LB920, which is expected to be debated next week.
An analysis by Omaha World-Herald found Nebraska’s prison system to be the most overcrowded and fastest growing in the United States. It is also among the most racially unequal in the country.
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“If you don’t want to do these things, are you okay with the status quo? Lathrop asked, citing projections that show prison population growth exceeding the capacity of the proposed new prison within a few years.
Lincoln’s Sen. Suzanne Geist said she supports many of the recommendations that came out of a criminal justice reinvestment task force, which Lathrop chaired alongside Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and Chief Justice Mike Heavican. But she opposed recommendations that could get inmates out of jail sooner.
“It’s a bridge too far for me,” said Geist, who also served on the task force.
The budget package under consideration sets aside the remaining $175 million needed to build the proposed new prison, but does not yet earmark money for construction. Members of the Appropriations Committee delayed this decision while the Legislative Assembly debated criminal justice reform.
The $175 million would be in addition to the $100 million set aside last year to pay for the construction of a facility estimated to cost $270 million.
The money for the prison would come from what should be a record cash reserve fund. It is among construction and infrastructure projects worth nearly $500 million included in the package.
The budget includes $53.5 million to launch the Perkins County Canal Project, a system of canals and reservoirs along the South Platte River in eastern Colorado and western Nebraska. The money would be enough for a feasibility study, design work, obtaining permits and land purchase options.
The governor has pushed for the canal, saying it must be built so Nebraska can claim all the water it is entitled to under a century-old pact with Colorado.
The budget also includes $100 million for improvements to Lake McConaughy in Keith County and Niobrara State Park and Lake Lewis and Clark in northeast Nebraska and an additional $100 million to cross the next steps towards creating a 7 mile lake along the Platte River between Lincoln and Omaha.
The Appropriations Committee package makes changes to the biennial budget adopted last year. With these changes, state spending would total $9.8 billion for the two years ending June 30, 2023 and would grow an average of 3.2% per year.
The package would pay higher wages for state employees in critical areas, such as corrections and 24-hour facilities, and increase rates paid to providers who care for Nebraskas most vulnerable.
The appropriations committee’s plan would leave Nebraska with $1.3 billion in the cash reserve fund by June 30, 2023. That’s $950 million more than the fund balance at the end of the year. 2020-21 financial year.
World-Herald reporter Erin Bamer contributed to this story.
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