Nebraska Legislature

While much of the attention on this summer’s legislative session will likely be focused on property tax relief, Nebraska state senators passed a variety of bills before the session was suspended and have more to discuss. 

The Nebraska Legislature’s 2020 session was suspended March 16 because of COVID-19 concerns and will resume July 20. Here’s a look at some of the legislation that became laws, and some that will continue to be debated when the Legislature resumes.  

Juvenile Confinement

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln introduced LB230, which limits the use of room confinement in juvenile detention facilities to only when juveniles pose a risk to themselves or others.

The bill passed 44-0 after final reading and was signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts on Feb. 12. It will go into effect in mid-November.

The law does not allow solitary confinement to be used due to staffing shortages or as a punishment, and only then if solitary confinement does not harm the child’s mental or physical health.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, currently allows the use of room confinement for reasons of safety and security or as a disciplinary sanction. In YRTCs, room restriction, defined as a cooling off period, is limited to an hour while disciplinary segregation can last for five days. 

It also specifies that juveniles should be removed from confinement as soon as the risk is resolved. The bill also includes the specifics of what must be provided to the juvenile in confinement and who must be notified if a juvenile is being placed in room confinement. 

Pansing Brooks said the bill was introduced following an Inspector General report that found that solitary confinement was being overused in juvenile facilities in Nebraska. During a visit to the YRTC–Geneva in August 2019, Pansing Brooks said she saw girls in distress being placed in confinement, some in rooms without working lights or mattresses. 

Pansing Brooks said she thinks that the bill will create real change for Nebraska youth.

 “I feel really excited and grateful because that bill obviously passed in the first part of this session,” she said. “And I feel like this is a huge move for our state.”

Stolen Firearms

A bill introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon seeks to more easily punish the possession and resale of stolen firearms. The bill, signed into law on Feb. 12, would allow someone to be convicted of possessing a stolen firearm if there was reasonable cause for them to believe the firearm was stolen.

The previous standard required the person to have actual knowledge or belief the gun was stolen.

Judiciary committee legal counsel Dick Clark said the bill will bring the state’s law in line with the national standard. 

Clark said the Legislature made stolen firearms a more serious crime several years ago, as the firearms are identified as the weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes. He said the bill has a dual purpose of protecting gun owners’ rights and looking to reduce violent crime.

“We’re very pro-Second Amendment in this office,” he said. “It’s not about being anti-gun, but it’s about having a laser focus on just the guns that we know are very likely to be used in crimes later.” 

Party Buses

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha introduced a bill looking to require licensure for charter buses under the Nebraska Liquor Control Act. It was approved by the governor on Feb. 19. LB734 was meant to align the public safety expectations of party busses with those of pedal pubs, which were already regulated and licensed. Party busses were not previously required to be licensed. 

Hunt said she worked with opponents of the bill, including some limousine and transportation companies, to make an amendment addressing their concern that the legislation was overly broad. Hunt said the bill has been something the Legislature has been looking to pass for at least eight years. 

African American Committee

LB918, introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, would create an African American committee similar to the committees the state already has for Latino Americans and Native Americans. The bill would create a 14-member board of members of African ancestry and would keep the governor informed of problems affecting the community. 

The bill would also require the committee, in collaboration with the existing committees for Latino Americans and Native Americans, to conduct disparity reports on government contracting.

The bill is currently in select file, meaning it’s in the second phase of debate and voting in the full Legislature. 

Wayne could not be reached for comment.

Survivors’ Bill of Rights

A bill introduced by Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln would create a list of rights for sexual assault survivors and would be referred to as the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights. LB43 would put into statute guidelines for the support and information given to survivors when they go through a medical examination or are questioned by law enforcement. 

Bolz said she heard heart-wrenching testimony at the judiciary hearing in February 2019 from survivors who simply didn’t know what to do after their assault and didn’t understand their rights, which she feels the bill will remedy. 

Bolz said she is optimistic that the bill will be passed when the Legislature resumes. 

“I think people understand that clear information at a time when people are in need of compassionate support is essential,” she said. “And clarifying and codifying that information in legislation will help protect survivors of sexual assault in the future.”

Some of the rights in the bill include having an advocate and an attorney, the right to a free forensic medical examination and the right to anonymous reporting.

Law Enforcement Training

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha introduced a bill that would require all Nebraska law enforcement officers to complete two hours of anti-bias training each year. 

No senators have opposed the bill, and it was placed on final reading on Feb. 25. Chambers said he is confident the bill will be passed when the Legislature resumes. 

Chambers said the bill simply looks to educate officers to treat all the communities they police equally and acknowledge and fight the biases that do exist. 

“If they are required to take some training, there are people who know how to present this issue to them, uncover for them what these biases are and then they can guard against them when they’re policing certain communities where people live who they may not like,” he said. 

Chambers said while there was no opposition to the bill to begin with, active support for the bill has grown since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which resulted in the firing of the four officers involved. The incident has led to a nationwide focus on police violence and racial justice. 

“For some reason, those television images sparked something in people all over the world that had been slumbering, apparently, for decades, maybe generations,” he said. “And suddenly, like a blinding flash of light, they realize that there are officers who actually commit murders in the process of carrying out what they say are their duties.”