At 154 pages, Nebraska’s mainline state budget bill, LB380, includes fund appropriations for Nebraska’s state expenses through June 30, 2023.
LB380 is one of 14 bills that are part of this session’s state budget package, a set of bills that includes funding totaling $9.7 billion. Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the budget covers a lot of ground. Priorities include increasing Medicaid provider rates, replenishing the rainy day fund and property tax relief, according to Stinner.
LB384, which has also been sent to the governor, would change provisions relating to the transfer of funds and funding for university and state college facilities, permit different uses of these funds and create a grant program. An amendment to LB384 introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha will create a Prison Overcrowding Contingency Fund, which is also a priority.
Stinner said Nebraska averages 150-250 new inmates each year and has two options: replacing the state penitentiary or renovating it. He said $14.7 million was appropriated for the planning and design of a new prison, as the state penitentiary begins to approach the end of its useful life or the estimated amount of time an asset is feasibly usable.
“I think anybody that has run a building or anything, toward the useful life you start to run into additional costs as it relates to maintenance. So that could become a very expensive proposition unless we start a process,” Stinner said.
Lawmakers adopted 34-1 an amendment by Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln to move $15 million from the state’s capital construction fund to a prison overcrowding contingency fund.
Wishart said Nebraska has the second-highest rate of prison overcrowding in the country and is in a state of emergency due to most facilities sitting at more than 140% capacity. This session, Wishart said, the Legislature is preparing financially for coaching with the Criminal Justice Institute to address overcrowding.
“When we did this several years ago with another institute that helped coach us, one of the issues that happened was lawmakers didn’t follow the recommendations because there was significant opposition, mainly from prosecutors,” Wishart said.
This time, Wishart said she is hopeful about the study based on similar work CJI did with the state of Utah. After CJI’s coaching, she said Utah was able to reduce its increasing prison population by 70% every year.
“They had to replace their penitentiary with far fewer beds and saved half a billion dollars in doing so,” Wishart said. “That’s what I’m hoping will come out of Nebraska. We find alternatives to correction that actually enable us to reduce the amount of beds needed.”
According to the Unicameral Update, Wishart’s amendment would also provide a $200,000 contract with the University of Nebraska to study inmate classification. Wishart said Zachary Hamilton, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha and the associate director of the Nebraska Center for Justice Research, is an expert on this topic.
“One of the issues that we don’t want to run into is that people who are not a threat, violence-wise, to other inmates’ safety, we want to make sure that they’re at the right custody level to be able to get the programming they need,” Wishart said. “And vice versa, you want to make sure that people who are going through significant behavioral health challenges and do pose a threat have the right classification for the level of security that they need.”
Stinner said halfway back facilities can also help with overcrowding. If prisoners violate their parole, they are sent back to the state penitentiary. Instead, Stinner said they could be occupied in a facility that promotes corrective action but allows them to still be actively employed and essentially continue on with their lives.
Several bills included in the package have been sent to the governor. These bills would appropriate funds for salaries of members of the legislature (LB381) and salaries of constitutional officers (LB382), change provisions related to the cash reserve fund (LB385) and provide for payment of claims against the state (LB666).