Horse slaughter bill sends message
LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature sent a message Wednesday by advancing a bill that could open the door for the slaughter of horses in the state, according to a key lawmaker.
State Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said the vote was a rebuke to the Humane Society of the United States and similar animal rights groups.
“It tells them that they aren't welcome here, that they won't be successful here and that they will be defeated,” he said.
Legislative Bill 305 cleared the first of three rounds of approval on a 35-1 vote.
The measure that advanced was scaled back from its original form.
As introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, the bill would have created a state meat inspection program, similar to programs in 27 other states. Larson introduced an amendment Wednesday to simply require a study of what would be needed to start a state program.
Backers say a state program would make it possible to again kill and process horse meat for human food in Nebraska.
Larson said a horse processing facility could help address the problem of unwanted horses.
However, federal officials have said restrictions on federal inspections of horse slaughter also apply to state programs. Congress stopped horse slaughter in the United States by banning federal inspectors from overseeing the killing and processing of horses. Meat intended for human consumption must be inspected either by the federal program or a state program.
Carlson blamed the federal ban on the Humane Society of the United States, which he called a “dangerous outside group” that wants to destroy agriculture.
HSUS, based in Washington, D.C., describes itself as “the nation's largest and most effective animal protection organization.”
Jocelyn Nickerson, the group's Nebraska director, said she was saddened by Carlson's attack.
“Like most opponents of animal welfare, Sen. Carlson tries to change the subject,” she said. “The fact is horse slaughter is a cruel, unnecessary, opportunistic industry, serving no value to America's economy or society.”
Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber, who cast the lone vote against the bill, questioned the need for and the potential cost of such a state program.
— Martha Stoddard
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Redistricting guidelines advanced
LINCOLN — The Nebraska Legislature's special Redistricting Committee voted Wednesday to give itself maximum leeway in redrawing state election districts.
Anything less could mean dividing more counties, cities and villages in an attempt to even out populations within districts, most committee members said.
Some argued for setting a tighter standard.
“I think it's important to have uniformity,” said State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln.
At issue was the amount of variation in population that the committee would allow among districts.
Redistricting is required every 10 years, following the national census, to achieve the constitutional standard of one person, one vote. But courts have allowed some variation among districts.
Ten years ago, Nebraska lawmakers allowed state election districts to vary in population by up to a total of 10 percent. That means districts could be as much as 5 percent above or 5 percent below the target population.
Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, a former Douglas County election commissioner, argued for keeping the 2001 standard. He said the 10 percent variance would make it easier to follow county lines and keep communities together.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha pushed for a smaller variance, saying it would be easier to keep districts from getting out of whack during coming years if they are more equal to start with.
The fast-growing west Omaha district of Sen. Beau McCoy now has 68,359 residents, while Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine represents 31,106 people in her rural, 13-county Sand Hills district.
In the end, the committee advanced a resolution governing the redistricting process that uses the 10 percent standard.
The standard would apply to districts drawn for Legislature, State Supreme Court, University of Nebraska Board of Regents, Public Service Commission and State Board of Education.
Population variance among the state's three congressional districts would be “at or approaching” zero under the resolution.
Legislative Resolution 102 also calls for districts to follow county lines and boundaries of cities and villages when possible. It also calls for drawing lines that don't favor one political party or another, dilute the voting strength of minorities or consider past election results.
The committee now will begin looking at possible district maps. The Legislature is expected to debate the committee's proposal in late May. — Martha Stoddard
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Water project compromise adopted
LINCOLN — The state will start providing substantial funding for projects that restore flows in depleted Nebraska rivers under a compromise adopted Wednesday by state lawmakers.
Supporters said the plan wouldn't gut a state environmental program. But the compromise will require taxpayers to dig a bit deeper to support the water projects, which will help Nebraska comply with multi-state water agreements with Kansas, Wyoming and Colorado.
Another $600,000 per year in state general funds would be devoted to the work over the next three years.
“Water is a state resource,” said Valentine Sen. Deb Fischer, sponsor of the proposal, Legislative Bill 229.
Her initial proposal angered wildlife and conservation groups because it would have diverted about half of the $15 million allocated annually to the Nebraska Environmental Trust for the next 10 years.
The Nebraska Environmental Trust funds habitat and lake restoration projects and litter reduction programs. It was created when Nebraska voters approved a state lottery in 1992. The trust receives about 45 percent of lottery proceeds every year.
The trust was a ripe target this year because it is funded by the lottery instead of stagnant state sales taxes or income taxes.
Three times before, in 2003, 2004 and 2006, the Legislature has tapped the Environmental Trust for other state programs.
This time, the money was needed to replace a surcharge on corn sales, a checkoff, that farm groups successfully got rescinded. The surcharge would have helped finance the water projects.
Under the compromise, the Environmental Trust will provide up to $3.3 million a year over the next three years to projects that enhance river flows in fully or over-appropriated river basins in the state.
Such projects would require matching state funds to earn bonus points that would push them toward the top of projects picked for grants by the trust.
Schuyler Sen. Chris Langemeier, who helped craft the compromise, said he was confident that the state could find the additional $600,000 annually in matching funds.
Eligible projects would include multi-million-dollar efforts to increase Platte River flows and retire irrigated acres in the Republican River drainage basin.
Langemeier said an interim study would be conducted to find a long-term solution to funding such water projects. If Nebraska doesn't get started, it will face expensive sanctions for not complying with its water agreements, supporters of LB 229 said.
The bill advanced by a vote of 41-3. — Paul Hammel