The World-Herald’s Statehouse reporters round up news highlights from the Legislature and state government into the Capitol Digest — a daily briefing for the political newshound with a busy schedule.

State budget. Nebraska lawmakers advanced the main $9.3 billion state budget bill to the final round of consideration Wednesday after spending two hours debating a $174,000 piece of it.

At issue was a study of nursing homes in the state. The study, to be paid for with a combination of nursing home fines and federal funds, is to look at reimbursement, regulations and other issues with an eye to ensuring that Nebraskans can get long-term care when needed.

State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said the study had been approved by the Appropriations Committee but was mistakenly left out of the bill before first-round debate. But some senators took the opportunity to take aim at the size of the budget generally. Among them, Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair said the budget was too big and the 3% increase in state spending was too high.

Lawmakers gave second-round approval to the budget bill on a 40-7 vote, after first rejecting an amendment that would have eliminated the nursing home study.

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“Innocuous” corrections bill. A legislative package dealing with state prisons and criminal sentences won 40-0 first-round approval Wednesday even after the main sponsor admitted that it wouldn’t do much to address prison overcrowding in the state.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said Legislative Bill 686 represented measures that could get passed, not what really needs to be done to ease the overcrowding, which has spawned a federal civil rights lawsuit. State prisons are at 153% of design capacity, which ranks in the top two nationally for overcrowding.

Lathrop, along with Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, argued that Nebraska needs to do more extensive criminal sentence reform, so more offenders are sentenced to lower-cost probation and problem-solving than expensive prison beds. Sentencing changes in 2015, crafted with the help of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, have fallen far short of projections in reducing prison overcrowding.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha was even more critical of LB 686, calling it an “innocuous” bill at a time when even conservatives like the Koch brothers agree that alternatives to prison are more effective and less costly.

LB 686 would prohibit the Department of Corrections from placing seriously mentally ill inmates and other “vulnerable” prisoners in solitary confinement and would allow judges in areas where there are no problem-solving courts to sentence offenders to intensive probation sentences that could wipe out a criminal charge. Lathrop described it as a “poor-man’s” problem solving court.

Another aspect of the bill would give counties more alternatives of where to send mentally ill inmates besides state-owned treatment facilities, which have long waiting lists.

The union that represents state corrections workers issued a press release Wednesday opposing the bill. It said that because mental health options are limited in state prisons, mentally ill inmates might be forced into the general population, where they would pose a threat to security officers.

The union also opposed a part of the bill that would ban corrections officers from having cellphones in their lockers because it would prevent officers from calling family members when they are required to work overtime.

Farm wineries. A bill given first-round approval on Wednesday would allow farm wineries to have up to four tasting rooms (instead of just one), and allow them to use fewer Nebraska-grown grapes.

Right now, farm wineries are required to use at least 75% Nebraska-grown grapes or fruit. LB 592 would allow that percentage to drop to 60%, which supporters said would help wineries when drought or floods reduce the state grape harvest. The bill was portrayed as aiding the state’s wineries.

Lawmakers rejected an attempt to allow farm wineries to sell beer and other alcohol on their premises. Opponents said the provision could raise constitutional concerns because it would treat Nebraska wineries differently than other wineries and could erode the state’s system of regulating alcohol production, distribution and sales.

Student discipline. Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, the Education Committee chairman, filed a motion Wednesday to pull a student discipline bill out of his own committee.

Groene offered the motion after committee members deadlocked 4-4 Wednesday over advancing LB 147 to the full Legislature. Groene had introduced the bill and, as committee chairman, named it a committee priority. It takes 25 votes to pull a bill out of committee.

LB 147 would provide legal protection for teachers who use physical restraint against violent and disruptive students. Groene said teachers now fear the consequences of using physical means to deal with violent and unruly students. It has support from the Nebraska State Education Association, which represents teachers and other school staff.

The proposal faced stiff opposition from education groups, child advocates and disability rights advocates. Representatives from several groups tried to work out a compromise earlier in the week, but not all were happy with the result. Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha, who voted against advancing the bill, said more work is needed to find a good balance on the issue.

Capitol Digest reporters photo xcapitoldigest capitoldigest

From left, World-Herald legislative reporters Martha Stoddard, Paul Hammel and Aaron Hegarty.

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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