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.
Jobs for ex-inmates. Nebraskans with criminal records would have a better chance of finding work under a bill advanced Wednesday by the Legislature.
Legislative Bill 254 cleared first-round consideration on a 39-2 vote, after supporters reached a compromise with the business groups that opposed the original legislation.
As introduced by State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, the bill would have prohibited most employers from asking people about their criminal history when they first apply for a job. The “ban the box” proposal would have expanded on a 2014 law that applies only to public employers.
The compromise would allow employers to continue asking job applicants about their criminal history, including on their initial applications, but those who do pose the question would have to give applicants a chance to explain their records and detail their subsequent steps at rehabilitation.
Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair, who offered the compromise amendment, said he had some concerns about the original bill as an employer himself. He said the compromise gives applicants a chance to make their case for being hired, rather than being dismissed simply because they checked the criminal history box.
Several business groups spoke against the bill at its public hearing, saying the measure would impose new steps in the hiring process and create a burden on small employers.
Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln said the compromise made it possible for her to support the bill.
“We need to change our perspective about allowing inmates and former inmates back into society,” she said.
Americanism again. The introducer of a proposal updating Nebraska’s Americanism law expressed confidence Wednesday about being able to overcome a filibuster on the bill.
Sen. Julie Slama of Peru commented after lawmakers completed three hours of debate about her Legislative Bill 399.
Debate ended at that point, based on a policy set by Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer of Norfolk. Scheer will bring the bill back only if he is provided proof that the bill can advance, either through a compromise or with commitments from 33 senators to vote for a filibuster-ending cloture motion.
LB 399 seeks to revamp a state law dealing with civics education and American government that dates to 1949.
Among other changes, it would repeal language that now calls for schools to instill “love of liberty, justice, democracy and America” in the hearts and minds of students. In its place, the bill would require that students get the chance to become “competent, responsible, patriotic and civic citizens.”
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers has vowed to fight the bill, arguing that it is a “propaganda piece.” He argued that the Americanism law should be repealed entirely and that the job of determining school curriculum be left to the State Board of Education.
On Wednesday, lawmakers rejected a Chambers amendment to eliminate the word “patriotic” from the bill. They also rejected an amendment from Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln that would have eliminated the potential for superintendents or other school employees to be fired for failing to carry out the requirements of the bill.
State oversight. State health officials opposed two proposals Wednesday that sought to increase oversight of state-run psychiatric hospitals and state-licensed health care facilities.
Legislative Bill 313, introduced by Bolz, would add the three state regional centers to the oversight duties of the inspector general of corrections. The inspector general of corrections is part of the legislative branch of government. The position was created to investigate and make recommendations about the state’s troubled prison system.
Bolz said the change would provide independent investigation of incidents and issues at the state psychiatric hospitals in Lincoln, Norfolk and Hastings. The Lincoln Regional Center, in particular, has struggled with rising numbers of assaults and injuries to staff, along with staff shortages, high overtime costs and high rates of staff turnover.
Ron Glover, a Lincoln Regional Center employee, testified in favor of the bill. Glover suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was assaulted by a patient in June.
Legislative Bill 596, offered by Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island, would create a new inspector general for public health. The new position would be charged with investigating and making recommendations about state-licensed health care facilities.
Quick said he introduced the bill after serving on a legislative committee last summer that looked into the assisted living facilities that house Nebraskans with mental illnesses. He said the new position could help dig into the problems at those facilities.
Those facilities came under scrutiny after a veteran was found dead in her room at a central Nebraska facility two years ago. Despite finding abuse and neglect of residents and numerous care deficiencies at the facility during an earlier inspection, state officials did not take action until after her death.
Administrators in the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services testified against both bills, saying existing oversight mechanisms are sufficient. Those include state licensing inspections and, for the psychiatric hospitals, national accreditation. The State Ombudsman’s Office also handles complaints from regional center patients.