While you were busy complaining about the President and Congress and concerning yourself with election results in Alabama and hurricane cleanup in Puerto Rico, here’s what was happening in your backyard.
In case you are interested, we wrap up 2017 in the Cornhusker State with: no beer sales in the tiny Sheridan County village of Whiteclay; permission granted to build a controversial Keystone XL Pipeline in the state, but not along the company’s preferred route; a continuing reduction in the number of state government employees as part of the governor’s on-going plan of budget management; lawsuits filed by the ACLU against Nebraska’s corrections system because of prison overcrowding and alleged confusion created by the death penalty re-instatement, even as the state filed notice it wants to execute the first of 11 inmates on death row.
In September, the Nebraska Supreme Court used a technicality to uphold a decision by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to slam the door on beer sales in Whiteclay. The high court ruled that the four beer stores in the border town should remain closed. Though it turned on a technicality, the ruling leaves storeowners with few options. They could apply for new licenses, but the success of doing so is slight. The high court ruled that the beer outlets – which sold an average of 3.5 million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation just across the border – had failed to properly notify citizen protestors that they were appealing.
In November, nine years after it was first proposed, the Nebraska Public Service Commission granted the Keystone XL pipeline a route across the state. But it was not the preferred route of TransCanada, the developer of the controversial line. For its part, TransCanada said it was still evaluating the situation, which will increase expenses and delay completion of the $8 billion project. On a 3-2 vote, the PSC approved the 280-mile-long route that would parallel an existing mainline for 100 miles after a 63-mile detour from the preferred route, which will require new right-of-way contracts with at least 40 landowners. The pipeline created controversy when first proposed in 2008 with plans to cross the fragile and groundwater rich Sand Hills.
In December, Governor Pete Ricketts announced that there are almost 500 fewer Nebraskans working in state government, a 3.5 percent decrease in personnel, since he started counting in October 2016. In addition, more than 1,500 vacant positions have been eliminated. Coupled with a state hiring freeze, the governor said the moves have helped manage the state budget, which has been blasted by lagging revenues. Ricketts said he and his team have reviewed the need for positions as they have come open through retirement and attrition. Yes, exceptions have been made for positions critical to protecting public safety and for service delivery. Among those are positions in the Department of Corrections, which has been plagued by staff turnover.
In August, the Nebraska ACLU filed a long-anticipated lawsuit claiming that crowded prisons – Nebraska is second only to Alabama in having too many people incarcerated -- and a shortage of corrections officers and mental health workers have created a humanitarian crisis, said ACLU Executive Director Danielle Conrad. The class action lawsuit filed on behalf of Nebraska inmates in U.S. District Court said that prisons have reached a state of chaos – with inmate population at 160 percent of capacity – that daily endangers the health,
safety and lives of prisoners and staff. Conrad, a former state lawmaker, said there is no longer the luxury of addressing the issues in a discreet fashion.
In a December lawsuit, the ACLU claims that the 11 men on Nebraska’s death row do not have valid death sentences because the death penalty repeal, enacted by the State Legislature over a Ricketts veto, was in effect long enough to convert the death sentences to life in prison. The reinstatement should apply only to future heinous murders. The suit also alleges that Ricketts violated the separation of powers clause of the State Constitution when he “proposed, initiated, funded, organized, operated and controlled” the signature-gathering campaign that allowed voters to overturn the Legislature’s repeal of the death penalty. Conrad said the activity was way beyond what the governor can do in his personal capacity.
Any or all of these topics could be the fodder for legislative deliberation and perhaps further court action next year.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 18 years.