Filibuster kills bill allowing food stamps for some convicted drug users in Nebraska

Filibuster kills bill allowing food stamps for some convicted drug users in Nebraska
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Political pressure sank a bill Wednesday that would have allowed some convicted drug users to qualify for food assistance.

Legislative Bill 169, introduced by State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, fell short on a filibuster-ending cloture motion. The motion needed 33 votes to succeed but only 28 senators voted for the motion and 16 voted against it, with five senators abstaining.

Supporters had argued the bill would help former inmates reintegrate into society and stay out of prison. Opponents said drug users should work rather than get government handouts.

Counts taken by supporters last week showed there were enough votes to overcome a filibuster and potential veto.

But several votes dropped away under pressure from Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration, which opposed the bill. Four senators who had worked on a compromise amendment or who had voted to send the bill out of committee abstained Wednesday.

Afterward, Hunt said she plans to keep working on the issue in future years. The failed cloture vote means the bill will likely not be taken up again this year.

She said she was proud of getting the legislation farther than previous attempts and proud of the compromise reached on the bill.

She had noted previously that other felons, including rapists, robbers and murderers, face no such bar to getting food assistance.

As introduced, LB 169 would have allowed people convicted of drug felonies to get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly called food stamps, as long as they were complying with probation, parole or post-release supervision.

The compromise would have limited such benefits to people convicted once or twice of drug possession or use, as long as they were complying with probation, parole or post-release supervision. Current law sets a higher standard for those people, requiring them to go through a state-licensed or nationally accredited substance abuse treatment program.

As in current law, the compromise amendment would have maintained a permanent prohibition on food stamps for people convicted of drug distribution or with three or more convictions for drug possession or use.

Sen. Andrew La Grone of Gretna was among the bill’s opponents. He said the issue is about providing taxpayer-funded benefits to drug users, a proposition he said he could not support. SNAP is federally funded.

On the other side, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha argued that senators don’t have to like what drug users have done to support the measure. He said the bill makes good policy sense because it would help address the overcrowding crisis in Nebraska’s prisons.

New crime commission chief. Gov. Pete Ricketts’ nominee to direct the Nebraska Crime Commission, Don Arp Jr., ran into a wave of questions Wednesday about his lack of criminal justice experience.

In a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee, State Sens. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln and Steve Lathrop of Omaha told Arp it wasn’t personal but that state law requires the director to have “appropriate training and experience in the field of criminal law and justice.” They said they’ve fielded concerns about his qualifications for the $95,000-a-year post, which has, in recent years, been held by retired law enforcement officers.

Arp, who has worked in the governor’s Office of Operational Excellence and for the State Department of Health and Human Services, said he grew up in a law enforcement family and took a college class in “forensic facial reconstruction.” He added that maybe it’s “time for something different” at the top of the commission, which oversees state law enforcement standards and administers grants.

Tobacco and vaping age. The legal age to buy and use cigarettes, vaping products and “alternative nicotine products” could be increased to 19.

LB 149, introduced by State Sen. Dan Quick, advanced from the General Affairs Committee with an amendment that raised the vaping age from 18 to 19 instead of 21. The amendment also adds the change in the age for tobacco products to the bill.

Mobile massage therapy. Jean Thunker of Ogallala has wanted to make her massage therapy clinic mobile for more than two years but hasn’t been able to. Her clients drive as much as two hours in rural Nebraska one direction. If she can’t go mobile, she might close her doors, she said Wednesday.

LB 244, introduced by Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, would allow for mobile massage therapy clinics.