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Bill would let Nebraska prison officials hide identities of lethal injection suppliers

Bill would let Nebraska prison officials hide identities of lethal injection suppliers

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LINCOLN — Prison officials could hide the identities of lethal injection suppliers under a bill introduced Wednesday in the Nebraska Legislature.

Legislative Bill 661 would allow authorities to withhold any information “reasonably calculated to lead to the identity” of an entity or individual that “manufactures, supplies, compounds or prescribes” drugs used to carry out an execution.

State Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell, who submitted the proposal on the final day of bill introduction, said the Legislature should comply with the majority of Nebraska voters who cast ballots in favor of capital punishment in November. Providing confidentiality to drug makers would remove one of the obstacles that makes capital punishment dysfunctional, he added.

Most of the leading death penalty states shield the identities of the lethal drug makers, saying the information is used by capital punishment opponents to pressure suppliers not to provide the drugs for executions.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who introduced a death penalty repeal bill earlier this week, said he will fight Kuehn’s measure. He mentioned that Kuehn has recently argued that government transparency demands an end to the Legislature’s practice of casting secret ballots in leadership elections.

“The most serious thing the state can do is take a life, and he would shroud that in secrecy,” he said. “The public has the right to know everything and every step the state is taking in the process.”

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a strong supporter of the death penalty, is pursuing changes to the state’s lethal injection protocol that include similar secrecy provisions. The governor also wants to withhold the type of drug the state plans to use until 60 days before the attorney general asks the Nebraska Supreme Court for a death warrant.

Kuehn’s two-page bill addresses no other issues except for hiding the identity of the drug supplier. He said Wednesday that Ricketts did not ask him to introduce it.

While the senator said he thinks the existing lethal injection law allows prison officials to shield information from public disclosure, he said addressing it specifically in statute would help keep the death penalty viable.

In 2015 the Legislature repealed the death penalty over the governor’s veto. But in November, 61 percent of voters overturned the repeal and reinstated capital punishment.

Ten men currently sit on Nebraska’s death row.

Lawmakers wrapped up bill introduction for the year with a total of 667 bills and four proposed constitutional amendments. The number was similar to two years ago, the last time the Legislature met for a long session.

Among those tossed into the hopper Wednesday:

» Concealed carry. Nebraskans would not have to get a permit to carry a concealed handgun under LB 502, introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon. He said the “constitutional carry” proposal respects the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Brewer said he wants discussion about the issue, although he acknowledged the bill carries some risk because it would not require the firearms training that concealed carry permit holders currently must have.

» Property tax. Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse would nearly quadruple the amount of state money earmarked for property tax credits with LB 545.

The measure would ramp up annual transfers to the credit fund until they reached $824 million by tax year 2020. Current law calls for transfers of $224 million annually in the next two years.

The measure is one of several introduced Wednesday to spark discussion about the level of property taxes.

» Assault by ambush. Attacking a law enforcement officer, firefighter or emergency care provider by ambush or by surprise would become a new crime under LB 577, introduced by Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln. The penalty for such an attack would be up to life in prison.

Current penalties for assaulting such first responders range from 50 years in prison for first-degree assault down to three years in prison and 18 months’ supervised release for a third-degree assault or an assault with a motor vehicle.

» Self-driving cars. Autonomous motor vehicles would be allowed in Nebraska and could be operated by any licensed driver under LB 627, introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill.

The bill would require a self-driving vehicle to alert the operator of a technology failure and to have a way for the operator to take control. Operators of self-driving vehicles would be allowed to text or watch TV while on the road.

» Drugs and welfare. Applicants for welfare benefits would have to be drug-tested under LB 537, sponsored by Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango.

Those who test positive would have to complete drug treatment and job skills training to remain on benefits. Those who refuse would be barred from getting benefits for one year.

Parents who test positive could designate a payee to receive benefits on behalf of their children, but the payee would have to pass a drug test first.

» Property valuation. Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha proposed a constitutional amendment that would end the requirement for “uniform and proportional” valuation of property.

He said Legislative Resolution 17CA would open the door for offering property tax abatements as an economic development incentive.

» Electronic intimidation. Harassment and threats by text or other electronic messages would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in prison and a $500 fine under LB 574, sponsored by Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion.

Such penalties already apply to intimidation via a phone conversation. Kintner brought a similar proposal last year in response to concerns raised by law enforcement.

» A knife as a weapon. A May ruling by the Nebraska Supreme Court said the sole factor defining a knife as a dangerous weapon is a blade longer than 3½ inches. That means those transporting knives for legitimate purposes could find themselves charged with crimes. LB 558 by Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus would add to the definition so that intent would be included as a defining factor.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report., 402-444-1000 x6613

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