LINCOLN — A key legislative panel decided Tuesday to take a wait-and-see position on Gov. Pete Ricketts’ plan to build a $230 million prison.
The Appropriations Committee voted to set aside $115 million in its emerging budget plan “for the purpose of reducing prison overcrowding.” But members did not actually appropriate the money, which means it cannot be spent.
State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, the committee chairman, said the move gives the state more time to determine the best course of action on its prisons, including time to get the results of a planned study of criminal justice reforms. The money will be held in the state’s capital construction fund.
“We acknowledge there has to be something done with prison overcrowding,” he said.
Nebraska has the second-most overcrowded prison system in the country, with facilities currently holding about 1,800 more inmates than the system’s design capacity of 3,535.
Ricketts and state Corrections Director Scott Frakes have argued for building a new 1,600-bed prison to address the overcrowding and replace the aging State Penitentiary in Lincoln.
But Appropriations Committee members have been skeptical about the plan, which would be one of the most expensive state construction projects in history, and would require an additional $34 million a year to operate.
On Tuesday, Sens. Tony Vargas of Omaha and Anna Wishart of Lincoln sought assurances that putting aside money equal to the first two years of a four-year project would not tempt the administration to “buy a shovel” or otherwise move forward on a construction process. Wishart said the results of the study could end up pointing to less costly solutions.
State officials from all three branches of government announced last month that they would seek a federal grant for a “data-driven” study of reforms that could help the state maintain public safety while avoiding the high cost of incarceration.
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the Judiciary Committee chairman, was key in bringing officials together to make the grant request. On Tuesday, he said he was not surprised at the Appropriations Committee’s action, calling it understandable.
During the same meeting, the budget-writing committee voted to put several million dollars’ worth of other items into the budget package, including $10 million to help Gage County pay off a federal court judgment won by the Beatrice Six.
The $28.1 million in damages was awarded to six people who spent a combined 75 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a 1985 murder. Gage County has increased its property tax levy to the maximum level and imposed a sales tax to pay off the judgment, but the county still owes $16.8 million.
Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams had introduced Legislative Bill 103, seeking $2 million a year to help out the county. On Tuesday, Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard proposed to increase the amount to $5 million a year, with the requirement that Gage County keep its levy at the maximum until the damages are paid. The committee voted unanimously to advance the bill with the higher amount.
Among other items approved Tuesday were: 2% annual increases in the payment rates for health and human services providers, a $5 million earmark of wildlife conservation money to reimburse farmers for damage caused by wildlife, an additional $5 million a year to help entrepreneurs and startup companies with growth potential, $25 million to help nonprofit organizations revive construction projects that were interrupted by the pandemic and $1 million a year to serve people waiting for developmental disability services.