Stateline Story

Legislatures In Nebraska, Oklahoma, Illinois and Tennessee Close Shop

Nebraska lawmakers recently ended their 1999 session, but not before Gov. Mike Johanns vetoed a bill that would have imposed a two-year moratorium on capital punishment. Oklahoma, Illinois and Tennessee were also scheduled to shut down their legislative sessions by week's end, bringing the tally of statehouse adjournments to 31.  

Ten of the 19 state legislatures still churning out legislation -- California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- meet for most, or all, of the year.

Nebraska lawmakers wanted a two-year moratorium on state executions so that homicides dating back to 1973, the year Nebraska reinstated the death penalty, could be investigated to determine if the death penalty was being meted out fairly.

The request came in a bill sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers, who sought a crime commission to weigh the facts of each case, mitigating and aggravated circumstances, charges filed, the defendant's race, gender, religion and economic status, as well as the victims' characteristics.

But Johanns said the plan was bad public policy, and added he was unconvinced a study was warranted. Action by the legislature the following day left Johanns with a partial victory, when lawmakers voted 43 to 0 to override part of his veto.

They voted to allocate $160,000 to study roughly 1,300 homicide cases dating back to 1973. At the same time, the two-year moratorium on executions was not restored.

Like many state legislatures, Nebraska's weighed the issues of guns and schools. In March, lawmakers killed a hotly debated concealed-weapons bill that would have allowed Nebraskans to carry concealed handguns.

At one point, Johanns and the legislature were at loggerheads over the education budget. Not wishing to increase property taxes, Johanns made a school-aid bill the first piece of legislation he vetoed. To make sure lawmakers got the point, Nebraska's chief executive pointedly accused them of engaging in a tax "shell game."

Johanns ultimately lost that battle when his veto was overridden.

Nebraska legislators passed a bill setting aside $100 million in property tax relief to be doled out over the next three years. They also upped the penalties for people who sell methamphetamine and made it a crime to lure a child into a vehicle. All of these bills were signed into law by Johanns.

Oklahoma had a productive legislative session, during which politicians took on matters related to budget, education and corrections. The last issue proved particularly contentious.

A truth-in-sentencing bill that went nowhere during the preceding session spawned a good deal of tough talk, particularly from lawmakers eager to take an uncompromising stance on crime. Before the most recent session ended, lawmakers passed legislation calling for criminals convicted of 11 crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The legislation was vigorously opposed by legislators who said studies indicate Oklahoma's prisons may be filled to bursting within five years. It has been estimated that the bill would tack another $19 million onto the state's budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.

Among the truth-in-sentencing bill's leading detractors were educators fearful the legislation would draw money from educational programs if passed.

Other education-related matters debated by Oklahoma politicians included all-day kindergarten, teacher pay raises, school choice, charter schools and an end to social promotion.

Members of Oklahoma's 47th legislature spent a good deal of time attempting to pare away roughly $165 million in expenditures. Budget cutting was necessary because of state employee pay hikes, prison growth and a boom in road construction.

In Tennessee, legislators were relieved to see the session end. Matters related to taxes and budget preoccupied Tennessee lawmakers most of the legislative season.

An ambitious, and in many ways innovative, tax reform plan proposed by Gov. Don Sundquist eventually ran out of steam, leaving Tennessee's House and Senate faced with the task of cutting the state's budget.

As late as Thursday, passage of state appropriations bill was in doubt, because of an anti-abortion clause inserted in the legislation by Sundquist's administration. It read: "No funds appropriated under this act shall be expended for any abortion except where an abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother or where pregnancy is the result of an act of rape of incest."

Senators had approved the $16.6 billion appropriations bill by a vote of 28 to 5. The bill had been amended to give state employees a raise and to reduce cuts to economic development grants. But the insertion of the anti-abortion language proved a major sticking point.

An impasse appeared to have been avoided Thursday afternoon when Attorney General Paul Summers issued an opinion that the abortion clause is unconstitutional, because it attempts to change general law.

House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh told the Nashville Tennessean that Summers's opinion should clear the last hurdle to passage of the budget and adjournment before the Memorial Day weekend.

In Illinois, some state lawmakers were tardy arriving to Gov. George Ryan's end-of-session bash Tuesday night, as a House session dragged on three hours longer than expected.

Illinois legislators passed a ground-breaking HMO reform bill during their final week in session.

If approved by Ryan, it will allow HMO patients to get emergency medical treatment from the closest hospital, instead of hospitals affiliated only with their HMO. The bill also prohibits medical insurers from preventing doctors from discussing the entire range of treatment options available to a patient.

And it will compel HMOs to pay for out-of-network specialists when comparable care is not available within the network.

At least one state, Alaska, brought a special session to a close this week. The extra session had been called to find solutions to Alaska's budget shortfall.

Legislators finally went home after opting to let voters decide if the Permanent Fund should be used to pay for government services. Lawmakers want to use the fund to balance the state budget in future years. A decline in oil prices and production in recent past have left Alaska with a budget shortfall of $1 billion.

Lawmakers reached agreement six days into the special session, following a stalemate caused by quibbling between the House and Senate.