Nebraska parole bill advances after explosive debate
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A bill that would allow some Nebraska prisoners to qualify for early parole won first-round approval from lawmakers Tuesday, despite one opponent who read a Dr. Seuss book out loud to try to delay the vote.
The surprise stall tactic by Sen. Andrew La Grone, of Gretna, drew a furious response from the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Lathrop, of Omaha.
“You can do what you want, but Jesus Christ, you can come over and tell me if you have a problem” with the bill, a visibly angry Lathrop shouted. “This is stupid and we’re not functioning.”
It’s the latest in a string of angry confrontations between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. Last month, Republican state Sen. Mike Groene told state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks to “shut up” after he accused her of heckling him during debate on an abortion bill.
La Grone, a Republican, said he wouldn’t support the prisons measure until lawmakers approve a bill to lower property taxes. He launched a filibuster against the bill, at one point reading from the children’s book “Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories” to consume debate time.
The unexpected filibuster outraged Lathrop, a Democrat, who said senators were basing their actions on personality and partisanship instead of using their own judgment. He noted that the bill has won support from Nebraska prosecutors and Omaha law enforcement, both groups that are often reluctant to ease prison sentences.
“For crying out loud you guys, you’re better than this,” Lathrop said.
La Grone later withdrew from the filibuster and the measure advanced, 29-2, through the first of three required votes. La Grone said he might resume the filibuster if lawmakers don’t vote on a property tax measure this year.
“I think this (Legislature) would be sending the wrong message if we voted to cut criminal sentences without cutting property taxes,” he said.
The bill seeks to ease Nebraska’s prison overcrowding by creating an incentive for prisoners to get rehabilitative services such as substance abuse treatment or anger management counseling. It would allow inmates to qualify for parole at least two years before their mandatory discharge date, or once they’ve served half of their term — whichever comes sooner.
Lathrop argued that some inmates leave prison without getting any treatment or supervision because they don’t qualify for parole early enough in their sentence, and that reduces the incentive for rehabilitation.
Some lawmakers expressed disgust with the increasing number of ugly exchanges and overall divisiveness in the Legislature.
“I’ve been here six years and I’ve never seen the contempt that’s going on around here,” said Sen. Mark Kolterman, of Seward. “Quite frankly, our state deserves better than this.”