Nebraska lawmakers approve proposed Colorado canal project; prison reform bill fails

Unicameral passes a flurry a bills — and a $900 million price tag
WOWT 6 News Live at 6:30
Published: Apr. 12, 2022 at 3:46 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (WOWT) - Nebraska lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that would let the state build a canal in Colorado to divert water out of the South Platte River, a project steeped in fears about the Denver area’s growing water consumption.

Lawmakers passed the measure on Tuesday by a 42-4 vote and sent it to Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who proposed the idea and is expected to sign it.

The legislation will allow the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources to start work on the estimated $500 million canal. They’ve only approved $53.5 million in funding, however, which will force the department to seek more money next year to continue the project.

The governor has been worried that new projects in Colorado along the South Platte River would limit the amount of water running into Nebraska during the winter months. State leaders believe a 1923 agreement between the two states allows Nebraska to build a canal on Colorado land to siphon some of the water into a Nebraska reservoir.

By passing this bill, the engineers and consultants will get to work to determine how to make the canal happen.

An economic boon for north and south Omaha is in LB-1024, which brings an infusion of $370 from the American Rescue Plan Act. The money will address the disparities caused by the pandemic, with the idea of creating a cultural and economic shift in the neglected parts of town.

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha says the bill is about uplifting a workforce — building new homes and preserving hundreds of old ones, and supporting emerging entrepreneurs. The idea is to examine poverty with a new lens aimed at evidence-based solutions, taking aim at corridors near Eppley Airfield: 16th and 30th streets.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime generational game-changer for our community,” Wayne said. “The real work starts now... We got the foundation laid; now it’s time to build.”

With two days left in the legislative session, voting dominated the day with very little talking. But State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue shared her frustration after opponents ran out the clock on her unfunded mandates bill without a vote.

“I didn’t get a fair deal,” she said. “The things I’ve seen this year is making me lose my faith in humanity.”

Among other bills that did pass, LB-1112 addresses critical computer science, coding, and digital literacy at the K-12 level. Lawmakers believe Nebraska needs to play catch-up with other states.

“The way to create wealth in America is creating automated systems that get rid of these jobs in the middle, and we are sitting ducks in Nebraska,” said State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk.

LB-519 passed, providing immunity for victims and witnesses of sexual assault from certain alcohol and controlled substances violations.

Another bill that passed allows Nebraska breweries to have limited self-distribution rights.

The legislature also approved a new holiday: June 19 will be observed as Juneteenth National Independence Day.

But Nebraska senators are leaving the legislative session without addressing one of their top priorities of the year: Nebraska’s prison overcrowding problem.

The defeat of LB-920, a sweeping prison reform bill, came after a year-long effort to do a deep dive into corrections data and come up with policy changes that would have cut the 2030 prison population projections by 1,000 inmates. It would have boosted community resources, streamlined the parole process, and imposed sentence reforms — which is where the senators didn’t agree.

“These were things law enforcement, judges, county attorneys told me would jeopardize public safety,” said State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln.

“It would have actually made a difference. This is going to be an expensive vote for this state if people want to maintain the status quo... We’re going to need two new prisons not one by 2030,” said State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha.

State Sen. John Stinner, head of the appropriations committee, said building one new prison — which comes with a price tag of $270 million — will have little impact on overcrowding.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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