LINCOLN–Each legislative session hundreds of bills are introduced into the Nebraska Legislature, many of which stem from collaborative efforts between nonprofit advocacy groups and state senators.
On the forefront of legislation collaboration is the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. The ACLU is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that “works daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Each summer the ACLU of Nebraska works on multiple research projects that are then published in the fall. One report published last fall was transformed into a bill this legislative session, LB 776.
The report, entitled Profiting Off Lifelines, exposed steep and inconsistent telephone rates in county jails across Nebraska. The ACLU study found that telephone rates varied from $2 to $20 for a 15-minute call, an inconsistency due to county jails’ partnerships with private, for-profit telephone companies that offer jails a share of profits in exchange for their business.
The study also exposed that many phone conversations, notably ones between inmates and their lawyers, were not confidential and in some cases were recorded.
After viewing the report and conducting his own interim study, Omaha Sen. John McCollister introduced LB 776 in January. The bill aimed to require the State Jail Standards Board to ensure telephone calls be available at reasonable rates, as well as ensuring telephone calls between inmates and lawyers be confidential.
McCollister made LB 776 his priority bill and on April 11, the bill was sent to the governor’s desk as it passed on a 38-8 vote.
ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller said that the organization often works with many senators in supporting and drafting legislation, and that not all of the senators they work with are from a single party in the officially non-partisan Legislature or hold a specific ideology.
Miller said a prime example of that was the organization’s work in 2016 with former Bellevue Sen. Tommy Garrett.
A 2015 ACLU report found that between 2004 and 2014, Nebraska agencies had seized $42.2 million from civil forfeiture. At the time, people found with large sums of money did not have to be found guilty of a crime to have their money taken from them, and often money seized was used for law enforcement training, uniforms and other expenses.
Garrett had expressed interest in criminal justice reform through conversations with members of the ACLU as well as his time debating on the floor.
“When we end up with unlikely allies like this, it’s usually through initial conversation with senators sparked by what we heard them say [on the floor],” Miller said.
And while Garrett’s political viewpoints may have not aligned entirely with the ACLU’s, he pushed forward with a bill requiring that no money could be seized before a person was charged and found guilty of a crime, and that all law enforcement agencies in the state would need to submit an annual report outlining funds and property seized. The bill passed on a 38-8-3 vote and was approved by Gov. Pete Ricketts in late April 2016.
Miller said the bill, which was co-sponsored by Sens. Colby Coash and Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, Laura Ebke of Crete and Bill Kintner of Papillion, was a truly bipartisan effort and that when senators of all political backgrounds work together, bills have a better chance of making their way to final reading.
“You can find common ground with most senators on at least one subject,” Miller said. “That’s a reason why you don’t blow up bridges.”
This story is one of a three-part series on the influence nonprofit organizations have on Nebraska lawmaking.