Unsurprisingly, Nebraska finds itself in the midst of a more challenging budgetary situation than originally anticipated. Or, in the parlance of our times, we’re broke. So Governor Dave Heineman called a special session of the legislature in order to revisit the overly-optimistic two year budget passed last Spring. After a couple of weeks, the Unicam has proposed spending cuts of about $334M and Heineman has approved. As this article explains, “The plan hinges on across-the-board budget cuts to most state agencies of 2.5 percent this fiscal year and 5 percent next fiscal year…. Also, K-12 public schools will get about $34 million less next year than they expected.”
As I noted earlier today, on Twitter, there don’t seem to be any cuts to the proposed overhaul of the death penalty in Nebraska (which Heineman has championed with all his might for a couple of years now). I raise this point not simply because I oppose the death penalty, but also because it’s a major issue that legislators took time to discuss during this special session.
Here’s the very short story: in February 2008, Nebraska’s Supreme Court ruled that the former method of execution — electrocution — constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and was therefore unconstitutional. Without another option on the books, this effectively constituted a moratorium on executions; proponents scrambled to get a lethal injection statute through the legislature, while opponents put forward several bills that would ban capital punishment entirely. The proponents prevailed and Heineman happily signed the lethal injection bill in May 2009.
But, of course, the story doesn’t end there. Before anyone could actually face the executioner’s needle, we needed to decide on whether we’ll make use of the same lethal cocktail that is frequently challenged as cruel and unusual, and that are at the center of the controversy surrounding the recent failed execution in Ohio. A few days ago, legislators discussed how best to kill inmates and everyone decided it was best to go with the three-drug cocktail…even though Ohio has now decided to switch to a single drug. No one really knows whether or not one drug will be safer or more humane than the cocktail. But there are at least three things of which we can be certain:
- We’re all set for a series of lengthy appeals;
- We’re unlikely to see an execution for several more years;
- The combination of the above will cost us millions of dollars, since any single execution under normal conditions is incredibly expensive.
In a state of fiscal conservatives — who also can’t seem to find enough ways to express their pro-life position — none of this makes any sense. That’s true if we find ourselves with more money than we can think of ways to spend. But it’s absolutely shocking when we’re in the midst of a budget crisis that’s making most of its budget cuts in the areas of education and health and human services. That the Unicam essentially made all of the governor’s budget cuts and approved the governor’s beloved death penalty in the same week demonstrates a real lack of understanding when it comes to fiscal stewardship.