Special legislative committees proposed

The Executive Board heard three proposals Feb. 8 to create special committees of the Legislature.

LR403, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Matt Hansen, would establish the Election Technology Committee to study the longevity of technology used by election commissioners and county clerks to conduct elections as of Jan. 1, 2016.

The committee also would study the feasibility of updating or replacing elections technology.

Hansen said that passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act required states to ensure equal access to elections for individuals with disabilities. In response, the Nebraska secretary of state’s office used approximately $15 million in federal funds to purchase Automark machines, which are used by visually impaired voters.

Those machines soon will need to be replaced, Hansen said, and the state needs to decide who will bear the replacement cost.

“Adding the purchase of election machines could double or triple county [election] expenses,” he said, noting that counties traditionally are responsible for the cost of holding elections.

Bri McLarty, director of voting rights for Nebraskans for Civic Reform, testified in support of the measure, saying the state needs to begin exploring how to address the estimated $20 million replacement cost.

“While the machines may not break tomorrow,” McLarty said, “we need to start planning for the inevitable.”

LR418, introduced by Omaha Sen. Sara Howard, would create the ACCESSNebraska Oversight Committee. Howard said the committee would provide oversight and ongoing dialogue between the Legislature and the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to ensure continued improvement of the system.

ACCESSNebraska is an online and call center system developed and implemented by DHHS to determine public benefit eligibility and deliver benefits to clients.

The ACCESSNebraska Special Investigative Committee of the Legislature was created in 2014 to investigate an array of problems, including long wait times for callers, lost paperwork and high worker turnover. Authorization for the committee was extended until the beginning of the current legislative session in January of 2016.

Howard, who served as chairperson of the committee last year, said that while an investigative committee is no longer necessary, continued communication is.

“The majority of the committee recommended one more year of legislative oversight,” she said, citing the committee’s year-end report. “The intent of the report was to show that progress has been made—which is actually the good news—but that there still are challenges.”

James Goddard of Nebraska Appleseed testified in support of the proposal, saying legislative oversight would help maintain positive momentum in the system.

“The main thing we think is important is that these changes are sustainable over time,” Goddard said.

Finally, LR413, introduced by Syracuse Sen. Dan Watermeier, would establish the Task Force on Behavioral and Mental Health.

The committee would study issues relating to the adequacy of the state’s behavioral health system, including monitoring the progress of the DHHS division of behavioral health in conducting a statewide needs assessment and developing a strategic plan.

Watermeier said the recommendation is the result of a performance audit of the state’s behavioral health system.

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz testified in support of the resolution, saying the state is moving toward more community-based rather than institution-based behavioral health strategies. However, she said, many high-need individuals do not fit well in either system.

“There is a role for policymakers in trying to understand the strategies that we need to take this community-based vision forward,” Bolz said.

No one testified in opposition to the resolutions and the committee took on immediate action on them.

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