- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers are setting the stage for new debates over the state prison system and tax incentives for business when they convene in January.

Lawmakers have spent the past several months studying the problems in both areas, with an expectation that they’ll take action in next year’s session.

The Department of Correctional Services is under scrutiny following news that prisons officials prematurely released hundreds of inmates because they failed to follow a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling.

A special legislative committee is investigating the matter along with the case of Nikko Jenkins, a prisoner who was held in isolation for 3½ years and then released in July 2013. Jenkins, who had begged for mental health treatment, killed four people in Omaha the following month. The committee has subpoenaed Gov. Dave Heineman to testify at the prisons hearing on Wednesday.

But despite the committee’s main focus on management, its work could also prompt new legislation to address such problems in the future, said Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the committee chairman.

Lathrop said his committee review could lead to proposed reforms in the state’s mental health services for prisoners or its use of solitary confinement. Lathrop leaves office in January due to term limits, but all other committee members are eligible to return to the Legislature next year.

“In one sense it’s about finding out what happened, but it’s also about setting the course” for next year, Lathrop said.

A separate working group that includes Heineman, lawmakers, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican and other officials is looking at ways to reduce prison overcrowding.

One member, Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, said he expects lawmakers will introduce legislation next year based on the group’s recommendations. Senators may focus on Nebraska’s supervised release program or the state’s sentencing structure, he said.

Other senators are working on a review of Nebraska’s tax incentives. A special committee was formed earlier this year amid concerns that state law is too vague in explaining what each tax break should accomplish. State programs and economies vary so widely that it’s difficult to tell whether Nebraska’s tax breaks have given the state an edge, according to a legislative report released last year.

Members will create a list of recommendations on how to measure whether each incentive is working as intended.

Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff, the committee’s chairman, said members will meet again in November to narrow down their ideas. The final report is due in December, so lawmakers will have enough time to act on it next year.

“There are millions of dollars in these programs, and we’ve got to find a better way to evaluate them,” Harms said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction. Hopefully, it will give all of people who are going to be new (to the Legislature) something to look at.”

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