- Associated Press - Monday, June 1, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Death penalty supporters on Monday announced a campaign to ask voters to reinstate capital punishment in Nebraska after lawmakers voted to abolish it.

The new group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty will gather signatures in their effort to overturn the law passed last week that prevents the state from carrying out executions. If the group collects enough signatures, the issue would go before voters in the November 2016 general election.

Nebraska lawmakers voted last week to override Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto of the bill. Ricketts said after the vote that he would support a ballot campaign on the issue. The governor also said he has no plans to cancel a shipment of lethal injection drugs that the state bought from a broker in India for $51,000.

Nebraskans for the Death Penalty spokesman Chris Peterson said his group is reaching out to supporters and will announce more details in the next few days. Peterson said he was optimistic the group can get the issue on the ballot.

The campaign will likely include a combination of volunteer and paid petitioners, said Peterson, who previously worked as a consultant for Ricketts’ gubernatorial campaign and transition team.

Campaign board members include Omaha City Councilwoman Aimee Melton, former State Board of Education member Bob Evnen and Judy Glassburner, the Nebraska Republican Party’s third district vice-chair.

Last week, state Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha announced the formation of a committee, Nebraskans for Justice, to explore the possibility of placing a death penalty measure on the ballot. A phone message left with McCoy wasn’t immediately returned.

Nebraska’s referendum process allows citizens to suspend a law if they can collect signatures from 10 percent of the state’s registered voters - roughly 115,000 people - in the 90 days before the law goes into effect.

Death penalty supporters also have the option to gather signatures from 5 percent of Nebraska’s registered voters, which would place the issue on the ballot but wouldn’t keep the law from going into effect.

Supporters have until Aug. 27 to submit enough signatures for a referendum.

Death penalty supporters also have a third option that would give them more time: a petition drive for a constitutional amendment. Residents can propose a constitutional amendment if they collect signatures from 10 percent of registered voters. In that scenario, petitions would have to be submitted to Nebraska’s secretary of state by July 2016.

Death penalty opponents said they plan to organize against the campaign and questioned whether most Nebraskans would support the death penalty when presented with the alternative of life in prison without parole.

They also emphasized one of the key arguments raised during the legislative debate: Even with the death penalty on the books, Nebraska officials have struggled for 18 years to execute an inmate because of legal challenges and problems obtaining the required drugs. Shortly after Ricketts announced last month that the state had purchased two required lethal injection drugs, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration threw up another potential roadblock.

“The majority of senators carefully researched this issue, talked with their constituents and decided that ending the state’s death penalty is the best policy,” said Stacy Anderson, executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “I can’t imagine that Nebraskans, being as smart and reasonable as they are, would want to spend the tremendous amount of money and time that it would take to overturn (the law).”

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, an independent and the law’s lead sponsor, has said supporters are within their rights to pursue a ballot measure but questioned whether they would succeed.

“As any person with a lawn knows, a dandelion may pop up at any time,” Chambers said Monday. “But it is not cause for alarm.”

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