State senators work on the final day of the 2023 session of the Nebraska Legislature (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN – The Nebraska Legislature has hired an outside lawyer to help senators find a legislative solution to last month’s opinion by the state attorney general’s that limited lawmakers’ oversight of the state’s child welfare and prison systems.
Speaker of the Legislature John Arch and State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, chair of the Executive Committee, confirmed they had hired the lawyer. Briese said some state lawmakers had “expressed serious concerns about the impact this opinion could have on the Legislature’s ability to conduct meaningful oversight.”
It was not immediately clear in the letter Briese sent to members of the Legislature how much hiring the lawyer could cost taxpayers. Briese wrote that senators would benefit from an opinion outside of in-house counsel.
In a statement Monday, Arch said the Legislature’s Executive Board hired Marnie Jensen of Omaha law firm Husch Blackwell. Arch said they hired her to advise them on how the inspectors general of child welfare and corrections can still do their jobs without having unfettered access to state data from the executive and judicial branches of government.
Arch said the outside lawyer also would help state lawmakers “craft a constitutionally sound long-term solution.” Briese told the Examiner he and Arch want to find a “fairly agreeable way” to provide legislative oversight of the child welfare system, which is run by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and the prison system, run by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, and juvenile probation, which is run by the state’s court system via the Supreme Court.
In 2021, Jensen previously helped the Legislature’s special investigative committee on child welfare in eastern Nebraska.
The Legislature hired Jensen in response to a mid-August opinion from Attorney General Mike Hilgers. In it, Hilgers said the Legislature’s design of the powers of the inspectors general to control and access state information from other branches of government violated the state constitution’s separation of powers.
Part of the problem, Hilgers wrote, was the lack of direct legislative oversight of the inspectors. The independence the Legislature built into the offices to ensure a freer flow of accurate information may have added constitutional questions.
Both inspectors general were created after problems that surfaced during previous gubernatorial administrations in managing the child welfare and prison systems. The office of the child welfare inspector general was created in 2012. The inspector general’s office for corrections was created in 2015. That same year, the Legislature added oversight of juvenile probation to the office of inspector general for child welfare.
The state agencies that are the subject of the inspectors’ work have often pushed back against requests for information and against the inspectors’ findings.
“I’m still confident we can arrive at a legislative solution to fix some of these things and arrive at a level of legislative oversight … while still addressing the concerns of the attorney general,” Briese said. “We’ve got to assess it and evaluate it and see where the solution lies.”
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