Wayne pitches shifting the cost and operation of county jails and county attorneys to the state

By: - February 7, 2024 12:30 pm

(Getty Images)

LINCOLN — Amid pushback against Gov. Jim Pillen’s tax shift proposals, a Nebraska state senator will present alternatives Wednesday that he says could take nearly $300 million off the property tax rolls.

Under two bills introduced by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, the state would take over the management and financing of county jails and county attorneys offices across the state.

Sen. Justin Wayne
State Sen. Justin Wayne (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

A fiscal note released Wednesday estimated that it would cost the Nebraska Department of Corrections $186 million to manage the county jails, while the senator’s staff estimates that another $100 million might be shifted off the local property tax rolls if the county attorneys and their offices became state-funded “district attorneys.”

Wayne, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and advocates for criminal justice reforms, said the shifts — which would fund the operations via state taxes instead of local property taxes — make sense because the state controls who goes to jail via its sentencing laws.

“We create the laws, we create the punishment, we should pay for it,” Wayne said. “It’s a clear unfunded mandate on counties.”

Unlike the governor’s plan, which includes an unpopular increase in the state sales tax and taxing previously untaxed items such as soda pop and candy, Wayne’s two bills would not require any tax increases. It would just shift the costs, and responsibilities, from the state’s 93 counties to the state.

The same idea was used last year by the Pillen administration when it shifted the funding of the state’s community colleges off the property tax rolls and onto the state budget. That has been estimated to be a $300 million savings in property taxes.

The two Wayne bills, Legislative Bills 996 and 963, are scheduled for public hearings Wednesday afternoon.

The bills will be opposed by the Nebraska County Attorneys Association and the Nebraska Association of County Officials.

They argue that such a shift would dilute local control and accountability if an appointed attorney handles local prosecutions, instead of a locally elected county attorney.

“It’s a cost shift. It will not cost less,” said Michelle Weber, who lobbies for the county attorneys. 

Jon Cannon of NACO added that there’s a hidden, and unresolved, cost in making such a shift: Does the county get reimbursed for the millions of dollars it might have invested in a new county jail?

Wayne said his bill would create other positive outcomes.

Criminal prosecutions across the state would become more uniform, if coordinated by the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, he said. Right now, a person caught with a pipe containing marijuana residue might be prosecuted in one county but not in another, Wayne said.

If county jails were part of the state corrections system, the senator said, they could also be used more easily to help solve the state’s prison overcrowding. Local jails could be used as close-to-home halfway houses for inmates ending their sentences and could be employed for inmates to sit out short sentences closer to their families, Wayne said.

A recent report from the University of Nebraska at Omaha suggested that handling “short timers” outside of a state prison would reduce crowding and might help the state avoid building two new prisons, which would cost of upwards of $600 million.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

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