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The annual death penalty debate in the Legislature always is solemn, dramatic and revealing.

It's an issue that ought to be deeply personal, and it is. For many people it is faith-guided or faith-based. 

A moral issue, Sen. Ernie Chambers suggests.

An issue that Chambers says ought to particularly challenge Catholic senators who take a position contrary to last year's action by Pope Francis changing the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state that "the death penalty is inadmissible."

It's an issue that really shouldn't be used as a partisan political instrument, but it is. Everything is today.

And so that was a big part of the debate last week with threats of political retaliation injected and the vote of the people to overturn the Legislature's previous repeal of capital punishment employed as a cudgel.

Hey, Sen. Adam Morfeld protested, so how about the 2018 vote of the people to expand Medicaid coverage to an estimated 90,000 Nebraskans who have no access to health care coverage and work at low-paying jobs? 

That expressed will of the people is being slow-walked by the Ricketts administration's creation of a new and costly administrative structure that will delay implementation of the people's expressed will for almost two years, Morfeld argued.

The death penalty debate always is extraordinary and this year's version quickly engaged freshman senators. Sens. Julie Slama, Megan Hunt and Machaela Cavanaugh were among the first to speak.

"You are not pro-life if you support the death penalty," Hunt said.

"On a life and death issue, I choose life," Sen. Kate Bolz said.

But there's a difference if it's innocent life, several senators responded, a stark difference between death because of abortion and the execution of a convicted killer.  

For many senators, it's a challenging political vote.

Three Republicans who formerly were members of the Legislature were "kicked out" because they voted to repeal the death penalty, Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said, listing them as former Sens. Jerry Johnson, Les Seiler and Al Davis, each of whom was politically targeted and failed to win re-election.

In the end, the vote to advance Chambers' bill to eliminate the death penalty failed on a 17-25 vote. The proposal needed 25 votes to advance.

The Nebraska Republican Party was quick to inject itself into the debate once again, targeting by name Sens. Dan Quick, Lynne Walz and Carol Blood in 2020. Those three senators did not cast votes on the issue last week. 

Sixteen of the 17 votes to repeal the death penalty were cast by Democrats and Chambers, a registered non-partisan; Sen. John McCollister was the sole Republican.

All of those 17 votes were cast by senators from the Omaha-Lincoln-Sarpy County urban complex, another striking example of the differences between urban and rural Nebraska. It's a growing political divide.  

Eight of the 14 women in the Legislature voted for repeal; 26 of 35 men voted to retain the death penalty.

A couple of observations:

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* The non-partisan Legislature functions best, and in the manner that was intended, when both parties butt out; Congress is a model of how government works when the parties and partisanship prevail.

* McCollister, an independent and fearless senator, has always had this idea of representation right. His campaign coffee cups have featured this quotation from Edmund Burke: "Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

* * *

Finishing up:

* Sen. Chambers: "The Speaker will set the agenda; I will determine the pace."

* Chambers continues to amaze with his word-for-word, memorized recitation of lengthy poems, songs, lyrics and literature.

* President Donald Trump's decision to essentially ignore the prerogatives of the legislative branch is going to test our constitutional framework. Lots of history ahead. Along with some stunning scenes in London when the president arrives in June for a state visit.  

* Speculation that the U.S. Supreme Court will approve the Trump administration's decision to count only U.S. citizens in compiling population figures in the 2020 census points the way to an undercounting of Nebraska's population and consequential loss of federal funding allocations for the state. 

* The appraised estimate of building the same State Capitol that Nebraskans celebrate today is $1.5 billion. Construction of the Capitol was completed in 1932 at a cost of $9.8 million. 

* A basketball team is under construction in Lincoln, but will the key piece — an ever-improving Isaiah Roby — stay?

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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