State Legislature Kicks off 2004 Regular Session

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State Lawmakers kicked off the 2004 legislative session Wednesday. The day started out with new senators being sworn in. Then the real work began. Lawmakers introduced 81 new bills they hope to pass this session. They also have to re-visit the 331 bills left over from last session.

Some of the new bills introduced today include a seatbelt requirement for all occupants in a car. Right now, the law only requires those riding in the front seat to wear seatbelts.

Lawmakers would also like to see tougher laws for second-time drunk driving offenders, including increased jail time and an increased driving ban.

Senators also plan on discussing switching the state's method of execution from the electric chair to lethal injection.

The big issue senators have to deal with this session is the $211 million dollar budget shortfall. Senators will either have to raise taxes or make more cuts to balance the state's budget.

Governor Mike Johanns is pushing four initiatives including reforming the mental health system. These policies will cost millions of dollars at a time when money is already short.

Appropriations Chair Roger Wehrbein said, "We're going to have to decide what is more important, what priorities we have and obviously water, education, mental health and child welfare, all these things are important to all Nebraskans so we have to do that balancing act."

Lawmakers say they will try to split the session into two smaller sessions. During the first 30 days they hope to tackle many of the controversial issues like lethal injection and cloning. The last 30 days will be spent primarily dealing with the budget.