LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska lawmakers gave final approval on Wednesday to a bill abolishing the death penalty that would make it the first conservative state to do so since 1973 if the measure becomes law.
The vote margin in the unicameral Legislature was more than enough to override a promised veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts, a supporter of capital punishment. Ricketts, a Republican, said the vote represented a “dark day” for public safety.
“Nebraska has a chance to step into history — the right side of history — to take a step that will be beneficial toward the advancement of a civilized society,” said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, an independent who has fought for four decades to end the death penalty.
The Nebraska vote marks a shift in the national debate because it was bolstered by conservatives who oppose the death penalty for religious reasons, cast it as a waste of taxpayer money and question whether government can be trusted to manage it. Law-and-order conservatives in the United States have traditionally stood among the strongest supporters of the ultimate punishment.
Nebraska hasn’t executed a prisoner since 1997, when the electric chair was used. The state has never imposed the punishment under the lethal injection process now required by state law. Some lawmakers have argued that constant legal challenges will prevent the state from executing anyone in the future.
“It’s certainly a matter of conscience, at least in part, but it’s also a matter of trying to be philosophically consistent,” said Sen. Laure Ebke, a Republican from Crete. “If government can’t be trusted to manage our health care ... then why should it be trusted to carry out the irrevocable sentence of death?”
Senators voted 35-12 to advance the repeal bill through the last of three required votes.
Ricketts has promised to veto the bill, requiring an override vote likely to take place next week. At least 30 votes are needed to pass the bill over his objections.