Abolition of death penalty the top Nebraska story for 2015

By NELSON LAMPE

Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Newspaper and broadcast members of The Associated Press have voted the Legislature’s abolition of the state’s death penalty as the top Nebraska news story for 2015.

The measure passed on May 20 with the unusual backing from conservative lawmakers who oppose capital punishment for religious, financial and practical reasons. A week later the senators overrode a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who condemned the action and said: “My words cannot express how appalled I am that we have lost a critical tool to protect law enforcement and Nebraska families.”

The first-year governor and his family lent financial support later to Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, which gathered nearly 167,000 signatures from all 93 of the state’s counties to place the item on next year’s general election ballot.

Finishing second in the voting was President Barack Obama’s decision in November to deny a federal permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a project that would have cut through Nebraska on its way to Texas Gulf Coast refineries. Environmental activists spent years denouncing the pipeline, while supporters said it would create jobs and reduce U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil.

The pipeline developer, TransCanada, soon withdrew its application for Nebraska route approval but also said it remained committed to the project.

The year’s No. 3 story as voted by AP members was a federal court decision to strike down Nebraska’s ban on gay marriage and civil unions as unconstitutional. The state appealed, but the ban - one of the most restrictive in the nation - was ultimately overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court’s finding in June that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States.

Finishing fourth in the voting was the May riot at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution that left two inmates dead, four others injured and widespread damage throughout the prison. A state report released in June concluded that the riot started after too many prisoners were allowed to leave their cells at once to get medication while the prison was at minimum staffing levels.

The No. 5 story for 2015 was the shooting death of an Omaha police officer. Kerrie Orozco was one day away from going on maternity leave to care for the daughter she had delivered prematurely three months earlier when she was shot and killed in the line of duty in May.

The disappointing regular season of the Nebraska football team finished sixth in the voting. Nebraska went 5-7 in Mike Riley’s first season as head coach, the Huskers’ first losing season since Bill Callahan’s 2007 team had the same record.

The No. 7 story was the ConAgra Foods shake-up. ConAgra announced plans to move its headquarters to Chicago from Omaha, eliminate 1,500 office jobs and unload roughly two-thirds of the company by selling a division that makes store-brand food and spinning off its frozen potatoes business.

Finishing eighth in the AP members’ voting was the fracking water disposal decision. State regulators approved a disposal well that will let a Colorado energy company discard oil and natural gas wastewater underground in northwest Nebraska. The decision prompted state lawmakers to re-examine the state’s oil and natural gas regulations, which critics say are too lax.

In ninth place was the Legislature’s decision to raise fuel taxes. Lawmakers override Ricketts’ veto of a 6-cent-per-gallon tax increase. The proposal was expected to generate an additional $25 million annually for the state and $51 million for cities and counties once fully implemented.

Finishing 10th in the voting was bird flu, which swept through Midwest farms in the spring, leaving roughly 48 million birds either dead from the virus or euthanized to prevent its spread. The virus affected farms in 15 states, but Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska lost the most birds.

The Nebraska volleyball team’s final victory in the national championship tournament received several write-in votes.

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