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Nebraskans filing for divorce or going to court over land disputes, as well as people convicted of crimes, would pay more to shore up the judges retirement plan under a bill advanced by state lawmakers Wednesday.

Senators voted 35-5 to give first-round approval to an amended version of LB17, introduced by Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, chairman of the Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee.

As amended by the committee, the bill would institute two key changes to make the judges retirement plan healthier. Kolterman said the changes were negotiated with Nebraska Chief Justice Mike Heavican, who leads the court system. 

The first and more controversial one would double a court fee charged to support the judges retirement fund. The fee would increase from $6 per case to $8 by July 1, then continue increasing until it reached $12 in 2025.

Along with increasing the dedicated fee, the bill also would direct a larger portion of other court fees into the judges retirement fund. Those other fees would not change, meaning there would be less money available for the support of county courts, which receive the remaining portion of those fees. 

The second change would require the state to make a fixed contribution to the judges retirement plan. The contribution would be equal to 5% of judges' compensation.

Currently, the state does not provide a match for the money taken out of judges' salaries for their retirement. Instead, the state pays varying amounts determined by annual actuarial studies. The studies show what is needed to keep the plan healthy once investment income, court fees and judges' contributions are factored in. 

Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha objected to the court fee increase, saying the costs would fall on those least able to afford higher fees. He also said defendants become suspicious of the process when they have to pay for the retirement of the judge who just sentenced them. He proposed an amendment to limit the fee increase.

His sister, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, disagreed. She said there should be no increase in fees and the state should be paying for the judges' retirement, just as it does for the Nebraska State Patrol and the school employees retirement plans. 

But Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte argued against having the state increase its spending for the retirement plans. He said lawmakers should wait to see how much money the higher court fees bring in before committing state tax dollars.

Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln noted that higher court fees could lead to higher costs for counties, if it means more people going to jail to sit out their fines.

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