Capitol: Lawmakers spend four days debating “robocalls”
January 20th, 2012
Debate finally concluded on this bill Monday, Jan. 23, with no action. After eight hours of debate stretching over five days, Omaha Sen. John Nelson moved to end debate and vote. That motion requires two-thirds of the Legislature, or 33 votes, to succeed. Nelson got only 26 votes, with 17 senators opposed. That makes it virtually certain the bill will not come up again this year.
Lincoln, NE – Senators spent their fourth day this week debating an easing of regulations on political â€œrobocalls,â€ arguing whether that would unleash a string of dirty tricks, or not do much at all.
Robocalls are recorded, automatically dialed calls about candidates or issues that many people find about as welcome as nails on a chalkboard. But theyâ€™re also free speech, protected by the First Amendment. The state canâ€™t regulate what they say, but it can regulate things like the hours they can be made.
What senators are debating is a bill to simplify the regulations. Right now, the Public Service Commission requires callers to register their automatic dialing devices and provide a script of the calls, while the Accountability and Disclosure Commission requires callers to identify whoâ€™s paying, and specifies the calls canâ€™t come after 9 p.m. or before 8 a.m.
Omaha Sen. John Nelson wants to do away with the Public Service Commissionâ€™s role, saying its burdensome to require political groups to deal with two agencies. Opponents like Omaha Sen. Heath Mello say only the PSC has the clout to police companies that make such phone calls. Mello says turning responsibility over to the Accountability and Disclosure Commission would open a loophole for groups that claim they are merely educating voters, not advocating. Nelson said that loophole already exists.
That provoked this exchange between Mello and Nelson: â€œAnyone who uses an automated dialer, Sen. Nelson, whether itâ€™s for education purposes, non-advocacy or political, all have to follow the same process,â€ Mello said.
â€œThe problem is, Sen. Mello, they donâ€™t follow it. They donâ€™t register,â€ Nelson countered.
Under the accountability commission statutes, even if a group making calls didnâ€™t ignore the law, it wouldnâ€™t have to report if it spends less than $5,000. But Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher suggested that with technology allowing someone in China to use the Internet to make automated phone calls, regulation is futile. Schumacher had this exchange with Nelson:
â€œAs a practical matter, are we doing anything with any of these laws? So far as I know, we are not. So why have we spent four days on this?â€ Schumacher said.
Despite that, senators ran out the clock without reaching a first round vote on the bill. When they resume Monday, they will quickly reach the unofficial 8 hours of cumulative debate time after which there can be a motion to cut off debate and vote. But itâ€™s not clear whether there is the 2/3 majority needed for such a move to succeed.