Park fee increases advance but filibuster endangers other bills


April 6th, 2016

 Sen. Ernie Chambers filibusters in Nebraska Legislature Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Sen. Ernie Chambers filibusters in Nebraska Legislature Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Higher fees for people to use Nebraska state parks moved a step closer to reality today Tuesday, despite opposition from Sen. Ernie Chambers that nearly brought the Legislature to a standstill.

Lincoln, NE – The Legislature switched into slow motion right away.

The first thing on the agenda was a series of routine confirmations of employees, which usually takes about 15 minutes. But Sen. Ernie Chambers, annoyed by what senators had done and were about to do, stretched it into a two and a half hour ordeal. Chambers, the only independent in the Legislature, cited the vote Monday to advance Legislative Bill 10. It would change Nebraska from allocating some electoral votes by congressional district, to the previous winner-take-all system of Electoral College voting.

Chambers says that disenfranchises his Omaha constituents who might vote for someone other than a Republican nominee who is likely to win the statewide contest. “You pushed LB10 last night,” Chambers told his colleagues. “The Republican Party got what it wanted. And we’re going to see what the feeling of those will be who knuckled under to the Republican Party. It makes me no difference. I’ll take the time on this bill, as I would with any other bill.”

As debate dragged on, Sen. Laura Ebke proposed senators simply adjourn this year’s legislative session and go home. Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley said he understood the frustration, but opposed the idea.

Hadley said the Legislature has changed from a place where a simple majority of senators rule, to one where increasingly a two-thirds majority is required to break a filibuster. Although it was Chambers forcing that Tuesday, Hadley said he would not point fingers, saying new senators had also learned the technique.

But Hadley, who will be forced from office after this year by term limits, says the new paradigm puts more power into the hands of future speakers. “You’d better pick your speakers wisely, if this is going to continue. Because we’re getting to the point now that I’m going to be the one making decisions about whether we hear bills or don’t hear bills. Whether we hear them or whether we don’t hear them. Do I want to do that? No. But we have limited time left,” he told senators.

In addition to criticizing the Electoral College vote, Chambers attacked a bill allowing the Game and Parks Commission to raise fees for things like hunting and fishing licenses and state park entry permits. Sen. John McCollister, sponsor of the bill, said the commission gets 87 percent of its funding from such fees.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm said the fees need to be increased so the commission can do its job. “I live a half mile south of Branched Oak Lake on an acreage and there are many times I’ve just driven right in and there’s nobody in the little box there checking whether I have a sticker or not. And that’s because the Game and Parks are understaffed,” Haar said. “If we really want the entrances patrolled at all times, we’re going to have to allocate more money for Game and Parks.”

Chambers offered to stop harassing the Game and Parks fee increase bill if senators adopted his amendment banning the hunting of mountain lions. But Sen. Dave Bloomfield cautioned his colleagues against accepting that offer. “I’ve supported Sen. Chambers in his disagreement with Game and Parks when it comes to mountain lions. I’m going to vote for his amendment. But if the rest of you do, I’m going to be very, very disappointed, because I will feel that you have capitulated to blackmail on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature,” Bloomfield said.

Senators voted 26-9 against Chambers’ amendment. After reaching the unofficial time limit of four hours of debate before a second-round vote, they then voted to cut off debate and give the Game and Parks fee increases second-round approval. Chambers promised to filibuster them again at the final round of debate.

With only five business days left in this year’s session, Hadley said he had to set priorities. “We’re at the point right now, I sat in my office today and I said ‘You know what? The only two things I care about right now are the two things that we started with at the beginning of the year. And that was working with education and working with property tax relief.’ Those were the two things that we started with this year. And I will make sure I schedule those because I made a commitment. The rest of the bills I don’t care about,” he said.

Those other bills include everything from medical marijuana, which lawmakers began debating late Tuesday afternoon, to professional licenses for people brought to the country illegally as children. Other pending bills affect convention center and sports arena financing and protections for internet privacy.

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