Jedi wisdom, man’s best friend fail to end legislative gridlock


February 15th, 2017

Nebraska Capitol west face (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Despite the invocation of Jedi wisdom and talk of man’s best friend, the Nebraska Legislature continued chasing its tail in a rules debate Tuesday. Meanwhile, senators discussed changing a law aimed at controlling prairie dogs.

With nearly one-third of its 2017 session gone, the Nebraska Legislature has so far passed two bills. And once again Tuesday, lawmakers spent their debate time discussing their rules, which they’ve not yet settled on for the year.

The major sticking point is how many votes it should take to cut off a filibuster – in other words, how to balance majority rule with minority rights. The fight is a continuation of the Legislature’s reorganization votes on its first day of this year’s session, when a coalition of mostly conservative Republicans dominated a minority of moderate Republicans and Democrats in electing committee chairs in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.

Tuesday morning, there was a proposed compromise to make the threshold for cutting off a filibuster two-thirds of the senators who are present and voting. When it became apparent that compromise was on shaky ground, Sen. Matt Williams suggested the temporary rules left over from last year, requiring a two-thirds vote of all senators to break a filibuster, remain in effect for the rest of this year.

Urging his colleagues to act, Williams invoked high authority. “Follow what that old, ancient philosopher said: There is only do and not do. There is no try,” Williams said.

That old, ancient philosopher Williams was paraphrasing, he later acknowledged, was the fictional character Yoda, from the 1980 film “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Supporting Williams’ suggestion, Sen. Paul Schumacher invoked more terrestrial models. “It’s human nature that when you get stressed, you want to go home,” he said, adding “It’s not just humans – it’s all through the higher animals. I had a dog once. He got caught in a ‘coon trap and finally chewed off his leg. Limped back to home. The tendency is to go home – to go back to the rules as they were, because they work.

Williams’ motion to use the old rules for the rest of this year’s session failed, but by only two votes. Following the vote, Schumacher expressed optimism that the rules fight would soon be over. “We’re almost home. That puppy dog is walking down the gravel road, having freed itself from the jaws of that trap. It’s getting close to home…We need to position another vote to follow up on this, and we will be through with this nightmare,” he said.

But Sen. Carol Blood disagreed. “Sen. Schumacher, who I admire greatly, your calming tone makes me always want to take a nap in a good way,” she said. “But when you tell me that dog is walking down the road — that dog got hit by a van a long time ago.”

At the urging of Speaker Jim Scheer, lawmakers voted to extend the temporary rules two more days, through Thursday.

Tuesday afternoon, the Agriculture Committee held a public hearing on Sen. Ernie Chambers’ proposal to repeal a bill passed five years ago to make it easier to control prairie dogs. The law was passed because of concerns prairie dogs allowed to thrive on one piece of property could migrate to neighboring property and dig holes that could cause cattle to break their legs. It allows counties to set up programs to manage prairie dogs, including entering private property to exterminate them.

Chambers said the law, and the possible penalties it contains, could exacerbate feuds between neighbors. “From a spat, to the involvement of the county attorney, a $1,500 fine, then the possibility of foreclosure, and to heap on further, it says that foreclosure action is not the only remedy,” he said.

Jack Andersen, a commissioner from Sheridan County, the only county to use the program, opposed the proposal. Andersen said it had been used to control a prairie dog colony he estimated at more than 700 acres. He said one property owner had a conflict with the person the county hired to control the colony, but not with having that person do the job.

“He would not go on that land unless the county board would guarantee that they would get paid. And through this act we could make that guarantee and the landowner said ‘Yeah, bring him on. He won’t come here if I ask him,’” Andersen recounted. “I feel that repealing the black tailed prairie dog management act would be a step backwards in Sheridan County,” he added.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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