Senators move to break legislative logjam


February 15th, 2017

Speaker Jim Scheer calls for delaying rules fight in Nebraska Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Nebraska lawmakers moved toward breaking a legislative logjam that’s prevented them from debating everything from schools and taxes to prisons and health care, as senators decided Wednesday to delay any further attempt to change their rules.

One-third of the way through their scheduled 90-day session, Nebraska lawmakers have so far passed just two bills: one delaying when schools will be notified how much state money they’ll get, and another making cuts to the current budget, which was signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts Wednesday.

What has been holding things up is the desire by some senators to change the rules to make it easier to cut off filibusters, and the pushback from other senators who want to keep things as they are. Wednesday morning, Sen. Jim Scheer, speaker of the Legislature, moved to break the logjam.

Scheer began by stating the obvious. “We have spent 30 days, and although (we) have accomplished some things, we’ve not accomplished a lot,” he said.

Scheer faulted himself for not doing a better job of reaching out to senators. And he alluded to the rocky start of the session, which began with several incumbent Democratic and moderate Republican committee chairs being ousted by conservative Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.

“What has happened, has happened. People don’t forget. But you have it in your hearts to forgive. Those that have been wronged, you have to be the bigger person. We have to move on. We have to work with each other. The state’s dependent upon that,” he declared.

To move on, Scheer proposed moving in a direction favored by many of those who were on the losing end of the leadership battles: keeping the rules the way they were last year, at least for the next month. That would preserve the existing power of the legislative minority to try and block legislation by filibustering. It would also postpone further debate on the rules themselves, which has been eating up legislative time and preventing senators from debating substantive issues.

The temporary rules, left over from last year, had been scheduled to expire Thursday. Scheer said something had to change.

“This can’t be Groundhog’s Day tomorrow. We can’t come with the same attitudes, the same misgivings, the same mistrust. We have to change ourselves,” Scheer said.

Scheer’s peace offering was embraced by Sen. Matt Williams, whom he defeated for speaker on the opening day. Williams had proposed extending the temporary rules from last year rules through this year’s entire session.

“Thank you my speaker, Sen. Scheer. Thank you, my friend Sen. Scheer,” Williams said.

Others who had opposed changing the temporary rules, including ousted committee chairmen Bob Krist and Burke Harr, also welcomed Scheer’s move. But Sen. Ernie Chambers was less inclined to be conciliatory.

“I don’t give a lot of credit to the speaker for what he said. The place is in a shambles,” Chambers said.

And Sen. Joni Albrecht, a freshman senator who replaced Harr as chair of the Business and Labor Committee, signaled a wait-and-see attitude.

“Truly we have an obligation to our state to get busy. And we’ll see in the next 30 days whether we really need a rule change or not,” she said.

Sen. Paul Schumacher, noting the many controversial proposals senators will face, predicted the peace would not last.

“Thirty days from now, we likely won’t be singing “Kumbaya.” We will just start to be getting mad at each other,” Schumacher predicted.

Nevertheless, at least for the moment, peace prevailed, as senators voted 45-1 to extend the temporary rules from last year for another month.

In other action Wednesday, senators considered an attempt by Chambers to get a bill affecting the way judges are selected switched from the Government Committee to the Judiciary Committee.

Schumacher was among those who supported transferring the bill to the Judiciary Committee. He said the legislation appears to be an attempt to politicize the judiciary.

Schumacher quoted some of the changes it proposes to the functioning of the Judicial Nominating Commission, which forwards a list of names from which the governor selects judges.

“If you haven’t read it, and you think this isn’t about partisan influence into the judicial branch of the government, you should. Lines like this inserted ‘No quorum shall exist unless all members appointed by the governor are present.’ ‘No action of the commission shall be valid unless concurred in by a majority of its members and a majority of the members appointed by the governor.’ ‘All citizen members shall be affiliated with the political party with which the governor is affiliated,’” Schumacher read.

Sen. John Murante, chairman of the Government Committee, said state law requires that committee to review the need for and functioning of various boards and commissions every four years. He said any controversial parts of the bill, LB644, could be discussed separately.

“There will be an opportunity to take each of these proposals one by one and talk about their merits. That’s what we have done. That’s what we believe we are legally required to do. The legislative precedent is clear. The Government Committee’s boards and commissions report belongs in the Government Committee. If LB644 doesn’t belong in the Government Committee, nothing does,” Murante said.

Senators defeated Chambers’ attempt to move the bill to the Judiciary Committee on a vote of 28-14. It remains in the Government Committee, which is scheduled to give it a public hearing next Thursday.

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