"In God We Trust," Rental Inspection Proposals Heard

Jan. 22, 2019, 5:29 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol after snowfall Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Putting the words “In God We Trust” in schools, and requiring rental housing inspections were among subjects discussed in the Legislature Tuesday.

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard is sponsoring the proposal to require the words “In God We Trust” to be posted in Nebraska school classrooms. In a hearing before the Education Committee, Erdman said the words first appeared on currency in 1864, have been the national motto since 1956, and have been ruled by the courts not to constitute a religious statement.

Answering questions from Education Committee Chairman Sen. Mike Groene, Erdman agreed the motto did not advocate a particular god, but promoted belief in something. “Any student can sit there and choose who their god is. It could be the government?” Groene asked. “I agree,” Erdman said. “It could be the god in the Bible, or any god they choose. Is that correct? They should have faith in something?” Groene asked. “Faith in something – right,” Erdman replied.

Only one person testified in support of the bill, which was opposed by a long list of witnesses. Among them was Gwendolen Hines of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln. “Children should be allowed to make up their own minds about religion and God. And this decision should not be swayed by messages they receive at school,” Hines said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Also Tuesday, the Urban Affairs Committee heard testimony on Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne’s proposal to require rental inspections of properties in Omaha and Lincoln.

Wayne’s proposal grew out of conditions that were discovered at the Yale Park apartments in Omaha, where that city ordered the 100 units evacuated last September. Hanna Wyble of the group Restoring Dignity described visiting the apartments the month before. “I observed the worst living conditions I have ever seen in my life. Collapsed and leaking ceilings seemed to be a common theme uniting over 500 Karen and Karenni refugees who lived there. When the city of Omaha inspected each apartment, they found that 75 of the 100 units had gas leaking,” she said.

Paw Htoo, a Karen community leader, said tenants at the apartments were upset by the comment that conditions there were better than the refugee camps they had lived in previously. “We came to America to have a better life. He can’t compare our American to our refugee camp life,” she quoted one refugee saying.

The bill would require rental units to be inspected every three years, replacing the current system, in which inspections are triggered by complaints.

It was opposed by landlords and by city officials including Omaha Planning Director David Fanslau, who said the city is improving housing enforcement without the need for a state mandate. “The reason we oppose this legislation is that we think we have a path forward in Omaha. We’ve made huge strides in the last year, especially in the last four to five months. We would like to be afforded that opportunity to continue to handle it locally,” he said.

Franslau estimated the bill could cost the city $3.5 million to $4 million a year to implement. The committee took no immediate action.

On other subjects Tuesday, Sens. Patty Pansing Brooks, Lou Ann Linehan and Julie Slama introduced a package of bills on human trafficking. They include making traffickers civilly liable for the cost of medical treatment, housing and other damages to survivors, appropriating half a million dollars for services to survivors, and extending the statute of limitations for trafficking prosecutions.

Meanwhile, Sen. Megan Hunt introduced proposals including one that would allow doctors to dispense abortion drugs via telemedicine, eliminating the requirement that they must be physically present. Another proposal by Hunt would expand the definition of hate crimes to include crimes based on gender identity.