Legislature finally adopts rules; "life" plates advance; cig tax increase heard

March 17, 2017, 4:38 a.m. ·

Speaker Jim Scheer announces end to Great Rules Debate of 2017 (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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It was a day of inside baseball and intentional, SLOW walks in the Nebraska Legislature. Senators gave up trying to change their rules, and sat through more filibusters, while advancing a bill to authorize “Choose Life” license plates.

On the first day the officially nonpartisan Legislature met this year, a bloc of about 27 mostly conservative Republican senators dominated elections for committee chairs. Following that, Sen. Tyson Larson proposed changing the rules to require fewer votes to shut down filibusters.

Many Democrats and moderate Republicans on the losing side the first day interpreted that as an attempt by the newly-ascendant majority to consolidate and exercise their power on a wide range of issues. So lawmakers spent much of the first 30 business days of their 90-day session fighting about the rules, until Speaker Jim Scheer persuaded them to call a truce.

With that truce scheduled to expire, Scheer signaled on Friday that the fight was over. “I have talked with a great number of you in relationship to the rules. It does not appear to me there would be any fruitful purpose continuing the debate on rule as I see no resolution coming forward,” Scheer said.

Senators then voted to keep the rules the way they were last year, including requiring a 2/3 supermajority, or 33 votes, to end a filibuster. Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O’Donnell announced the tally: “38 ayes, 2 nays, Mr. President, on the adoption of permanent rules.” Sen. Bob Krist, presiding, described the result. “Day 49, and we have adopted permanent rules. Thank you.”

Sen. Ernie Chambers called the Legislature’s action significant, but late. “We did on the 49th day what we could’ve and should’ve done probably at the latest the third or fourth day,” Chambers said. “But by taking the time, the Legislature played into my hands and my game plan. There is a lot of bad stuff pending. The more time that can be taken in other ways, the less time will remain for mischief to be worked by the Legislature.”

Chambers went on to demonstrate what he often maintains, that whatever rules the Legislature adopts, it cannot silence him. He proved his point by continuing a filibuster against the next bill up, a proposal by Sen. Dan Watermeier to authorize “Choose Life” specialty license plates.

Advocates say the plates would be a way to express support for children, including the unborn. Opponents say the state should not turn its plates into a platform for one side of the controversial abortion issue.

As is often the case, debate time was dominated by those opposing the bill, trying to stretch out debate and force supporters to invoke cloture, which still requires a 2/3 supermajority vote. Among the opponents Friday was Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks. “We have so many more important things to deal with: education, the budget, the deficit, human trafficking, juvenile criminal issues. There are so many issues we need to be talking about, and now we’re still wasting it on this license plate,” Pansing Brooks said.

Watermeier limited himself to a tactical plea for his bill, and for rejecting a Chambers amendment that would substitute the words “End Domestic Violence” for “Choose Life” on the plates. “When we do have a cloture motion come up, I’m going to ask for a green vote on cloture, a red vote for the motion that Sen. Chambers has up now which -- I appreciate his ideas on these things but I can’t support that amendment, that would wreck the license plate idea I believe -- and then a green vote on LB46,” Watermeier said.

Senators heeded Watermeier’s plea, voting 35-8 to shut off debate, rejecting Chambers amendment, and then giving the bill second round approval on a voice vote.

Friday afternoon, the Revenue Committee held a public hearing on a proposal by Sen. Sara Howard to raise Nebraska’s tax on cigarettes by a dollar fifty, from 64 cents a pack to $2.14. Advocates said such an increase would prevent many young people from taking up smoking. Rebecca Raymen, representing the Health Center Association of Nebraska, told a personal anecdote involving herself and her sister, who lived in Nebraska. “My sister died of lung cancer at 52 years of age. Her and I both started smoking when we were teenagers. I quit because I lived in Texas and there was a 35 percent increase in the prices of cigarettes in 1980,” Raymen said. “You’re going to laugh, but cigarettes were going to go from 35 cents to 50 cents and at that time that was a lot of money for a young adult, and that’s why I quit.”

Among those opposing the bill was Kathy Siefkin, representing the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association and the Nebraska Retail Federation. Siefkin argued the tax increase would hurt business. “What will happen if this bill passes is the Nebraska customers that we sell to will find another place to purchase their tobacco products, and they’re going to go to a place that is cheaper than where we are here in Nebraska. Not only will we lose the Nebraska sales, we will lose those sales that come from other states, people that actually drive into Nebraska to purchase these products,” Siefkin said.

No one has prioritized the bill, but supporters hope the Revenue Committee will make it part of the overall tax package it is considering. The bill would raise an estimated $120 million a year, with half of that going to the general fund and half to health-related spending, although opponents say similar bills in other states have failed to produce the expected revenue.