Legislature Near Gridlock Over Charges of Racism and Sexism; Medicaid Expansion Plan Questioned

April 2, 2019, 5:43 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Legislature continued in near-gridlock Tuesday, amid accusations of racism and sexism. And advocates discussed the pros and cons of the state’s plans for expanding Medicaid.

The Legislature often starts the day by confirming gubernatorial appointments to various boards and commissions – a routine procedure that usually takes only a few minutes. Not so Tuesday. Sen. Justin Wayne, whose proposal for property tax breaks to spur development in his north Omaha district was sidelined last week, renewed his effort to slow things down.

Wayne’s immediate target Tuesday was the reappointment of Bob Engels to the State College Board of Trustees. “I’m not saying this individual’s racist. I don’t know him. But I think as a person who’s appointed to a state college institution, we have to make sure all students feel welcomed. And when there’s a question about why is there not uprisings regarding black-on-black crime, as there are in Ferguson, Missouri, that raises a concern as to whether he’s culturally competent to understand the issues that affect many of the students who go to state college institutions,” Wayne said.

Wayne was referring to a Facebook post by Engels in 2014 about demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri about the police killing Michael Brown, an African American. “Why are there no demonstrations for the carnage taking place between black men against black men in this country,” Engels wrote, adding “It almost appears this is the norm in the Black communities and accepted as part of the culture.”

Wayne said his ultimate target was not Engels, but the lack of vetting by the Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Mike Groene, who led a filibuster to block Wayne’s property tax bill.

Groene defended Engels. “I see no hate or anger or prejudice in there. He’s asking philosophical questions in a free society that we ought to be able to do. You can read in his deal his heartfelt concern for individuals of all races, and violence,” Groene said.

Wayne also raised concern about another post Engel shared, characterizing it as a criticism of socialism. The post quoted Henry Ford, saying “Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him, better take a closer look at the American Indian.”

That led Sen. Tom Brewer, himself a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, to suggest Ford had a point, when it comes to Indian reservations. “If you take a quick look at that microcosm of socialism, what you’ve got is a system that you stand in line to get your commodities, you are given a subsistence of just enough to maintain life, and you’re given no opportunities within the confines of the reservation to probably have much of a life unless you work for the federal government. So if someone’s offended by that I would ask you to just understand the ground truth of what happens on an Indian reservation,” Brewer said.

Brewer also suggested that scrutinizing appointees for offensive Facebook posts would hurt the functioning of government. “These are volunteers. They are not paid. If they come to use with these unique skills… and we have a zero-defect world, where if they ever post anything that someone’s offended by, I think we’ll have a very small pool of folks to pick from,” he said.

Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, who represents the district Engels comes from, read a statement from him that said “I strongly support the work of the Nebraska State College system at our three campuses in Chadron, Peru and Wayne, Nebraska. I welcome the opportunity to help promote the educational goals of all students regardless of race, creed and national origin. All students are welcome in our schools with open arms.”

Chambers criticized Engels for sending a message through Slama. “We’re a Legislature. Those statements should be made at the hearing, and not sent to us through a woman,” Chambers said.

Slama took exception to that. “It’s interesting that Sen. Chambers, who considers himself to be a progressive, and a champion for women, would refer to me and my gender so dismissively. Perhaps it’s because I’m a strong, conservative woman. Blatantly sexist statements said on the mic in this body deserve to be denounced. So yes, the message this morning was delivered by a woman. And in this body I am a senator, and would preferred to be addressed as such,” she said.

Chambers later reiterated his criticism of Engels, saying he was hiding behind a woman’s skirts.

Senators voted to confirm Engels appointment on a vote of 28-3.

Meanwhile, Sen. Adam Morfeld reacted to the announcement Monday that the Medicaid expansion approved by voters last November would not be implemented until October of next year. Morfeld faulted Gov. Pete Ricketts for the timing. “I think it’s a testament to how inefficient and incompetent his administration must be, to take two years to implement a program that all the other states have implemented in around six to eight months,” Morfeld said.

Rocky Thompson of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said that was inaccurate, because many states had started in 2014, after several years of planning after the Affordable Care Act passed. And he said an audit had faulted the results in Louisiana, cited by Morfeld for implementing expansion in six months.

“The October 1st date is the earliest date that we feel comfortable giving out to our public to make sure that we have a product that is ready for individuals to receive coverage for Nebraska Medicaid,” Thompson said.

Morfeld also raised the possibility of a lawsuit over what he said were the administration’s plans to impose a work requirement. Thompson said people will not be required to work in order to qualify for Medicaid, but rather to get enhanced benefits, including dental care.