Legislature steps toward allowing self-driving vehicles; senators give up on property tax measures

April 9, 2018, 5:12 a.m. ·

Senators prepare for a vote Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A day after lawmakers gave up on property tax relief, the Nebraska Legislature took a step Monday toward allowing self-driving vehicles on Nebraska roads.

After lawmakers deadlocked over property tax relief proposals Friday, senators met over the weekend to try and negotiate a deal. But they failed. Just before 8 p.m. Sunday, negotiators released a statement that said they’d been unable to reach an agreement. The statement cited differences including whether to raise new dollars, reduce expenditures, or rely on economic growth. With only four working days left in the session, the announcement means legislation to relieve property taxes will not pass this year. There is still a petition being circulated to cut property taxes. Whether or not that will appear on the ballot won’t be known until after the signatures are turned in in July.

Monday, senators debated a bill to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on Nebraska roads. Sen. Anna Wishart had originally proposed allowing them in a pilot program on a fixed route in downtown Lincoln, but an amendment by Sen. Tyson Larson allowed them anywhere in the state.

Sen. Curt Friesen, chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, said that made the proposal too wide-open. “It has opened it up to fully autonomous vehicles that are allowed to run anywhere in the state with no licensing, no permit required; they don’t even have to notify anybody,” Friesen said.

But Wishart said the proposal would be an improvement over current Nebraska law, which says nothing about autonomous vehicles. “Right now we don’t monitor what vehicles are autonomous or not on the road. And what we’re doing is, we’re putting in place a regulatory framework that requires any vehicle that be on the road be capable of following the rules of the road and meet the federal safety requirement for motor vehicles,” Wishart said.

After three hours, lawmakers voted to cut off debate and vote on the bill. They then voted 33-13 to give it first-round approval.

Also Monday, lawmakers debated a proposal by Sen. John Murante that would direct future lawmakers to count only citizens when redrawing legislative district lines.

Since the 1920s, the state constitution has said aliens, or noncitizens, should not be counted in redistricting. But Murante says after the federal government stopped asking people about their citizenship on the census in 1960, the requirement has been ignored. He said that should stop. “I don’t see that we have much choice. I don’t believe that it’s a serious position to take that we should just look at this provision of the constitution and ignore it. We are all now aware that this constitutional provision exists. I am aware of no effort to remove it from our state’s constitution, and I believe that this (passing the bill) is something that we ought to do,” Murante said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld, opposing the measure, said the requirement of the state constitution might violate the federal constitution, and thus be invalid, like the provision still in the state constitution prohibiting same sex marriage.

Murante’s bill calls for subtracting out Census estimates of noncitizen populations, or actual Census data if the citizenship question is reinstated. That could remove more than 8,000 people from Sen. Tony Vargas’s heavily Hispanic south Omaha district. Vargas said that would set a dangerous precedent. “If we’re going to go down this route, at what point are we going to stop? Are we going to start not having people not coming to the Capitol, not being able to testify, not being able to submit their testimonies or come to hearings or if we send emails, we’re going to stop listening to them because they don’t represent our area? And that’s really dangerous because that’s just not how we’ve worked here,” Vargas said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, opposing the measure, pointed out that many noncitizens are in the country legally. “There are permanent residents who are green card holders. There are refugees. There are exchange students. There are special visa holders… these people are entitled to representation,” Pansing Brooks said.

The Legislature moved on to other subjects before reaching a vote on the proposal. But Murante said the issue is not going away. “If this Legislature proceeds in 2021 to move a district out of rural Nebraska and put it into Douglas County because noncitizens are counted, I guarantee you there will be a lawsuit,” he said.

Murante later promised he would file such a lawsuit himself.