LGBT Discrimination, Eminent Domain, Military Retiree Taxes Discussed

Feb. 7, 2019, 6:39 p.m. ·

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks testifies Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Proposals to ban discrimination against LGBT individuals; retrict using eminent domain for transmission lines, and give military retirees a tax break were all heard in the Legislature Thursday.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks offered this year’s version of a longstanding proposal to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of factors that can’t be used in hiring decisions in Nebraska. Supporters of her bill said the lack of such protection is forcing some LGBT people to leave, and keeping others from moving here. Pansing Brooks said that should be changed. “To our LGBT citizens and our future citizens, let us proclaim “Come. We want you here. Help us make Nebraska thrive,” Pansing Brooks said.

The bill drew support from business groups including the Lincoln and Omaha Chambers of Commerce and some religious groups as well. And Eli Rigatuso, a transgender man, said he wants to promote understanding. “I really want Nebraskans to understand. Not what the people who are going to be opponents of this bill are going to tell you. But what I have to tell you about my own lived experience. I’m not asking anyone to be transgender. That would be ridiculous. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. What I’m asking for is to be met and to be treated how I wish to be treated. And how I wish to be treated is to be seen, valued and affirmed,” Rigatuso said.

Opponents said the bill would force Nebraskans to violate their personal beliefs or face lawsuits. Among them was Karen Bowling of the Nebraska Family Alliance. “Every American should be free to live and work according to their faith without fear of unjust punishment by the government. No American should be forced to conform to a government-mandated moral code in order to avoid fines or jail. Americans value peacefully live our lives according to our beliefs and oppose government punishment of fellow citizens who have different views,” Bowling said.

Opponent Ronald Garner called the proposal unnecessary. “God create two sexes – male and female. He did not create two other categories called ‘gender identity’ or ‘sexual orientation.’ I do not feel those two categories need to be added to the statute,” Garner said.

Meanwhile, at a hearing of the Natural Resources Committee, several Sandhills residents testified in support of limiting eminent domain powers. Senator Tom Brewer’s bill would end the use of eminent domain to build power lines that run between private renewable energy projects and the public power grid.

The issue stems from the Nebraska Public Power District’s planned R-Project, a transmission line that could help export wind power from central Nebraska. Some critics say additional wind development would spoil the area’s natural landscape.

Anne Warren of Thedford testified in support of the bill. Although it would still allow eminent domain for the R-Project itself, Warren says NPPD should not be allowed to take land for the lines that would connect it to wind farms. “We who do not want any part of this vision should never be forced to have our private property rights infringed upon for the personal and financial gain of another,” Warren said.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union testified against the bill, saying he wasn’t aware of any case where eminent domain had actually been used on a connecting line. He said it was added to eminent domain law as part of the state’s attempt to attract private wind developers. “We needed to help make certain the rules of the road in this very new venture we had in our state which was to create the private public partnerships between wind and public power,” Hansen said.

Brewer said he plans to make the bill his priority for the session.

In a related development, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it’s releasing an environmental impact statement on the R-Project. Opponents have argued new data show it’s more likely endangered whooping cranes will be “taken,” or killed, colliding with power lines. But Fish and Wildlife Mountain and Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh said the service didn’t reach that conclusion. “We could not conclude that “take” from a whooping crane striking the line is reasonably certain to occur,” she said.

The Revenue Committee heard testimony on Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal to cut income taxes on military retirement pay by 50 percent. The governor said attracting and keeping military retirees would help the state’s economy. “Nebraska is striving to be the most veteran- and military-friendly state in the country. This really is about a workforce development bill. One of the things that I hear when I travel around the state and talk to companies is, the biggest problem, or one of their biggest problems, is finding the right people to hire,” Ricketts said.

Testifying as a neutral party, Renee Fry of the Open Sky Policy institute expressed reservations. “An incredibly small number of the population are motivated to move because of taxes. So what we’re likely to do if this bill were to pass would be to give a tax credit to people who choose to live in Nebraska, who want to live in Nebraska rather than actually motivating people to move here,” she said.

“Nebraska has fantastic services and a great quality of life and we are concerned that as we continue to give a little bit here to this person, and continue to give this credit to someone else, that we put those high-quality services in jeopardy,” she added.

And in action by the full Legislature, lawmakers voted 44-0 to advance Sen. Justin Wayne’s proposal to eliminate references to slavery in the state constitution.

Editor’s note: NET reporters Grant Gerlock and Allison Mollenkamp contributed to this report.