Nebraska on Verge of Endorsing Convention of States

Jan. 20, 2022, 6 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature gave all-but-final approval Thursday to making the state the latest to call for a convention of states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. And a public hearing aired pros and cons of limiting school property tax increases.

Article V of the U.S. Constitution says if 2/3 of the states – that’s 34 – call for it, there will be a convention of states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. If Nebraska passes a resolution calling for such a convention, it would become the 16th state to do so.

Supporters say such a convention would be limited to specific subjects, including a balanced budget amendment, congressional term limits, and limiting the power of the federal government.

Opponents fear a runaway convention that could lead to wholesale changes in the current Constitution, touching everything from freedom of speech to gun rights. Making that argument Thursday was Sen. Adam Morfeld.

“We will not be able to control the size and the scope of the issues that are dealt with with the constitutional convention. There is no precedent in the Supreme Court. There’s no other legal precedent that when it comes to an Article V convention. That’s the bottom line. The only precedent we have is the constitutional convention that scrapped the previous constitution, otherwise known as the Articles of Confederation,” Morfeld said.

Sen. Justin Wayne, supporting a convention, discounted that argument.

“That’s not logical to say ‘Hey, we’re against something because the first time they did it, they came out with something better. And now I’m scared the second time we might do it, it could be worse,’” Wayne said.

And Wayne, who’s biracial -- black and white -- suggested a new convention might be better than the last.

“In 1787 when the first convention, and this constitution that we have was created, I couldn’t be in the room. Sen. Brewer couldn’t be in the room. Sen. McKinney could not be in the room. And every female on this floor could not be in the room. I just believe that with a diverse group of people, we might have a better conversation,” he said.

Sen. Tom Brewer is half native American, half white, and Sen. Terrell McKinney is black. Wayne later added two Hispanic lawmakers, Sens. Ray Aguilar and Tony Vargas, to those who would not have been in the room when the Constitution was drafted.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer acknowledged she’s a little fearful about a runaway convention. But she said with one change, she would support the resolution adding Nebraska’s support for a convention, sponsored by Sen. Steve Halloran. DeBoer said people need to trust each other more.

“Not ‘get back’ to trust , ‘get back’ to unity. But we need to find a way in the future to trust each other. For me, America’s golden age is always in the future, not in the past. So I’m reaching out this olive branch to Senator Halloran, and he’s reaching back with one, too,” DeBoer said.

What Halloran offered as a compromise was support for a DeBoer amendment that would rescind Nebraska’s call for a convention in five years.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who has unsuccessfully championed past proposals including paid family leave and increased funding for developmental disability services, said compromise hasn’t happened on her issues.

“I’m very tired of being told to compromise on things, when nobody seems willing to compromise with me,” Cavanaugh said.

Senators voted 32-0 to accept DeBoer’s amendment limiting the resolution to five years. They then voted 32-8 to advance Halloran’s resolution, LR14. It will still require one more round of voting to pass. But Sen. Matt Hansen, an opponent, sounded ready to concede defeat.

“ I initially thought about proposing a motion or taking some more time. But I figure I can take a loss when I know a loss, and I will be done speaking on LR14,” Hansen said.

Thursday afternoon, the Revenue Committee held a public hearing on proposals by Sen. Tom Briese to limit school property tax increases. The proposals would limit those increases to between 2.5 and 3 percent per year, with allowances including for inflation, enrollment growth, and an overrides by local voters.

Opposition from school groups has defeated similar proposals in the past, but Briese said one new idea that might change things is a provision that would adjust how much schools could collect in property taxes, depending on what happens to other sources of revenue.

“So, for example, if state aid begins to dry up on a district, their property tax asking authority is going to go up to compensate for that. But it also protects taxpayers in the event of an influx of other revenue,” Briese said.

In recent years, Nebraska school districts have receive hundreds of millions of extra dollars from the federal government as part of COVID relief programs.

School groups opposed the proposed property tax limits, as did Craig Beck of the Open Sky Policy Institute. Beck said federal law prohibits using American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA dollars, to lower other taxes. And he said the proposed limits could backfire in other ways.

“As an example, if a school district raised funds from private donors for a specific purpose, like a football field, the district would then have to reduce their property tax request authority by the amount they raised,” Beck said.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposals, but they are expected to be a main point of discussion as the legislative session continues.