Nebraskans could vote on medical cannabis; senators fight over where bills on pipelines, guns are heard

Jan. 19, 2018, 5:36 a.m. ·

Sen. Ernie Chambers gestures during debate Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Nebraskans could vote on legalizing medical cannabis, under a proposed constitutional amendment. And a fight over which committee gets to hear bills on pipelines and other subjects tied up the Legislature Friday.

At least 29 states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes. There have been proposals to legalize what’s known as “medical marijuana” in Nebraska for the last three years, but they’ve been blocked by opponents. Now, Sen. Anna Wishart wants to leave the decision up to voters. Wishart’s introduced a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana. She said she’s grown increasingly frustrated as she continues to meet people who’ve gone to states where medical cannabis is legal and it’s helped them. “Say they have Parkinson’s and they’ve tried something. They’ve taken a little bit of the oil – just a drop of the oil -- and within five minutes it has completely changed their quality of life,” Wishart said. “So for us in this state to be denying them that – and not only that, for us to be potentially criminalizing them for trying to seek this treatment to help when they’re terminally ill to me it is…tragic.”

Several initiatives have been launched to put legalization of cannabis or marijuana on the ballot. Wishart says her more limited proposal could also go that route. But she says such campaigns can be expensive. “Petition drives, especially in rural states, they cost about a million dollars. And for a lot of the families we’re talking about, they’re struggling just to get by, because they have people who are sick in their family. And so I want to provide hopefully a way for this to be on the ballot without having to raise a million dollars to put it there,” she said.

Getting the Legislature to put it on the ballot would require a two-thirds majority to overcome an expected filibuster, the same margin that supporters have been unable to muster the last three years. But Wishart said it is possible. “My hope is that some of the senators who are concerned about voting on this legislation would feel more comfortable allowing their constituents to have a say, with it being on the ballot,” she said.

Meanwhile, legislative action Friday slowed to a crawl, as some senators expressed displeasure at the way the Legislature is being run. At issue are decisions by the Legislature’s internal governing Executive Board about which committees should hold public hearings on certain bills. So far this year, the board has sent 10 bills to committees other than the ones recommended by staff.

One such bill, to restrict pipeline companies like TransCanada’s ability to condemn property using eminent domain, was recommended to be heard by the Judiciary Committee, which handles legal matters, but was instead directed to the Natural Resources Committee, which has previously produced pro-pipeline legislation.

Sen. Bob Krist, sponsor of the eminent domain bill, had a short summary of what he thinks assigning bills to the wrong committee produces. “Garbage. That’s a technical term. Garbage,” Krist declared.

Bills on subjects ranging from guns to free speech on campus have also been referred away from the Judiciary Committee to other committees. Sen. Ernie Chambers, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he has stopped going to the Executive Board when it meets to refer bills. “Those on that Reference Committee have corrupted the system and they know it. And I’ve said it during the committee hearings and our referencing, and I told ‘em: I’m not going to waste my time in this committee. I’m going to take that time on the floor,” he said.

Friday, Chambers proceeded to do just that. He said that while senators could do anything they wanted to with enough votes, that didn’t make it right. For example, he said, senators could declare the Earth the center of the universe, but that didn’t make it so. That drew a friendly challenge from Sen. Paul Schumacher, but not a halt to Chambers taking up time:

“Senator, one of the things that Einstein said in formulating the General Theory of Relativity is that any point in the Universe is equally good for the observation of the rules and the laws of the Universe. It’s all equal. There is no center of the universe,” Schumacher said.

“Well, because there’s a theory that has been advanced as to what constitutes or comprises the Universe, and may not be accepted by me, and since we’re in the realm of theory and speculation, you say it’s ‘A,’ and I say it’s ‘B,’” Chambers replied.

Chambers went on to fill nearly three hours. He sang, and made fun of President Trump. And he criticized the U.S. flag as a symbol of the Constitution, citing the infamous 3/5ths compromise that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. “I’m supposed to come in here and salute that rag you got up there? Stand up and honor a rag, and say I pledge allegiance to the flag of a racist, white supremacist nation whose constitution says I’m not even a full person? Why you all must be crazy. Or think that I am,” Chambers declared.

The immediate target of all this was a bill by Sen. John Lowe that would extend permission in the current law for members of collegiate rifle teams to have rifles on campus, and to allow weapons for other shooting sports as well. Chambers said he opposes any expansion of permission for guns on campus. But as the time neared for a cloture vote that could have stopped him from talking, Chambers relented. “With respect to Sen. Lowe, and this is not to be trifling or insulting, I’m going to end what I have to say at this point, and unless somebody else is speaking, he shouldn’t have to invoke cloture,” he said.

Senators then gave first-round approval to Lowe’s bill, on a vote of 47-1, with only Chambers opposed.