Pro-gun bill gets boost in Nebraska Legislature

Jan. 13, 2017, 5:58 a.m. ·

Sen. Ernie Chambers speaks in the Nebraska Legislature Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A proposal that would say Nebraska municipalities and counties cannot regulate guns more strictly than called for in state law got a boost in the Nebraska Legislature Friday. Meanwhile, one calling for public elections of committee chairs was dealt a setback.

Friday’s fight over the proposed gun law provided one of the first glimpses of the practical effects of the conservative Republican takeover of committee chairmanships that occurred on the first day of the Legislature.

What senators were fighting about may sound obscure: whether a gun bill should be referred to the Judiciary Committee or the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. But because of the makeup of those committees, critics said the bill would have a better chance if it went to the government committee. That is where the conservative-dominated Reference Committee recommended it go.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, a gun-bill opponent and a member of the Judiciary Committee, tried to have it sent to Judiciary. Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld criticized what the bill would do. "In the city of Lincoln alone, in my district that has gang problems, this bill would eliminate eleven laws regarding guns," Morfeld said.

The bill, LB68 by Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers, would say Nebraska municipalities or counties could not pass restrictions on guns that are tighter than those required by the state. Supporters say the bill would prevent a patchwork of inconsistent local laws. Opponents say it would preempt, for example, local ordinances against guns in parks or domestic violence shelters.

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist also criticized the bill. "What this bill does for me, for my jurisdiction, for Omaha, Nebraska -- (it) tells them they can’t do what they need to do as part of local control," Krist said.

But Gretna Sen. John Murante, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee and a supporter of the bill, said Krist’s argument actually supported sending it to his committee. "If your position is that this bill is a local control issue, it belongs in the Government Committee. That is what the Government Committee does, is determine jurisdictional disputes, and determine the relationship between the state and the political subdivisions," Murante said.

Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, another bill supporter and chair of the Judiciary Committee, supported having the bill heard by Government instead. "No matter where this bill goes, it will get a fair hearing. We will deal with it however it is referenced ultimately. But I do believe that ultimately this is a bill which deals with what powers localities, communities, municipalities have. And that is an appropriate place for the Government Committee," Ebke said.

Supporters of Chambers’ attempt to keep the bill in Judiciary argued that was the committee that handled such proposals in the past. But Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango said that should not dictate the future. "I respect this institution. I respect the traditions. But they always haven’t been the same. Every body, every group of senators, makes up a different personality. We have a different way of doing things than we did ‘em two years ago, just because we are different people," Hughes said.

Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher said power plays so far this session were undermining the Legislature. "Already this year we’ve seen things that basically were never seen before: slate voting. That can only occur if somebody is creating a culture or attempting to create a culture of ‘them vs. us. Of right-minded vs. open-minded; progressive vs. conservative; urban vs. rural. Democrat vs. Republican. That tears at the very core of this body," Schumacher said.

When time came to vote, Chambers’ attempt to get the bill referred to the Judiciary Committee failed, with 18 senators supporting it and 24 against. Chambers then switched to "not voting," to allow him to move for reconsideration, making the final vote 24-17, but then he gave up – for now -- after taking up the whole morning. Chambers predicted that was an omen for the future of the gun bill if the Government committee sends it to the full Legislature.

Whatcha think’s going to happen when that bill comes out here? What do you think is going to happen? If I can take this time on a motion that cannot even be amended, what’s going to happen with a claptrap bill like that that probably was written by the resident member of the NRA who’s directing all of this?" Chambers asked his fellow senators.

Last year, a similar bill was advanced by the Judiciary Committee, but died on the floor of the Legislature after a filibuster by Chambers and others.

Friday afternoon, the Rules Committee decided not to recommend another controversial proposal. Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell had proposed making how senators vote for committee chairmanships public, if any senator requested it.

Supporters say that would increase transparency and accountability; opponents say it would increase the power of the Republican Party, which most senators belong to, at the expense of the Legislature’s officially nonpartisan character.

The Rules Committee voted 3-2 against endorsing the change, with Sen. Burke Harr, a registered Democrat, joining Sens. Krist and Schumacher, both registered Republicans, in opposing it, while Sens. Kuehn and Hilgers, both registered Republicans, supported it.

The change would have affected the next round of committee chair elections two years from now.