Ricketts concerned vets bill he signed may violate same-sex marriage ban

Feb. 27, 2015, 5:04 a.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol from the south (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Gov. Pete Ricketts says he has concerns that a bill he signed on veterans benefits might be interpreted as violating Nebraska’s ban on same-sex marriage.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue gives in-state tuition to veterans’ spouses and dependents. The Legislature passed it last week on a unanimous vote of 49-0. Ricketts signed it Thursday. But in a letter to senators, Ricketts said he had concerns.

The governor said he agreed with the goal of the legislation. Nevertheless, he said it potentially violates the state constitution.

That was a reference to the ban on same-sex marriage Nebraska voters added to the state constitution 15 years ago.

Ricketts’ letter says it looks like the federal government is requiring states to recognize same-sex marriage in order to qualify for veterans’ educational benefits. He added he would resist any federal attempt to "usurp our constitution" adding if that happens, he wants senators to consider legislation to "reject the federal bureaucracy’s attempt to mandate its view of marriage upon our citizens."

Crawford, the bill’s sponsor, says Ricketts concerns are unfounded. "I respectfully disagree with the governor that it poses any constitutional challenge. Because we are recognizing people because of their status, in terms of eligible for federal benefits. We are not recognizing people because of their marital status in Nebraska," Crawford said.

Crawford acknowledged that as a practical effect of her bill, LB109, a same-sex spouse of a veteran could receive in-state tuition in Nebraska because he or she is eligible under federal law to receive GI Bill benefits.

The discussion comes as U.S. District Judge Peter Batallion considers whether Nebraska’s constitutional ban on same sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution. A decision in that case is expected any time now.

Also in the Legislature Friday, there was a public hearing on changing the way the state draws districts for Congress, the Legislature, and other statewide boards and commissions.

Currently, the Legislature handles redistricting. The last time it was done, in 2010, Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature accused Republicans of redrawing the Omaha area second congressional district to give the GOP an edge there.

Now, there’s a proposal to turn redistricting over to an independent commission. At the public hearing, Gavin Geis of Common Cause supported the idea. "Nebraskans will just have greater trust and greater belief in the accountability of the system – that the lines that are drawn, the districts that are created – are not drawn so that legislators can pick their voters, but so voters can pick their legislators," he said.

Similar proposals have failed in the past – last session, a proposal by then-Sen. Russ Karpicek, a Democrat, was stopped by opposition from Republicans. What may make a difference this time is that the bill is sponsored by Gretna Sen. John Murante, a Republican, and cosponsored by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, a Democrat. Both said they still need to hammer out final agreement on details.

And on another subject, Gov. Ricketts signed a bill re-legalizing smoking cigars in cigar bars. The bill is in response to a Supreme Court decision last year that said cigar bars’ previous exemption from the state’s indoor smoking ban was unconstitutional.