Senators debate balancing minority rights and majority rule

Jan. 27, 2017, 6:19 a.m. ·

Sen. Tyson Larson wants to make it easier to cut off filibusters (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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How should the Nebraska Legislature balance minority rights with majority rule? That’s the question underlying a debate senators are having in Lincoln – a debate that could delay action on a host of issues.

At one level, the debate is at the height – or depth – of obscure legislative infighting. Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill has proposed a change in the Legislature’s rules, to make it easier to cut off debate and vote on bills. Right now, that takes 33 votes – two-thirds of the Legislature.

Larson’s proposal would effectively lower the requirement to 30 votes. The change would make it easier for the conservative Republican voting bloc that exerted control over committee chairmanships and membership when the Legislature reorganized on the first day, to advance its agenda.

That’s why Democrats, moderate Republicans, and the one independent in the officially nonpartisan Legislature are resisting the change. In effect, they are filibustering against a change in the filibuster rules.

One of the resistors, Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, said the stalemate threatens the Legislature’s ability to get things done. She urged Nebraskans to contact their senators to get them not to support the change. "If you care about property taxes, reach out to your senators. If you care about tax reform, if you care about trade and the issues that are going on right now, if you care about prisons and the mess that we have with overcrowding, if you care about HHS, reach to you senators. Is the inability to discuss these important issues worth Sen. Larson’s motion to silence the majority voices?" she said.

Larsson denied that was his intention. "My rule change – proposed rule change – doesn’t silence the minority. It still gives the minority the ability to filibuster. And the fact that she’s standing up and saying that we – i.e. I think putting it either on I or the rest of the Republicans – are going to stop the ability for us to talk about important issues if this rule change comes up, or passes, is ludicrous," he said.

Sen Ernie Chambers said the majority was paying the price for its power play during the Legislature’s reorganization. As is his wont, Chambers paraphrased the Bible to make his point. "You all sowed the wind on the first day. You have the rest of the session to reap the whirlwind," he said.

Sen. Steve Erdman summed up his frustration with a mixture of the sacred and the profane. Erdman said he’d "been here 17 days, (and) haven’t done squat. Okay? So if Sen. Chambers can make up Bible verses, so can I. There’s a time to be born, and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to talk and a time to vote," Erdman said.

But Sen. John McCollister suggested he was willing to spend practically the entire legislative session, which ends in June, resisting the rules change. "We can talk about these rules all session. All we really have to do is pass a budget. We can do that. So I will be part of the effort to maintain our rules as long as it takes," McCollister said.

With no resolution in sight, Sen. Jim Scheer, speaker of the Legislature, made a motion for the Legislature to keep operating under the temporary rules left over from last year. That means senators will be able to begin debating the budget on Monday, and can return to the rules fight after that.

Friday afternoon, the Revenue Committee heard testimony on two proposals to require online retailers to collect sales tax on purchases by Nebraskans. That tax is already theoretically due, but many online retailers don’t collect it, and few consumers actually pay. Brick and mortar stores who do collect the tax complain that it gives online retailers an unfair advantage.

Among those supporting their position Friday was Mark Zimmerer of the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce. "It is our local brick and mortar stores that bring people to our communities. These visitors buy our cars, they purchase our goods and they utilize our services. And it’s the same brick and mortar stores that support our local chambers of commerce, our local United Ways, and any other worthy requests they receive on a daily basis. These are the things that are good about our local businesses and the owners that own them. They deserve better. After all, when was the last time Amazon or Overstock gave back to your community?" he said.

No one testified at the hearing against the idea, which would bring an estimated $30 million to $40 million of tax revenue into state coffers. However, the committee received several letters opposing the proposal. Among them was one from TechNet, an organization representing internet companies. It said passing the legislation would force Nebraska taxpayers to pay the cost of defending its constitutionality in court. The committee took no immediate action on the bill.