Senators Debate What's Not Being Debated; Hairstyle Discrimination Considered

Aug. 3, 2020, 6:02 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

Debate over a housing bill turned into discussion of what the Legislature isn’t discussing Monday. And lawmakers debated a bill to prohibit job discrimination over hairstyles.

The housing bill would expand the use of tax increment financing. That’s a program, commonly known by the acronym TIF. Under TIF, if an owner improves property, the government can return the additional that owner’s additional property taxes to cover renovation costs. Sen. Mike Groene’s bill would speed up the TIF process for someone anybody improving or replacing buildings at least 60 years old in blighted or substandard in counties of less than 100,000 people.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said she supported the bill, but thinks senators should be focusing on issues brought to light by the pandemic and racial protests. She suggest senators concentrating on issues like property taxes and corporate tax incentives are out of touch with Nebraskans.

“People wandering around in a fog, totally oblivious to the needs of our people in this state -- needs of people who are being evicted because they don’t have jobs right now. The needs of people who need food because they don’t have jobs,” Pansing Brooks said.

Sen. Andrew LaGrone objected to the idea that the state is not doing anything to help people hurt by the pandemic. LaGrone listed some spending approved by Gov. Pete Ricketts, using federal funds.

“Assistance for children and families, $39.6 million. Assistance for aging and disabled, $7 million. Public health response preparedness, $84 million. Colleagues, I could go on and on – I have pages of this. But let’s be honest if we’re going to have this conversation. The governor’s office has been doing a great job. Just because the legislative branch is not as nimble as the executive branch, doesn’t mean that nothing is being done. Just because it’s not coming out of this body does not mean we’re not trying to help people,” LaGrone said.

Pansing Brooks continued her objection.

“We may not be nimble, but right now we’re numb,” she said.

She pointed to a recent vote blocking a bill to protect meatpacking workers from COVID-19, and another blocking a bill that would have halted evictions and foreclosures.

But Sen. Ben Hansen pushed back, arguing that Nebraska is in better shape economically than most other states. Hansen pointed to the state’s relatively low unemployment rate, which was 6.7 percent in June.

“I don’t think that’s really is a dire situation for our state. I think we’re still in the top 10 if not the top 5 overall for unemployment rate because I think the unemployment rate in the United States right now is around 11-11.5. And so I think that kind of speaks for the grit and determination and the fiscal responsibility of our state, not just in the Legislature but as small business owners as well,” Hansen said.

Sen. Ernie Chambers responded to Hansen.

“He said because the unemployment rate – it’s less than 7 percent, 6 point something – unemployment in Nebraska is not dire. Well, it’s dire for those who are unemployed,” Chambers said.

Pansing Brooks said some senators are talking about adjourning early.

“If we cannot get to the issues that my constituents care about, and only the ones that your constituents care about, then I’m sorry. I don’t know why to go forward,” she said.

It’s still not clear what compromises might be proposed on property tax and corporate incentives legislation. Senators moved on to other subjects before reaching a vote on the housing bill, which remains at the first stage of debate.

Senators also debated a proposal by Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh that would add hairstyles to a law prohibiting discrimination based on race. Cavanaugh said at a hearing on the bill, an African American woman recounted being asked by her employer to use a hair relaxant, which would have irritated her scalp, and an African American man was told he would have to cut the hair in his ponytail if he wanted a job.

Sen. Curt Friesen said employers should have some control over their employees appearance, and asked Cavanaugh about that.

“If you had a business, for instance, and a receptionist is the first person that the public is going to greet, you expect them, I take it, to be dressed in a certain way. Businesses are different – legal firms versus a hard rock music place, or something, I mean. So would you say you have any control over that person and how they might appear at your front desk?” Friesen asked.

“Absolutely. This bill, this piece of legislation, does not affect a company’s grooming policies as long as those policies are applied equally to all employees. It also does not supersede any health and safety policies, again, as long as those policies are applied equally across all employees. So if you require a hairnet, then you require a hairnet,” Cavanaugh replied.

Cavanaugh’s bill was amended to tighten its language, and now awaits a final vote.