Sexual harassment and exploitation targeted in Legislature

April 4, 2018, 5:51 a.m. ·

Sen. Theresa Thibodeau speaks on bottle clubs in the Capitol rotunda Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Issues of sexual harassment and exploitation were front and center in the Legislature Wednesday, and lawmakers continued work on other issues.

The issue of sexual harassment first surfaced Wednesday as senators were debating a proposal that grew out of problems at the Nebraska State Patrol. At a public hearing earlier this year, women described problems including sexual harassment complaints that were ignored for years, along with invasive and unnecessary physical exams for female State Patrol officers.

Sen. Sara Howard said those stories highlight a broad, systemic problem. “Our state patrol has become a place where women are not valued. And their contributions don’t seem to matter,” Howard said.

Howard supported part of the bill that would let state employees take harassment complaints to the Department of Administrative Services instead of the department they work for.

Sen. Joni Albrecht, chair of the Business and Labor Committee, talked about another section of the proposal. It would allow the state’s crime commission to subpoena disciplinary records from any law enforcement agency in the state, in an effort to prevent officers with bad records from being able to jump from one department to another without losing their state certification because of confidentiality rules. “The public wants to know that we can count on them, and in most cases we can. But this is simply saying …that the Crime Commission will have subpoena power to come in and get the information they need,” Albrecht said.

Several senators objected to another part of the proposal that would prohibit putting confidentiality restrictions on internal investigations into future State Patrol contracts. Sen. Sue Crawford was among those urging her colleagues to back away from that provision. “Let’s do those specific concrete things that are needed to improve accountability and transparency. And if we do that, we don’t have to interfere with collective bargaining,” Crawford said.

The Legislature moved on to another subject before reaching a first-round vote, but Albrecht said she thinks there’s enough support to move on the subject yet this year.

Also Wednesday, senators held a news conference to highlight what they said was the need to require liquor licenses for so-called bottle clubs, which allow patrons to bring their own alcohol.

Some clubs also allow people as young as 18 to enter, and feature nude dancing. Sen. Theresa Thibodeau said that can lead to sexual exploitation. “The lack of a liquor license allows clubs to get away with things no other bar or nightclub can, including allowing patrons to make sexual contact with dancers in the clubs. There is a clear connection to sexual exploitation, and growing signs of sex trafficking that can no longer be ignored,” Thibodeau said.

Thibodeau is working on legislation that would require clubs to get liquor licenses, opening them up to stricter supervision. She was asked about one club in Waverly which, after she spoke about the clubs last week, posted a message on its large outdoor sign that used an expletive with her name. “What went through my mind is that we really must have gotten somebody’s attention, so we must be doing something right,” she said, while adding that it wasn’t pleasant to be bullied.

And, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed several pieces of legislation that have passed.

Those include adjustments to the state budget, cutting funding for many state agencies, and including language to prevent federal family planning funds from going to any organization that also provides abortions.

Ricketts also signed a bill he said contains common sense provisions to fight opioid addiction. “It limits the amount of prescription drugs that physicians can prescribe to minors to seven days, and it also requires those physicians to consult with those patients to let them know about the risks of opioids. And the third thing it does it requires that you have that ID to be able to get those opioids,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts was asked if recent studies that show fewer problems with opioids in states that have legalized medical marijuana have changed his opposition to legalizing it. The governor referred to a conversation he had Tuesday with State Patrol Superintendent Col. John Bolduc. “He (Bolduc) said that he’d never met a heroin addict that didn’t start with marijuana first. So I think that marijuana actually can lead to other problems as well, so it actually doesn’t have an impact on me,” Ricketts said. “Certainly, there’s an opportunity for medical marijuana; it has to go through the FDA process just like any other dangerous drug, and that’s the process we should follow in this state,” he added.

One recent study of Medicare patients in a journal of the American Medical Association showed a 14 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions in states with easy access to medical marijuana.