Train crew requirements fall short; eminent domain bill heard

Feb. 2, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Mike Jacobson, a supporter of train crew size requirements, chats with Senator Lou Ann Linehan, an opponent, on Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Mike Jacobson, a supporter of train crew size requirements, chats with Senator Lou Ann Linehan, an opponent, on Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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An effort to require two-person crews on trains crossing Nebraska fell short today/Friday in the Legislature. And senators heard a proposal to tighten requirements for local governments or businesses that want to condemn land.

On Groundhog Day, senators heard debate for the third day in a row on a bill to require trains crossing Nebraska to have at least two crew members. Sen. John Cavanaugh talked about why he and other senators were supporting the proposal – “to support workers who are in a dangerous field who often have to respond to dangerous situations. And we're trying to put them in the best position they can when they do that,” Cavanaugh said.

Opponents, including Sen. Kathleen Kauth, said the state shouldn’t interfere in what should be a matter for labor-management negotiations.

“This sort of overreach could have some pretty negative implications for the unions and for employee relations…It's a concern. Anytime we start talking about the state making decisions for a company. It is a very big concern that it's overreach,” Kauth said.

Sen. Julie Slama argued the federal government has jurisdiction over the matter, and legal challenges have stopped such laws in other states.

“It has been talked about on the (legislative) floor how 11 other states have two-man crew statutes in place. I believe Kansas is one of them. But the problem is that none of these two-man crew laws are being enforced, because when they are enforced, they end up in court and they lose,” Slama said.

Opponents also said the Federal Railroad Administration is expected to issue rules on crew size next month.

But Sen. Wendy DeBoer urged her fellow lawmakers to go ahead and try passing a state law despite pending federal action.

“There's nothing scary that happens next if they decide it's one-person crew. The governor doesn't have to go to bed without his supper. We don't all get sent to time out as legislators. We just can't enforce our law,” DeBoer said.

Sen. Mike Jacobson, lead sponsor of the bill, suggested an amendment he hoped would be an acceptable compromise.

“The amendment would set a sunset on LB31, two years from the date of enactment. So that would mean that two years from now, if action has been taken or other things or technologies improved, and there's evidence that that's not necessary, this body would have to again, agree to vote on such a bill,” Jacobson said.

But the amendment never got to a vote. With opponents continuing to delay a vote by filibustering, Jacobson tried to invoke cloture to stop debate. That requires approval by two-thirds of the 49-member Legislature, or 33 votes. Jacobson got only 24, with 19 senators opposed, meaning the bill is dead for this year.

Friday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee heard testimony on a bill by John Cavanaugh that would tighten requirements on governmental bodies or companies when they exercise eminent domain to get property from owners who are unwilling to sell. Among its requirements, the bill would say that if a governmental body wants property outside of its boundaries, it would have to get the local government where the property is located to vote its approval.

Cavanaugh said that change would correct an injustice:.

“This is an important protection of property owners who have no political recourse when a public body that they did not elect exercises power over them. They have no ability to petition their government, because the government that took their property is a government that does not represent them,” he said.

But Jacob Farrell of the Omaha Public Power District said the new requirement could prevent OPPD from building transmission lines to meet its obligation to serve customers.

“Requiring a vote of eminent domain action would effectively give veto power to any single village board, county board, or city council allowing a very small group of people to block critical public infrastructure projects,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposal.