Whiteclay, helmets, Challenge to Chambers, farm repair discussed in Legislature

March 9, 2017, 5:55 a.m. ·

Sen. Tom Brewer discusses Whiteclay in the Legislature Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A task force would recommend solutions to alcohol-related problems in Whiteclay; motorcycle helmets would not be required, a challenge to Sen. Ernie Chambers’ election will proceed; and farmers could more easily repair new tractors, under measures discussed in the Nebraska Legislature Thursday.

Whiteclay is a tiny village of about a dozen people in northwest Nebraska where four stores sell the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of the nearby -- and officially dry -- Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. People hang out on the streets and drink there, and there have been several unsolved deaths.

Thursday, lawmakers discussed a task force to examine the public health effects of alcohol in the region and recommend development strategies. Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said alcohol sales have been a problem there ever since 1904, when President Theodore Roosevelt abolished a 50-square-mile buffer zone bordering the reservation.

“Whiteclay popped up the minute that buffer zone was removed. It exists for the sole purpose of perpetuating the predatory sales to a vulnerable people of our Native American brothers and sisters. In short, it presents a human tragedy, a moral tragedy, a legal tragedy and a public health tragedy,” Pansing Brooks said.

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, himself a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe headquartered on the Pine Ridge Reservation, supported the task force. Brewer said its purposes go beyond simply improving public safety. “Cleaning up the town, destroying the building that are hazards. And then having a environment where people will want to build businesses and rejuvenate, instead of simply having a way station for people to buy booze and continue to kill one generation after another,” Brewer said.

Senators voted 42-0 first round approval.

They then began debating the latest in a long line of attempts to repeal Nebraska’s law, passed in 1988, that requires motorcycle riders to wear helmets. Sen. John Lowe of Kearney is the sponsor of this year’s repeal attempt. “This policy change would respect the freedom of Nebraskans, help our businesses and encourage potential significant tourism revenue, all while requiring one of the strictest helmet laws in our region,” Lowe said.

Opponents argue repeal will increase danger to cyclists and costs to taxpayers to care for victims of accidents who don’t have enough insurance. Opponents have filibustered previous repeal attempts, which forces supporters to try and get a two-thirds vote to cut off discussion and vote on the bill itself. Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann, a leading opponent, signaled to Lowe that would be the case again this year. Hilkemann noted that the proposal is Lowe’s priority for the year. “I have to say… that maintaining the helmet law that we’ve had in place that’s served the state of Nebraska very well over the years is my priority as well. So we’ll have some discussions about this.”

“Sounds great to me,” Lowe replied.

The discussion is scheduled to continue when lawmakers reconvene on Monday. Also Thursday, a special committee appointed to consider a challenge to the election of Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers met to decide whether to proceed hearing the challenge. John Sciara of Omaha, who lost to Chambers last year, brought the challenge, arguing Chambers actually lives in Bellevue rather than in his north Omaha district.

Chambers has denied the charge, and sought to have the challenge dismissed because Sciara failed to meet several of the requirements of a legislative rule governing challenges, including not verifying his challenge with an affidavit the first time he filed it, and not giving Chambers notice the second time, when he corrected the first filing.

Chambers has argued those violations of Legislative Rule 10, among other reasons, made it a “slam dunk” the committee did not have jurisdiction. But retired Nebraska Supreme Court Judge William Connolly, whom the committee hired as its legal counsel, told the committee he disagreed. “Legislative rule 10 is a procedural rule. It is not jurisdictional and that is the nuts and bolts, summed up -- that’s why I came to the opinion that the committee had jurisdiction to hear the challenger’s petition,” Connolly said.

The committee voted unanimously that it did have jurisdiction. Sen. Dan Watermeier, its chairman, said the committee will meet next week to schedule a trial on the challenge.

Thursday afternoon, there was a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee on a proposal to require manufacturers to allow independent repair shops to buy the same diagnostic tools they make available to authorized dealers.

Testimony from supporters of the bill came from people who fix printers, iPhones, computers and farm equipment. Kenny Roelofsen of Abilene Machine, a Kansas parts company that does business in Nebraska, told lawmakers some tractors are impossible to repair without proprietary information. “All I want is access to diagnostic and tooling information. I don’t want to tweak the code, I don’t want to take the EPA diesel maculate filters off, I don’t want to do any of that. I just want to be able to read what’s wrong with it. Fix it, flash it and let it go back to work,” Roelofsen said.

Opponents from industries ranging from the entertainment to farm implement dealers testified against the bill.

Alexi Madon of CompTIA, a trade group that represents information technology manufacturers, said they could be forced to give up copyright protected information. “While this may seem fair to some. Dictating how a company operates when it comes to use and access to their intellectual property is in fact not very fair,” Madon said.

Similar bills have been introduced but not passed in other states. The committee took no immediate action on the bill.