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Some Legislative Committees Ignoring Nebraska "Nice"
- Published on Thursday, 23 March 2017 15:23
- Written by thenebraskasigna
The complaints about the public decorum of Nebraska Senators conducting public hearings are piling up. Lawmakers are to hear the public's testimony and deliberate on issues that will affect all Nebraskans.
Something is wrong when the public walks away from those hearings feeling like they have been cheated out of the opportunity to share their thoughts either for or against a proposal. It's even worse when they complain about personal affronts - alleged eye rolling by a committee chair - from their elected officials.
Each Legislature seems to take on a personality, a collective soul representing all of the individual legislators. Last year's Legislature was fiercely independent, a fact that caused some renegade conservative Republicans their jobs. Those who survived election challenges funded by the deep-pockets governor found themselves on the losing end of committee chairmanships this session.
The collective persona symbolized by the Gang of 27 this year has been that of a bully. Definitely NOT Nebraska nice.
Ask retired civil engineering technician and farmer Don Schuller from Wymore. He wanted his shot at a five-minute speech to share his opposition to Governor Pete Ricketts' proposed income tax cuts during a hearing of the Revenue Committee. He waited seven hours hoping to testify only to be turned away for lack of time. He admits that he isn't all that acquainted with how the hearings work, because this is the first time he attended. But he also said he didn’t like how it was handled.
Nebraska is one of the few states that guarantee a public hearing for each of the hundreds of bills introduced every year. It's a practice that is intended to foster transparency and accountability, but it also causes problems when big issues draw big crowds. Committees also have to hear multiple bills on a given day, adding to the time crunch.
Revenue Committee Chairman Senator Jim Smith of Papillion said he limited testimony on the income tax bill so a companion property tax bill could also be discussed that day so interested parties who drove in from other parts of the state could make one trip and hear both bills. He said he and his colleagues tried to hear as much of an opinion as possible from both sides.
Sometimes committee members ask a lot of questions extending the time each testifier has to take, Smith said. Sometimes committee chairs will limit the time for each side to a given amount to expedite the process. Smith and his committee have tried individual time limits and the group time limits this year. There appears to be no magic bullet to make things run more smoothly.
Limiting overall testimony to a set amount of time for each side created problems in the Health and Human Services Committee on a bill that would change occupational licensing for cosmetologists, audiologists, nail technicians, massage therapists and barbers. A rare morning hearing on the bill was ended promptly at noon because of events to mark Nebraska’s 150th year of statehood. Dozens of people who opposed the bill were unable to testify.
Because Committee Chairman Senator Merv Riepe of Omaha sponsored the bill, Vice Chairman Steve Erdman of Bayard ran the hearing and enforced the noon ending time, which was announced in advance through a news release but not included on the agenda.
Committee member Senator Sara Howard of Omaha disagreed with the scheduling decision and brought it up on the legislative floor the next day. Howard lost the chairmanship race to Riepe - on a 27-22 vote - at the beginning of the session. She said there is no celebration so big that it should keep the Legislature from doing the work that Nebraskans deserve.
Committee chairs usually know well in advance when a controversial bill will draw a large crowd. Judiciary Committee Chair Senator Laura Ebke of Crete said she feels very seriously if people want to come and talk, they have that right. She said it would have to be a truly dire situation for her to shut them down.
It’s all about the rules and the rules should be explained at the start of each hearing. Veteran lobbyist Walt Radcliffe said all lawmakers should respect that public hearings are for the public and usually the only time that senators and the public interact face-to-face in a sanctioned, public forum.
They should at least be nice. Nebraska nice.