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Government inaction: Nebraska lawmakers stymied by filibusters

By   /   February 18, 2014  /   No Comments

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska lawmakers have done a whole lot of talking, but not much legislating as they approach the halfway mark of their 60-day session.

So far, they’ve racked up two filibusters, two threatened filibusters and countless headaches.

Nebraska Watchdog

FILIBUSTER KING: Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers is the indisputable king of the filibuster in Nebraska.

While Nebraskans love their unique, one-house, nonpartisan Legislature, it has its downsides, such as its propensity to launch filibusters for less-than-earth-shattering causes.

Take this session: so far, lawmakers have had four attempted or successful filibusters on bills that would allow volunteer crime fighters to use flashing amber lights on vehicles, repeal the motorcycle helmet law, ban novelty lighters and go to a winner-take-all electoral vote.

By tradition, not rule, a bill must get eight hours of debate before lawmakers vote on cloture to cut off first-round debate on the floor. That’s a lot of time talking about whether novelty lighters could be mistaken for toys.

That’s life in Nebraska, one of only 10 states that, like the U.S. Senate, require more than a simple or absolute majority (more than half) to stop a filibuster, according to a 2007 analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nebraska and just six other states require a two-thirds majority to stifle the talkfests. Only New Jersey has an even higher standard, at three-fourths, while two states appear to allow unlimited debate.

Although there seems to be little interest in changing Nebraska’s tradition, the constant filibustering has tempers flaring. After a long debate on novelty lighters, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, the indisputable king of filibusters, accused Sen. Bill Kintner of giving filibusters a bad name, deriding Kintner’s attempt to launch one as “silly bluster” instead.

“I am branded as one who filibusters,” Chambers said on the floor. “I engage in extended debate.”

Chambers also vowed to kill Fremont Sen. Charlie Jannsen’s bill that would’ve changed the state’s way of awarding electoral college votes for president back to a winner-takes-all voting system.

“I’m going to kill this bill, one way or another, and by kill I mean it’s not going to come to a vote,” Chambers said on the floor. “I cannot be silenced. I will not be silenced.”

Janssen had the 25 votes he needed to pass the bill, but he didn’t have the 33 he needed to stop the filibuster. So he withdrew the bill.

After 12 hours of arguing over the amber lights bill, Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh , R-Omaha, fell one vote short of the 33 needed for cloture.

“It seems unusual that we’ve had so many on minor bills on the floor and so many actual and threatened filibusters so far that have taken up so much time,” he said in an interview. “There are going to be quite a few people who are going to wish we had some of this time back in relatively short order.”

Oddly enough, there is no rule that says Nebraska lawmakers have to debate for eight hours before a motion for cloture can be made; it’s just a tradition. The rules say a cloture vote can take place once the speaker decides the bill has gotten a “full and fair debate.” By tradition, that’s been defined as eight hours for a general file (first round approval) bill and four hours for select file (second round approval).

Nebraska Watchdog

INACTION: Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh says lawmakers might need to rethink how they’re doing things.

“Maybe we need to think about how we’re doing things,” Lautenbaugh said. “There’s no rule to go change in this regard.”

Janssen has questioned why lawmakers filibuster bills on first round, given that they only have to filibuster for four hours in the second round, by tradition.

“I’ve never understood that,” he said. “We could change the rules but there is no rule that says you have to (go eight hours or four hours).”

The need for controversial bills to be filibuster-proof means even though Republicans dominate the Legislature, they don’t always get their way because they don’t have a 33-vote super-majority. After limited government proponents were unable to repeal the law requiring people to wear motorcycle helmets, Kintner complained on Twitter, “The Left can pretty much stop any legislation.”

Sen. Russ Karpisek, D-Wilber, was frustrated during the novelty lighter debate, asking his colleagues, “Is this the hill we’re going to die on?

“If novelty lighters are the most important thing in this state to filibuster against, I think we really need to sit down and look at ourselves,” he said on the floor. “If we’re going to stick on every bill for this long, we’re going to get nothing done. We can’t be doing this over such mundane things. Let’s move on.”

Karpisek said in an interview that lawmakers seem to have had an unusual number of filibusters. He, too, questioned why lawmakers don’t wait until the second round to filibuster.

“To filibuster right out of the gate on something like novelty lighters… seems over-zealous to me,” he said.

He thinks the number of new senators and lame duck senators serving their last years might have something to do with all the filibusters, because they don’t have to worry about good will.

“I think the body has just been in kind of a foul mood the last couple of years,” he said. “Instead of just voting on something they wanna take it to the mat every time.”

Part of it stems from watching the master, Chambers, conduct filibusters. Karpisek, too, thinks lawmakers should save their filibusters for the second round.

“But you can’t make it so nobody has to put the time in to filibuster a bill,” he said. “I think sometimes people just wanna flex their muscles a little bit.”

Sen. Bill Avery, D-Lincoln, said lawmakers are eating up time that they’re going to need later in the session for important bills.

“We’re going to be doing late nights before too long,” he said.

Is the Legislature beginning to look a lot like Congress?

“I hope not,” Avery said. “We take pride in our ability to work together without crippling ideology and partisanship.”

Being a “limited government guy,” Janssen said the molasses-like pace of the Legislature isn’t all negative, because it means fewer bills pass, fewer laws are made, less bureaucracy is created.

“It’s not all bad,” he said. “Unless it’s your bill.”’

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org.

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Deena Winter