Late nights bring harsh words in Nebraska Legislature

Late nights bring harsh words in Nebraska Legislature

By Paul Hammel April 26, 2013 5:29 pm Comments

Night sessions at the Nebraska Legislature can bring out some of the harshest debate of the year.

 Some of that is understandable. The night-time work typically comes at the end of the session, as the clock is running down. People want their bills passed. Tension is high, And people just get tired at night.

 Plus, as one sage observer once observed, it takes some time to make enemies. By the end of a session, senators pretty well know who has their back, and who has a rhetorical knife aimed at it.

 That was the case the other night when debate turned to the pension plan for state teachers.

 The state administers the plans for Nebraska school employees, as well as a separate plan for Omaha Public School workers. (That’s a strange arrangement that might lead to a merger someday, but that’s another story.) 

 This year, faced with a $108-million pension gap caused by the cruddy economy, State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, the chairman of the Legislature’s Retirement Committee, worked out a compromise with teacher, school board and administrator groups.

 It seems like a pretty balanced deal: Current and new teachers would pay a little bit more toward retirement, so would school districts. And the state would kick in an extra $20 milion a year. Pension benefits for new teachers would be reduced slightly. The gap would be reduced and managed.

 The pension bill, LB 553, sailed through first-round debate. But on second round, at night remember, the boo birds came out.

 Nordquist, a leading Democrat in the body, was suddenly a dart board for a group of Republican senators. They didn’t like the deal, and wanted to put off and do more study of alternatives, like switching to defined contribution plans (think 401K) now common in the private sector.

 Aren’t you penalizing new teachers, Omaha Sen. John Nelson asked, by asked him to pay more and cutting their benefits.

 That brought a harsh rebuke from Nordquist’s Omaha colleague, Sen. Heath Mello, who called the plan to delay LB 533 the most fiscally irresponsible amendment of the session. He said it would leave taxpayers with a $108 million bill instead of $20 million, and leave teachers wondering if they’ll have a pension to retire on or not.

  Mello has toned down his criticism of GOP Gov. Dave Heineman this year after being elected chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. But on this night, Mello took a shot at the governor, tagging him for not including any proposal in his budget to resolve the pension problem. That’s unprecedented and irresponsible for a governor, the senator said.

 Attempts to get a response from the governor’s office were unsuccessful. It was night after all. So we have no idea why he didn’t have a proposal. Maybe he was OK with delaying a decision. Maybe not.

 The furor eventually died down and the pension bill advanced easily. But the daggers were out on the legislative floor for a while, which might illustrate what’s ahead when the budget is debated.

 *   *   *

 An interesting fight is brewing over tax breaks for wind energy, pitting the big wind farm people against the small wind farm people.

 The Legislature just advanced LB 104, which would give a sales tax break for big wind farms, including a $300 million one planned near Allen, in hilly northeast Nebraska, by a Kansas company.

 But another wind bill is awaiting debate, LB 402, would help mostly small wind farms. It requires wind farms to jump through a few hoops to obtain a sales tax exemption, including requiring them to parts from Nebraska suppliers and line up local investors from Cornhusker Staters.

Two rural groups that have supported wind energy from the start, the Nebraska Farmers Union and Center for Rural Affairs, say they support LB 402, and not the big wind farm bill.

 The community-owned wind farms envisioned in LB 402 provide 2.3 times the jobs and 3.1 times more economic benefits, they said. Meanwhile, backers of the big wind farm bill say that Nebraska’s 6-year-old law to inspire smaller, community-owned wind farms hasn’t worked and the state needs a simpler incentive.

 It all sets up an interesting fight later in the session over whether the state can afford both bills. Each have hefty fiscal notes. Legislators may have to choose one over another.

 Gov. Heineman, a past supporter of wind energy, says he opposes the big wind farm bill, because it will benefit an out-of-state company. He’s supported tax breaks for out-of-state corporations in the past, such as Yahoo and Facebook, but on this one, not so much.

 Attempts to get his opinion of LB 402 were unsuccessful, like the attempt to get some response on the pension criticism.