Preschooler makes a run for the Legislature
While 7-year-old Jack Hoffman’s 69-yard touchdown run in the Husker spring game has brightened the lives of millions around the world, another Nebraska child’s run brought smiles to the Nebraska Legislature last week.
Tay DellaCroce came to the Capitol with his mother, a former foster child. She was among several former foster children lobbying for a bill to provide state help to future foster youth making the transition to adulthood. But lobbying and watching laws being made can be dull work for a 3-year-old boy.
So, when a senator opened the door from the Rotunda to the back of the legislative chamber, he slipped through and took off running. Sergeant-at-arms Ron Witkowski saw Tay dash by and gave chase down the center aisle. While most senators just blinked in surprise, State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln sized up the situation and took off down the side aisle.
The father of a boy about the same age, Coash cut off the young door-dasher as he rounded the corner. He scooped up Tay and carried him back out of the chamber to the applause of fellow senators. The child beamed, while smiles and laughter broke out among the formerly serious adults in the chamber.
All I really need to know I learned from Ernie?
Listen long enough to Omaha State Sen. Ernie Chambers talk on the floor of the Legislature and you can get a very broad cultural education.
Sure, his speeches touch on Nebraska policy issues and the legislation at hand. But he ranges far and wide when making his points and, the more time he wants to use, the farther and wider his speeches wander. The result can be entertaining and educational, at least for those not pushing legislation he opposes.
On one recent day, Chambers recounted slightly fractured versions of the Biblical stories of David and Bathsheba and of Samson and Delilah to illustrate the allure of unwise relationships. Later, as he offered a last-minute amendment to a bill, he quoted from Billy Joel: “Friday night I crashed your party/Saturday I said I’m sorry.”
Another day he gave a synopsis of the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. About its author, he told listeners: “Oscar Wilde had several names between his first name and his last name but I’m not going to tell you. Look it up.” (For the record, they are Fingal O’Flahertie Wills.) A later speech included a description of the pushmi-pullyu, an animal with heads on both ends, from the Dr. Dolittle children’s book series.
He’s been known to quote from old Westerns, monster movies, country songs, television commercials and more. He can talk about the commercial and legal underpinnings of slavery, the necessity of resocializing mistreated animals and the Dalton Brothers of Western history. Favorite references include Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks, from the comic strips, and Gen. ”Stonewall” Jackson of Civil War fame.
Income taxes and free lunches
Americans for Prosperity-Nebraska, one of the few groups backing Gov. Dave Heineman’s tax overhaul proposal, invited Nebraska citizens to a State Capitol rally to show support for the idea of eliminating state income taxes. The Tea Party-style group promoted the event with radio advertisements and news releases.
One line in the radio ad stood out. It promised lunch would be provided to rally participants. Brad Stevens, AFP’s state director, said the group made the offer to acknowledge those who showed up for an outdoor rally on a chilly February day. The menu consisted of box lunches from Jimmy Johns.
Now, political rallies are common on the west and north steps of the Capitol, especially during the legislative session. Organizers giving away food are not so common.
Still, the offer didn’t appear to boost turnout. About 30 people showed up, not counting members of the media, and there were plenty of sandwiches to go around. Maybe Nebraskans were wary of the offer after hearing the old adage about free lunches.
“Professor” Chambers holds class for Nebraska lawmakers
No school bells rang but class definitely began this week for Nebraska’s newest lawmakers. At the lectern was Professor Ernie Chambers, the longest-serving state senator in history and an acknowledged master of the legislative process. Term limits forced him out of the Legislature for the last four years, which means several members of the body missed out on his previous lessons.
Chambers used the first bill debates of the session to demonstrate the care that lawmakers should take in considering legislation. But he started the day with plenty of advice. Develop a thick skin, he said. “If you come here with your feelings on your sleeve, your fingertips, they’re going to get hurt,” he said.
Don’t be intimidated by others, even if you are one of the newer senators. But Chambers warned he will not back off when confronted with what he considers bad legislation. “When these troglodytes come forward with these horrendous bills, I will fight them,” he said.
Chambers advised lawmakers to take their position seriously and be diligent in reading, thinking and questioning. Don’t just accept the information others provide. “Words have power, and senators’ words should be well thought out, well spoken and well written in statutes,” he said.
He also said the Legislature should not take a back seat to anyone, whether it be the governor, the chief justice or a lobbyist. “In this state, the Legislature is paramount,” he said.
Tie one on for legislative fashion
Omaha State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh claims he was joking when, as Rules Committee chairman, he proposed a legislative version of the fashion police. In an email to committee colleagues, he declared that decorum is very important in the Legislature. He went on to say he was proposing a rules change, in light of the last election.
That was, of course, the election that brought back Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, whose trademark short-sleeved sweatshirts and jeans contrast with the suits and ties worn by other male lawmakers. But Lautenbaugh’s proposal took aim at another colleague’s fashion statement. “No bow ties, ever,” it read. The joke was on Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, who has made bow ties his daily wear.
Several lawmakers responded by sporting their own bow ties on the day this week that lawmakers adopted the permanent rules – without any fashion guidance – for the session. At least nine senators joined the all-in-fun resistance. Six gathered for a group photo at the end of the morning, from left, Sens. Brad Ashford, Colby Coash, Scott Price, McCoy, Mike Gloor and Bill Kintner, along with a legislative page who happened to be wearing a bow tie that day.
Maybe next year someone will take on the (male) senator spotted wearing pink socks with large blue polka dots.
Heineman’s budget plan steers away from fights
Gov. Dave Heineman’s proposal to get rid of state income taxes has overshadowed his budget plan, ever since he announced both on Tuesday.
Lawmakers and lobbyists alike foresee battles over the tax proposal. The governor appears to be expecting the same, given that he has let Nebraskans fantasize for a few days about avoiding income taxes before he offers details about where we would feel the pain of replacing that tax revenue.
His budget plan, meanwhile, seems designed to avoid major fights. One senator observed that the plan looked like a recommendation made by a “moderate Democrat” instead of by a tight-fisted Republican.
Leadership battles are mix of personality and politics
So, what does it mean when Democrats claim more legislative leadership positions than Republicans in a solidly red state? Especially when a Democrat from Omaha wins the Appropriations Committee chairmanship? Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha is the first Democrat in 64 years to be elected Appropriations chairman.
One wag called the latter “a sign of the apocalypse.” Others see the choices as a signal that Gov. Dave Heineman and Republican Party leaders overstepped in trying to influence legislative matters. Maybe so. Party matters, despite the Legislature’s official nonpartisanship, but legislators pride themselves on the body’s independence.
Don’t discount the personal factors, either. Nebraska lawmakers traditionally choose their leaders based on personality and management skills as much as on politics. Votes are more likely to favor the senators perceived to be competent, fair and easy to work with than those who adhere to a particular point of view.