Don’t Carry Water in a Bucket Full of Holes

In case you have been living under a rock, Senator Ernie Chambers is back, with a vengeance. Senator Chambers held court in the Lege for 38 years as Nebraska’s most knowledgeable, skilled, and pesky statesman. He was so pesky that the state’s crazy white people (not all white people, just the crazy ones) voted for legislative term limits just to get Ernie out. They got a lot of other knowledgeable, skilled statesmen out, too, but they didn’t care about collateral damage. They wanted the black guy gone.

The crazy white scheme worked. The black guy was gone, for four years, which is how long a senator must sit out before he or she can run again for the office.

Ernie sat back, tended his garden, observed the bills the inexperienced new state senators passed (ranging from insipid to insane), and bided his time. Then come last November, with his four-year sentence up, he was landslide-elected by his constituents to serve in the Lege again.

Four years of pent up anger and angst were bound to spill out eventually. It only took ten days before Ernie found his first opportunity for payback. During a judiciary committee hearing, Senator Chambers wrestled down the ill-prepared introducer of a poorly-written bill, tied him in knots, chewed him up, spit him out, and sent him off to the doghouse with his tail between his legs.

It was a thing of beauty.

Poor Senator Colby Coash. He’s an okay senator. Means well. Tries hard. But he made the mistake of carrying water for our not-so-bright Attorney General Jon Bruning. Bruning is so not bright he thinks the town of Bruning, Nebraska was named for him. (Not.) He is so not bright he sued the federal government 21 times as Nebraksa’s official lawyer-in-chief and lost all 21 cases. Then when he ran for United States Senator he bragged about all of his lawsuits against the big bad federal government, which is pretty ironic considering he wanted to be the big bad federal government.

He lost the election in the primary. Oh, and the multi-million dollar tab for all of those lawsuits was picked up by… you guessed it… us.

Dimbulb Bruning asked Poor Senator Coash to introduce a bill that would make disarming or attempting to disarm a peace officer a Class III felony, with a sentence of one to twenty years in the Nebraska State Pen. And Coash, being the good water-for-elephants kind of guy that he is, said yes.

On that fateful Wednesday afternoon, Senator Coash confidently strode up to the hearing table and presented opening arguments for his (actually, Dimbulb’s) crime-and-punishment bill that was going to send all of those bad guys to the already overcrowded pen while making our lawyer-in-chief and his water-boy look good. That was the plan.

Let me tell you now, the plan did not go well.

After Senator Coash finished his opening remarks, he was grilled for almost 20 minutes by Senator Chambers. Here are a few excerpts:

Senator Chambers: “Did Attorney General Jon Bruning ask you to bring this bill?”

Coash: “Yes, I’ve been working with the attorney general’s office on this bill…”

Chambers: “You make an attempt to do something the same level of seriousness as doing it in this bill, don’t you?”

Coash: “Yes.”

Chambers: “So you may as well do it, instead of just attempting to do it.”

Coash: “Well, Senator Chambers, I think that the…”

Chambers: “No, I’d like an answer. Do you think they should be on the same level?”

Coash: “No.”

Chambers: “Are these things that a lawyer (read: Dimbulb Bruning) should think of in drafting legislation or did you come up with the language?”

Coash: (mumbling) “I was assisted with…

Chambers: “What was that?”

Coash: (louder) “I was assisted with the language… I received the language and I had assistance in preparing the language.”

Chambers: “But you didn’t formulate this bill in these terms.”

Coash: “No.”

Chambers: “Now if somebody actually does disarm a police officer, do you think that’s a very serious offense?”

Coash: “I do.”

Chambers: “Do you think it’s serious enough to warrant 20 years in prison?”

Coash: “Well,… Senator Chambers…”

Chambers: “I’m asking your opinion, since you brought the bill.”

Coash: “It could in some cases…”

Chambers: “When you disarm a cop, is there such a difference that it could be one year or 20 years, or is that too wide?”

Coash: “I don’t think it’s too wide.”

Chambers: “There’s nothing in the bill about aggravating circumstances.”

Coash: “No.”

Chambers: “So one year, that would be just, in your opinion?  Or 20 years would be just in your opinion, or didn’t you think about these things?”

Coash: “Didn’t think about that, Senator.”

Chambers: “Is there anything in this language that says a person must know that person is a peace officer?”

Coash: “There’s no language that would indicate that the defendant had to know…”

Chambers: “Plainclothes cops, they dress in a scruffy manner, they approach you without saying, ‘I’m a cop,’ he pulls a gun, I disarm him. I’ve committed a felony, haven’t I?”

Coash: “Yes.”

Chambers: “Do you think that’s just? Or don’t you know how the law is enforced in North Omaha? Or does it make you any difference?”

Coash: no answer. (By now Coash is slumped down in his chair, looking for a place to hide under the table.)

Chambers: “Does this bill look as reasonable now to you as when the attorney general foisted it on you?”

Coash: “It looks different…”

Chambers: “How do I know one scruffy white guy from another? Or should I presume every scruffy white guy who pulls a gun on me is a cop? Or should I just let him have his way with me for fear of committing a felony? Is that just in your mind?”

Coash: “No.”

Chambers: “Senator Coash, would you vote for this bill the way it is written now?”

Coash: “I’m gonna defer on that, Senator Chambers. I still believe there is a need for a separate offense…”

Chambers: “Senator Coash when I speak, is it unclear what I’m asking, in other words, don’t I speak English?”

Coash: “Yes, you do.”

Chambers: “Okay, so here’s the question: You brought this bill, and when you brought it, you thought it was reasonable, you thought it was necessary, and that is what led you to bring it. In view of our discussion, the bill that you brought, in the form that you brought it, would you vote for it today?”

Coash: “Senator Chambers, I’m not prepared to answer that question, because I’d like a little more time to…”

“Not prepared” is not a good thing when you are being cross-examined by a master statesman who has waited four long years for payback.

Stand back and be amazed. The Master of the Lege is holding court once again.


Who Stole my Wussie Senator?

Last week, when Senator Norm Wallman introduced his bill to expand summer food programs for hungry Nebraska children, senators spent hours on the floor of the Lege griping and complaining about big government, irresponsible parents, and handouts to the undeserving. (See: The Hunger Games) The bill barely squeaked by the first round of debate and looked to be a long-shot to pass.

Today in the Lege, it took exactly two minutes and eighteen seconds to send LB1090 to final reading on a voice vote. No complaints. No gripes. No opposition to the bill at all.

It was as if the whiny, wussie senators of last week disappeared over the weekend and were replaced by lookalikes from Oz who recently obtained brains, a heart, and a little bit of courage.

Whatever the reason for the change in senatorial attitude (and barring a last-minute veto from the Governor which is always a possibility) things are now looking much brighter for hungry children in Nebraska.

Meanwhile, the Nebraska National Guard has been deployed to Nevada to search for certain missing wussie Nebraska senators who are rumored to have been last seen somewhere in Area 51.

The Hunger Games

On any given day, 90,000 Nebraska children do not receive enough food to nourish their bodies and their minds. They go to bed hungry. They wake up hungry. They go to school hungry.

Many of Nebraska’s hungry children live in rural areas of the state. Our rural counties of Loup, Arthur, Blaine, Grant and McPherson are among the most impoverished counties in the United States. They were actually the five most impoverished counties in the entire United States in the 2000 census poverty ratings. They only moved down in the 2010 census poverty ratings because the recession sucked other counties dry when masses of people across the country lost their jobs. Our counties didn’t get better. Other counties got worse.

Remember Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind desperately digging for and eating a turnip out of the scorched earth because she was starving? Think about a five-year-old doing the same thing in Hyannis, Nebraska. Only the five-year-old is not a fictional character in a movie. She is real.

Our schools do a great job of providing impoverished children with healthy meals twice a day during the school year. Sometimes these meals are all the kids will get for the day. Sometimes kids sneak food home from school in their pockets to feed their siblings.

But summers can be brutal for kids who don’t have enough to eat. No school means no breakfast or lunch or cookies to sneak home for a little brother.

The US Department of Agriculture has a fine summer food program that both feeds hungry children and supports the local economy. The Summer Food Service Program is entirely funded by federal dollars that are used by local service providers to purchase food from local farmers and grocers to feed local children a healthy meal in the summertime. It’s a fine program. It is also greatly underused in Nebraska, with the main barrier being lack of expensive health-department-approved equipment like walk-in coolers or refrigerated transport.

So Senator Norm Wallman had a great idea. Senator Wallman introduced LB1090, a bill that will spread the word about the Summer Food Service Program and will award one-time grants to local service providers so they can purchase that expensive equipment so they can feed more hungry kids.

Senator Wallman is the sweetest, kindest state senator you will ever meet. He sports an old-fashioned droopy gray mustache that gives him a close Mark Twain look. When he gets up to speak, he always starts out asking himself a rhetorical question and then answering it, sort of like this:

“Corn. Is corn better on the cob or off? I don’t know. But that’s what we’re talking about today. Corn.”

Senator Wallman is an absolute sweetie, and he has a giant soft spot for kids, so he introduced this smart bill that only costs $140,000, but will actually generate about $2 million … that is two million dollars… in federal funds that will go into Nebraska’s local coffers with the expansion of the Summer Food Service Program.

What’s not to love?

Oh, let me tell you: Some senators blamed “lazy irresponsible parents” for not feeding their kids. Some senators said the government can’t do everything for everybody any more. Some senators hearkened back to the “good old days,” when churches and neighbors fed the “poor folks.”

Senator Wallman and other senators reminded the obstructive senators that this bill 1) will provide sustenance for children, 2) will infuse $2 million into hard-strapped local economies, and 3) the good old days are done gone and went.

When it came down to voting time, Senator Wallman barely got the 25 votes he needed to move the bill forward. No senators voted against the bill, because no senators wanted to look like the tightwad jerks they are by voting against hungry children. They just took the wussie road and didn’t vote at all.

Like I told you, Senator Wallman is sweet and kind, and you never hear him raise his voice. But Senator Wallman was so angry with the wussie non-voters that he asked for a rollcall vote so the non-voters will have their wussie names on the record forever.

And here they are: Senators Bloomfield, Brasch, Carlson, Christensen, Fischer, Fulton, Hansen, Harms, Lambert, Larson, Louden, McCoy, Schilz, Schumacher, Smith, and Wightman, all sat on their hands in the legislative chambers and refused to vote up or down for kids. Wussies.

I have mentioned more than once that the Lege is officially non-partisan, but that attribute is becoming about as done gone and went as the good old days. Case in point: Senator Wallman is of one particular political party, and all of the senators who did not vote for his fine bill are of the other political party. The Other Political Party stood together in collective wussie opposition to Senator Wallman’s bill, and in so doing played games with children’s lives.

But hey, they’re only kids. And kids can’t vote.

Senator Wallman’s fine bill to feed hungry children still needs to be voted upon again on select file and then once more on final reading before it passes. And then there’s the little thing about the governor signing it, or not, before it becomes law. Did I mention the governor is of the Other Political Party?

Let the games begin.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Senator Deb Fischer is a clever, clever state senator.

Last year Senator Fischer had a personal problem, and she figured out a clever taxpayer-funded way to solve it. The problem was, she did not have a speedy super-highway leading from her cattle-ranch home out in the middle of nowhere to Lincoln, where she regularly holds court as the Queen of Mean. She solved her problem by pushing through a legislative bill that will suck $64 million out of the state’s general funds every year for the next 20 years to build her personal highway to nowhere (along with other nice highways to nowhere for her legislative buddies who helped shove the bill through).

That was pretty clever. The $64 million loss from general funds hurts children, the elderly, the disabled, people who struggle with mental illness, working mothers who depend on daycare to keep their jobs, sick people, poor people… but by cracky, we’re gonna get from here to nowhere in record time, thanks to Queen Fischer.

Senator Fischer has another personal problem: she hates Planned Parenthood in particular and family planning in general. Queen Fischer planned her own parenthood (three boys), but like a lot of Planned Parenthood-haters, she doesn’t want anybody else to plan theirs. She is self-righteously “outraged” that taxpayer dollars help people other than Senator Fischer plan their parenthood.

When Senator Fischer has a problem, she figures out a way to solve it. This week she introduced a clever, clever bill that will cleverly remove funding from the 27 family planning clinics located throughout Nebraska by “prioritizing” public health clinics over Title X (read: family planning) clinics. Cut the funding, close the clinics. Isn’t that clever?

Here’s how things work now: The Nebraska Department of Health distributes about $62 million per year, mostly federal dollars, to public health clinics, Title X clinics, and non-profit health organizations. The money helps provide access for all Nebraskans across the state to a basic level of health care, including preventive care.

Here’s how Queen Fischer’s bill will change things: The Department of Health will be required to prioritize public health clinics for funding and will “select” providers. With all of the money cleverly going to “selected” public health clinics, no money will be left for Title X clinics. Ipso facto, no more planning for s_x in Nebraska!

This is what is known as a “stealth” bill. It looks all innocent at first blush. After all, who can argue with putting a priority on public health? And the thing is only one page long… usually an indicator of a pretty good bill. But this nefarious bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, hiding an underlying, underhanded purpose.

Senator Fischer is very, very clever. And sneaky.

And lest we forget, State Senator Fischer wants to be United States Senator Fischer, where she can hold court as Queen of Mean over a much bigger fiefdom. Her campaign promise is to put a wire hanger in every woman’s closet.

Written in Stone. With a Chisel.

Senator Scott Lautenbaugh has a great idea. I know. I was surprised, too.

Senator Lautenbaugh has the great idea that senators should be allowed to use their laptops in legislative hearing rooms. That way they can look up bills, check wording, read emailed testimony, propose amendments, review comparable laws from other states… do the things we expect them to do, only faster, easier, and hopefully more accurately.

What, you say, they don’t already use laptops and other electronic devices in hearing rooms? Isn’t that a bit… caveman-like?

I hate to break it to you, but we have some really, really caveman-like old farts in the Lege. The old farts are afraid, and I mean really afraid, of technology. Therefore, since they are afraid of it, they don’t want the people who understand it and absolutely love it to use it.

Fear makes a person weird.

Senator Tom Carlson, whom Ernie Chambers fondly calls “Parson Carlson,” said in response to the idea, “I’m paranoid about these things.” “These things” being modern stuff like, you know, indoor plumbing.

Senator Greg Adams is a retired high school government teacher. He still thinks of himself as the teacher, and thinks the other senators (and lobbyists, and the public) are his high school students. He likes to give mini class lectures to them when he is on the microphone on the floor of the Lege.

On this particular day, Teacher Adams admonished the class with: “The old codger in me says,” and here he paused for educational effect, “there is sanctity in the hearing room! What kind of protection do we have to keep committee members from talking to the outside world?”

I don’t know why Teacher Adams wants to insulate the Lege from “the outside world.” It seems to me that’s exactly whom the senators should be communicating with.

Senator Leroy Louden, one of my favorite geezers, said, “I’m somewhat apprehensive about this. After all, you can’t use a laptop while setting (sic) in church on Sunday.”

I’m not sure how singing Bringing in the Sheaves is analogous with lawmaking, but then Leroy is also a senator who thinks voting is a “privilege,” not a right, so consider the source.

Senator John Harms, another old fart, admitted, “I’m old school. I really object to it.”

Several brave, forward-thinking senators stood up to the cavemen and defended Senator Lautenbaugh’s great idea. They pointed out that the longer the Lege waits to embrace technology, the further it will get behind, and the less efficient our government will become.

Senator Ken Haar said, “We need to be treated like adults and use the technology we have to do our job better.”

Senator Haar was alluding to Teacher Adams, who not only forbids state senators to use laptops in his education committee, he also forbids members of the public, sitting in the audience, to use their laptops or other electronic devices. That’s you and me, baby, the taxpayers, being told by a senator, who is our public servant, that we can’t use an iPad to read the bills being discussed in the committee.

Senator Paul Schumaker lamented, “We need to be bold, and we need to have common sense.”

Of course, the appeal to use common sense fell on deaf geezer ears.

Fear trumps common sense any day. Take the TSA for example. Please. Somebody take the TSA and give us our airports back.

Anyway, fear trumps common sense, so Senator Lautenbaugh’s great idea to use common sense and allow the use of laptops and other technology to make our Lege more efficient and modern will not go into the legislative rulebook this year. Senator Lautenbaugh withdrew his great-idea rule change motion.

Cavemen – 1. Common sense – 0.

When the Battle is Won, Do You Go over the Hill and Kill the Wounded?

The last day of the Lege was like the last day at the Alamo. The tiny band of defenders was out-manned and out-gunned and they knew it. They had just lost a days-long and valiantly fought Congressional redistricting battle. Every time they had brought forth a compromise amendment, the elephants in the room voted it down, then threw up their trunks and trumpeted, “We have the votes. We don’t need to negotiate.”

The resulting Congressional redistricting map looks a lot like Pac-Man gobbling up and painting red, literally and figuratively, what was heretofore the tiny blue dot of Douglas and Sarpy Counties. Absent a court challenge, Nebraskans will be stuck with this giant gerrymander for the next ten years.

Passing the redistricting bill was a mere formality because, as the elephants continued to remind everybody, they had the votes. The defenders of the Alamo were out of bullets and out of time. Santa Anna was pounding on the door with a stick of dynamite in one hand and a lighted cigar in the other.

But they could fire one last volley with what little ammunition they had, to send a message to the enemy, and the message was this:

Up yours.

They knew they couldn’t stop the redistricting bill from becoming law. It only takes 25 votes to pass a bill, and there are 34 elephants in the Lege. But it takes 33 votes to pass a bill with an “emergency clause” attached that allows the bill to go into effect immediately. If the Alamo defenders could just win over a couple of elephants, they could at least force a hold on the bill for 90 days.

There were plenty of elephants who were red with embarrassment over the blatant partisan redistricting process of the “nonpartisan” Lege. But embarrassment isn’t enough to budge an elephant. What really got some tusks twisted was the fact that their own personal political districts were chopped up like hamburger, too.

Shaft the blue guys; business as usual. Shaft an elephant; stampede, baby.

So the votes were counted to pass the bill with an emergency clause attached, and it went like this: 31 yes; 15 no.

Two votes short.

There was a giant pregnant pause in the chamber. Nobody had foreseen this little hiccup, and Lege President Rick Sheehy looked a little befuddled, like he didn’t know what to do next.

What he did next, after regaining his composure, was ask for a vote to pass the bill without the emergency clause, and there were plenty of elephant votes to get that task done. But the shockwave of unscripted and unexpected defiance was still bouncing around the Lege.

It was a tiny victory for the defenders. It felt good. And it was very, very brief.

After lunch; after Speaker Flood trunk-twisted the ears of the errant elephants; after he rebuked the entire Lege for messing up his tidy day, saying, “On the last day I like soft landings, and we’re violating that principle today;” after a series of procedural backpedalling votes to retrieve the bill from the Guv, reconsider the first vote, vote again, and vote by gosh this time trunk-to-tail like all trained elephants do; the redistricting bill passed with the emergency clause attached, on a vote of 35 to 11.

And so, the Alamo fell.

Big Brother is Watching… from India

Taxes are high in Nebraska. No surprise here. We pay sales tax, income tax, excise tax, motor fuel tax, and user fees to the Nebraska Department of Revenue. We also pay property tax, wheel tax, local sales tax and local user fees to our local governmental bureaucracies.

Times are tough in Nebraska. No surprise here, either. Families are tightening their belts so much their belly buttons are rubbing up against their spinal columns. People are driving less, dining out less, buying less in general. We’re not poor, mind you. We just don’t have any money.

Since Nebraskans aren’t spending like it’s May 21, the Department of Revenue isn’t getting as much money as the Lege would like it to get so they could spend it on stuff like roads to nowhere (see: Highway Blues). And, since taxes are already high and Nebraskans don’t have any money, the idea of raising taxes to bring in more money is a political non-starter with the Lege and the Guv.

Senator Abbie Cornett, chair of the revenue committee, posed to herself the question: If we can’t raise taxes, and we can’t get those silly taxpayers to spend their last nickel on a shiny new yacht, how do we get more money?

That’s when the vultures began to circle.

Senator Cornett met over the summer with several giant global data mining companies who told her they could find lots of “new” tax money in Nebraska by mining the personal and business information of Nebraskans to find “patterns of behavior” that indicate the person or business is possibly underreporting income, is not paying enough taxes, is not filing tax reports, or is otherwise acting “fraudulently.”

And, the vultures hissed in her ear, it won’t cost the state’s general fund a dime.

The vultures said they can offer their services on a contingency contract, which means they will get a cut of all of the “new” money collected by the state of Nebraska as a result of all of this personal data mining. In case it hasn’t become obvious already, the more Nebraskans they shake down, the more money they make for themselves.

One of the vultures, Teradata Government Systems, is a giant global company in 40 countries, beholden to their shareholders to keep profits high, which translates to: nail a bunch of unsuspecting taxpayers for buckets o’cash so our corporate bosses can vacation in Dubai.

The Missouri Department of Revenue noted, after contracting with the vultures: “Our Teradata Tax Compliance data warehouse has given us the capability to combine data from over 25 internal and external sources to develop a more accurate view of each of our taxpayers.”

I don’t know if that creeps you out, but it creeps me out big time.

Senator Cornett was so in love with the idea of squeezing more money out of Nebraska taxpayers by digging electronically into their personal lives that she introduced LB642 and made it her priority bill. The vultures came to the revenue committee hearing and gave glowing accounts of how much money they have collected for other state governments and how they can do the same for the state of Nebraska, because, as we all know, Nebraska’s populace is full of scofflaws and scoundrels.

The revenue committee was so enamored with the vultures that they voted the bill out of committee unanimously, including the part that exempted the vultures from competitive bidding for their contracts.

When the bill came to the floor for debate, Senator Paul Schumacher and Senator Bill Avery smelled a rat. Or a vulture, as it were.

Senator Avery was particularly concerned about the lack of competitive bidding so he introduced an amendment to strike that portion of the bill. After some debate on why we should allow vultures to swoop into Nebraska without at least holding them to the statutory requirements of other contractors, Senator Avery’s amendment passed.

On select file, Senator Schumacher admonished the other senators, who were playing “Mole! Mole! Mole!” and checking email messages on their smartphones, to pay more attention to this bill. He pointed out that allowing out-of-state giant companies to mine the personal information of Nebraskans is probably not the smartest public policy in the world. And he very kindly and correctly said most Nebraskans are pretty darn honest.

Thank you, Senator Schumacher.

But the senators didn’t listen. They pressed their little green buttons and sent the bill on to final reading, then they got back to the serious business of whacking those little smiley moles.

So when you get that plain brown envelope from the Nebraska Department of Revnue in the mail, you will be relieved to know that not a dime of “old” taxpayer money was spent to pay that guy staring at his computer screen in Mumbai who spent days and nights searching through your personal and business credit card history, cell phone calls, bank statements, online purchases, charitable contributions, and tax records; and then flagged you for an audit.

Makes you want to whack a mole.

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