Nebraska’s longest-serving lawmaker commandeers session
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A 78-year-old state senator is attempting to run out the clock on Nebraska’s legislative session with a filibuster in which he has described getting a colonoscopy and quizzed a colleague about the best way to pour a beer.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, the state’s longest-serving lawmaker, has spent the last two days burning time in this year’s session, with major issues still unresolved. He says the filibuster is punishment for colleagues whose votes he vigorously opposed.
“I’m having so much fun, it should be a sin,” Chambers said.
The left-leaning independent chastised his fellow senators on Wednesday for rejecting a bill to legalize medical marijuana the night before, saying their decision will hurt suffering children. He said he’s also upset that lawmakers advanced a Republican-backed measure Tuesday to reinstate the winner-take-all system in presidential elections.
Because Nebraska’s Legislature lacks formal party leadership, other senators have little choice but to listen silently as Chambers dominates the floor debate, consuming hours at a time and interrogating other senators. Chambers has served in the Legislature since 1970, except for a four-year stint when he was briefly forced out of office because of term limits, and he’s well-known for his encyclopedic knowledge of procedural rules.
Unlike some legislative chambers that require a lawmaker to keep talking in order to retain the time, Nebraska’s rules are looser. Chambers has been able to take breaks, and some other senators have gotten involved in the debate even as he controlled the clock.
Some senators said they doubt Chambers will stop his filibusters until the session ends on April 20.
“It’s frustrating,” said Sen. David Schnoor, a Republican from Scribner. “Things are going to get done, just not as timely as we’d like.”
Chambers doubled down on his filibuster on Wednesday, dragging the Legislature to a near standstill as they tried to debate a property tax plan championed by Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. Lawmakers have less than five working days left before the session ends and are close to passing several major bills, including a roads-funding initiative and a proposal to raise the fee ceiling for hunting and fishing permits.
“I have amendments for every single bill on the agenda,” Chambers said. “I’m not going to relent. I’m not going to back off. I’m going to carry it through.”
Nebraska lawmakers have faced an unusually large number of filibusters this year. Some were mounted by conservative senators who opposed efforts to expand Medicaid and pass anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The threat of a filibuster prompted another senator to pull a bill that would have protected state funding for faith-based child placement agencies that refuse to work with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender foster parents.
The session has been so gridlocked that one lawmaker filed a motion Tuesday to end the session early. Lawmakers rejected the idea, but Sen. Laura Ebke said her filing was “semi-serious” and she may try it again.
“I had no illusions that it was going to pass, but I wanted us to think about what we’re doing here,” said Ebke, a Republican from Crete.
Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley said he empathized with his frustrated colleague but urged them to continue working on property tax and education measures that have yet to pass.
“The rest of the bills, I don’t care about,” he said.