Proposed deal fails to end filibuster fight; pension changes discussed

Omaha Police Officers Association President John Wells and Omaha Professional Fire Fighters Association President Steve LeClair oppose pension changes (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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February 7, 2017 - 5:08pm

For a brief while Tuesday, it looked like the Nebraska Legislature might escape the paralysis that’s afflicted it so far this year. But then it turned out nothing had been resolved. Meanwhile, a fight is taking place over public employee pensions.


So far this legislative session, which was expected to be dominated by questions of the state budget and taxes, has been highlighted by two other things: The resignation of former Sen. Bill Kintner over allegations of insensitivity to sexual assault, and a fight over whether to make it easier to defeat a filibuster under the rules.

For a brief time Tuesday, it looked like those two issues might be brought together in a solution.

The question came up as a committee was meeting to decide who would be named to replace Kintner on the Appropriations Committee, which shapes the state budget. When Gov. Pete Ricketts announced his selection to replace Kintner, Sen. Robert Clements, he said Clements experience as a banker and actuary would be helpful in working on the budget. But by tradition, two other senators Suzanne Geist and Carol Blood, were ahead of Clements by virtue of a month’s worth of seniority.

Sen. Paul Schumacher suggested a deal: put Clements on the Appropriations Committee, in exchange for dropping any further attempts to change the rules. The Committee on Committees, which names senators to committees, then voted unanimously for Clements.

Later in legislative debate, Schumacher pointed to the windows, and suggested the weather inside and outside the Legislature could be changing. "Perhaps through those clouds, there’s daylight," he said. "Peace has been offered. It is now up to the final step for peace to be accepted, and this insane rules debate, trying to fight with the tradition of several decades, set aside, and this body move forward."

Sen. Tyson Larson, who has been pushing to change the rules to make it easier for the majority to cut off a filibuster, sounded conciliatory. "I will reach farther. I will extend that olive branch, ‘cause I too would like this to end. So, if we want to show the mutual trust, then let’s go through this together," Larson said.

But the "olive branch" Larson offered was essentially a variation on his previous proposals. That led Sen. Burke Harr to make an unflattering comparison. "I feel like (he’s) a schoolyard bully who says ‘I want to take a dollar. You gotta give me a dollar.’ And then says ‘Let’s come to the middle. I’ll only take 50 cents.’ You’re still taking something from me that you didn’t have yesterday. That’s not coming to the middle," Harr said.

Larson’s attempt to change his proposal was defeated, 23-22. But he did not drop his overall proposal to change the rules. Speaker Jim Scheer voted against Larson’s amendment. But Scheer said its defeat was not a sign Schumacher’s proposed deal had been accepted. "I think that was a hope, perhaps by Sen. Schumacher and Sen. (Adam) Morfeld, but as far as I know, that really didn’t have much support," Scheer said.

Scheer said if rules aren’t adopted, that could derail legislation designed to help the state. "At some point in time, everybody’s got to come to the realization -- unless we just want to pass a budget we’d better start trying to get along a little bit and facilitate some bills being passed. But to get to that we’re going to have to agree to the rules," Scheer said.

And the speaker expressed optimism that agreement was approaching. "I think we’re getting probably closer to the end than the beginning" of the rules fight, he said.

Although Larson and Sen. Ernie Chambers threatened to keep lawmakers in session until midnight fighting about rules, in the end senators voted without dissent to keep the temporary rules in place for up to one more week.

Meanwhile, police and firefighter union members showed up at the Capitol to oppose a change in their pension plans that would be required by legislation introduced by Sen. Mark Kolterman. The bill would require new hires be covered by so-called cash balance plans, which pay benefits based on contributions and market returns, rather than defined benefit plans, which promise certain benefits.

Omaha firefighters union President Steve LeClair said Kolterman and his supporters are seeking unnecessary changes. "In their mind, defined benefit pension systems are a thing of the past. And they’re not. Defined benefit pension systems are still the best bang for the buck when it comes to retirement benefits for employees," LeClair said.

Kolterman said the Omaha police union plan is underfunded by $600 million, and switching from defined benefit to a cash balance plan would address that. "It’s probably not as good as the current plan. In fact, it is not as good as the current plan. But at the same time, it’s a lot better than what most private sector employees have," Kolterman said.

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