Motorcycle helmet repeal debated; Governor's budget increase discussed

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March 19, 2015 - 5:49pm


Nebraska lawmakers debated freedom of choice versus the social costs of repealing the state’s motorcycle helmet law, and Gov. Pete Ricketts’ chief of staff talked about the increase in the governor’s office budget in the Legislature Thursday.

The Legislature passed a law requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets in 1988, and there have been 14 attempts to repeal or soften it since then. This year’s attempt is sponsored by Sen. Dave Bloomfield. Opening debate on his bill, Bloomfield said riders should be free to decide whether or not to wear a helmet."

I think it is time that we give these free men and women back their right to decide whether or not wearing a helmet is something they want to do. We’re not talking about children here. We are discussing mature, thinking adults," Bloomfield said.

"Many of these folks made the decision when they were younger to serve our nation in the military, putting them in harm’s way to protect and defend our rights. Now we’re telling them that they do not have sense enough to decide whether or not to wear a protective device and that we, the state, know better than they do, and we must protect them from themselves," he continued.

Opposing the bill, Sen. Kathy Campbell argued it’s not just a matter of personal choice. "This is a societal issue. This is an issue that we as a Legislature need to take very seriously, and be thoughtful as we listen to the debate. This is not just about choice, but it is also about the health of Nebraskans, and the tremendous cost of what may happen in a motorcycle accident," she said.

Sen. Kate Bolz picked up the cost theme. "Motorcycle accidents have a high probability of resulting in traumatic brain injury. And colleagues, traumatic brain injuries have a significant cost to our state budget. Not only do they have a significant cost to our state budget, as an individual who pays her health insurance privately, out of pocket, I would also argue that such dramatic injuries increase the costs of our insurance as a whole," she said.

Sen. Bill Kintner ridiculed the argument that the helmet law should be kept in order to save on Medicaid and Medicare costs. "We created this big welfare state and people are now saying ‘It’s an economic issue. We have to keep people from hurting themselves. They’ll become vegetables, and the government will pay for it,’" he said. "Well, you create a big government welfare state and now we gotta take away liberties to protect the big welfare state from bleeding us out of even more money. I think that’s circular logic and that’s why we shouldn’t even have the big welfare state that we do."

While opponents cited the costs of caring for people with head injuries, repeal supporters said Nebraska would gain economically from motorcycle tourists passing through on the way to the annual rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. And Sen. Paul Schumacher, referring to depictions of pioneers on the ceiling of the legislative chamber, said people need to be able to take risks. "Look at all the terribly risky behavior there is up there: Riding horses without helmets. Riding in a covered wagon without air bags. Running across the prairie, trying to go 3,000 miles to California to find some gold. Our society, in fact effective societies arise out of the acceptance of risk and the freedom to pursue it," Schumacher said.

But Sen. Robert Hilkemann said sometimes society needs to limit risks to protect itself. "We don’t live in a vacuum. And there are some -- just some things -- that we come across that we really need to protect sometimes society from their own selves. And I would say that’s what it is with the helmet bill," he said.

Hilkemann moved to postpone further debate until the end of the session, which would effectively kill the bill. His motion lost. But if the 21 senators who supported it continue to talk against the bill, that would be enough to sustain a filibuster and kill the bill that way. Late Thursday afternoon, Hilkemann said he would continue to oppose the bill.

Also Thursday afternoon, the Appropriations Committee held a public hearing on the budget Gov. Pete Ricketts proposed for his own office. Ricketts has added two new positions: a chief operating officer and a human resources director. Ricketts’ Chief of Staff Miltenberger said the positions are needed to make state government work better. "Through conversations with members of the Legislature and constituents it became clear to the governor that more needed to be done to assist state agencies with driving operational excellence throughout state government," Miltenberger said. "Felix Davidson, who serves as the COO, and Sharon Pettid in the HR role have both met with every code agency director already, and have started the process of identifying ways that each agency can provide its services more efficiently and effectively."

The two new positions contribute to an overall increase in the governor’s office budget of $359,000 for next fiscal year. That’s a 19 percent increase, compared to an average 4 percent for other state agencies included in the preliminary budget. Miltenberger argued the increase will be worth it. "There’s going to be times when we have to invest money up front to be able to get cost savings long term. That’s really what we’re trying to accomplish here," he told NET News.

The Appropriations Committee has endorsed the new positions in its preliminary budget recommendation. Its final recommendation is due at the end of April, after which the budget will be debated by the Legislature as a whole.



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