Committee advances drivers licenses for "Dreamers"; public leadership elections defeated

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April 10, 2015 - 5:15pm

A proposal to allow drivers licenses for Nebraskans brought to this country illegally when they were children is heading to the full Legislature for debate. But another proposal to require disclosure of how officials vote in leadership elections has been sidelined for this year.


Nebraska is the only state that does not allow drivers licenses for so-called "Dreamers" – young people brought to this country illegally when they were children. They themselves are not considered to be legal immigrants. But under an Obama administration initiative called DACA, or "deferred action for childhood arrivals" they are considered to be lawfully present in the United States and are not being deported.

Advocates say that allowing them drivers licenses will enable them to work, support themselves and purchase insurance, improving safety for the driving public. Opponents say driving is a privilege and drivers licenses are a benefit that should not be granted to illegal immigrants.

Friday, those points of view were expressed as the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee met to vote on whether or not to send the bill authorizing drivers’ licenses for Dreamers to the full Legislature for debate. The committee voted 5-2, with one abstention, to advance the bill. It was introduced by Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, a registered Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Unicameral. Omaha Sen. John McCollister, a registered Republican, named a priority, virtually guaranteeing it will be debated before the Legislature adjourns in June.

Following the vote, McCollister said the change would be good for Nebraska. "With Nebraska’s low unemployment rate, we need good workers. And these so-called "Dreamers" are wonderful educated kids, and they’ll be good employees for Nebraska companies," he said.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna argued in committee against advancing the proposal. Murante said the DACA program was created by President Obama, not Congress, and could be undone by the next president. He got the committee to agree to an amendment that would require DACA recipients to return drivers licenses if their status of being legally present was revoked. And he asked the committee to wait for another amendment specifying that the temporary licenses to be granted would have to have to be a different color or have some other marking to distinguish them. But the committee decided not to wait.

Sen. Lydia Brasch, who abstained from voting, said she sees both sides of the issue. Brasch contrasted the "Dreamers" with her own parents, who she said waited in line and arrived as legal immigrants from the Ukraine in the 1950s. "This happens to be children of parents who deliberately decided to -- despite our laws, despite the waiting – came here, and now these children are seeking a privilege -- a benefit -- of driving. It’s wrong, but in it’s also, in a sense, right," she said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a statement Friday afternoon saying he was "incredibly disappointed" in the committee vote. Ricketts said the state has already won a lawsuit on the issue and is on the eve of trial on a second lawsuit. "I remain strongly opposed to extending state benefits to individuals who have entered our country illegally and remain opposed to this legislation," Ricketts said.

The bill has 25 cosponsors, a majority in the 49-member Legislature. It would take 30 votes to overcome a gubernatorial veto. McCollister said he was confident supporters could muster those votes. He was less sure about getting the 33 votes that would be needed to overcome a filibuster, but said supporters would have a better idea about that next week.

Also on Friday, lawmakers turned back yet another attempt to require disclosure of how public officials vote in leadership elections, such as for chairmanships. An attempt to require that via a change in the Legislature’s rules failed earlier this year. Friday’s attempt was in the form of a bill, which would also have applied to governing bodies like city councils throughout the state.

Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion, the bill’s sponsor, said it affected more than who was elected to leadership positions. "People in Nebraska need to know who their elected officials are voting (for) and supporting within any public body. Leadership in public bodies clearly have a large influence on the agenda of any public body. Oftentimes they are critical to success or failure of issues that come before a public body," Kintner said. "I sincerely believe the public will be better served if the light of public scrutiny is shone on all votes of public officials in Nebraska."

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers led the opposition to the bill. Chambers referred to the fact that the Republican Party has previously tried to ensure that only Republicans were elected to chairmanships in the Legislature, a task made more difficult when senators vote by secret ballot. "This goes beyond the efforts of the Republican Party to impose discipline -- to be able to threaten people as some agencies or groups do now by calling people and letting them know ‘We’re watching your vote, we know how you voted on this and on that, and we’ll remember it.’ And that goes on now," Chambers said. "I want the integrity of this body to be maintained intact."

Senators voted 31-15 to postpone further consideration of the bill until the end of the legislative session in June, effectively killing it for this year.

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