Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers slowed the Nebraska Legislature to a crawl Wednesday, staging one of his trademark filibusters to protest a bill letting prison work camp inmates work for nonprofits.
Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial said he introduced the bill at the request of the city of McCook, where the state’s work ethic camp is located. It would allow inmates to work for nonprofit organizations. Supporters say that’s a good way to help people transition to life on the outside. And Christensen proposed to tighten conditions on the proposal. "Simply, the amendment just looks at narrowing the scope of the bill down to the work ethic camps and puts in that it’s voluntary to go out and work for nonprofits, fraternals, and charitable organizations," he said.
As he did when the bill was first debated last week, Chambers objected that inmates would be pressured to provide labor the organizations would not have to pay for. According to Christensen, the inmates are paid $1 to $4 a day, but that money comes from the Department of Corrections budget.
Chambers offered a series of amendments, then used the rules to call for re-votes after they failed, eating up the entire morning’s debating time. During his time speaking, he ranged from scathing attacks on Pope Benedict XVI for sheltering sexually abusive priests, to comparing himself, and a nickname he might deserve, to boxer "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler.
It was the first time the 75-year-old lawmaker had kept the entire day’s debating time on one bill since he returning to the Legislature in January after having been excluded for four years due to term limits. But he warned his colleagues, it would not be the last.
"Any bill that makes it to the floor which treats inmates in a way that I think is unjust, I’m going to do exactly what I’m doing today. I will not get tired, I will not run out of energy," he said. "I told you all I was going to be an example for old folks, didn’t I? and I’m going to be an example for young folks also. Because I believe what I believe. And this chamber belongs to me."
Senators have now debated the bill for nearly three and a half hours without taking a first round vote. Christensen said later he expects Chambers to force senators to meet the informal minimum of eight hours of debate before a cloture motion can be used to cut off debate and force a vote.
Wednesday afternoon, the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on a proposal to allow using money originally intended to combat alcohol problems in Whiteclay elsewhere in the state.
Whiteclay is a town in the Nebraska panhandle, bordering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where many native Americans come to buy and drink alcohol which is illegal on the reservation.
Three years ago, the Legislature appropriated $25,000 which could be used for law enforcement, economic development or health care in the area. Judi gaiaskobos of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs described that amount as like putting a Bandaid on someone who’s bleeding to death. However, not all of it has been spent, and about $7,700 remains.
Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash is proposing to allow it to be spent for other purposes, including education, within 60 miles of any reservation. Scott Shafer of the Indian Affairs Commission supported the bill. "To really change things in Whiteclay is going to be generational change, and that starts with the kids. And our experience shows that is what works with the other reservations we’ve worked with," he said.
Also on Wednesday, the Revenue Committee formally killed Gov. Dave Heineman’s proposal to abolish state income taxes. The governor had proposed making up for the lost revenue by doing away with many sales tax exemptions, but that drew stiff opposition from affected business and farm groups. The Legislature is now working on setting up a special committee to study taxes and report back with suggestions for reforms to be voted on next year.