Senators still stuck on "robo-calls"

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January 19, 2012 - 6:00pm

Senators spent their fourth day this week debating an easing of regulations on political "robocalls," arguing whether that would unleash a string of dirty tricks, or not do much at all.

Robocalls are recorded, automatically-dialed calls about candidates or issues that many people find about as welcome as nails on a chalkboard. But they're also free speech, protected by the First Amendment. The state can't regulate what they say, but it can regulate things like the hours they can be made.

What senators are debating is a bill to simplify the regulations. Right now the Public Service Commission requires callers to register their automatic dialing devices and provide a script of the calls, while the Accountabilty and Disclosure Commission requires callers to identify who's paying and specifies the calls can't come after 9 p.m. or before 8 a.m.

Omaha Sen. John Nelson wants to do away with the Public Service Commission's role, saying its burdensome to require political groups to deal with two agencies.

Opponents like Omaha Sen. Heath Mello say only the PSC has the clout to police companies that make such phone calls. Mello says turning responsibility over to the Accountability and Disclosure Commission would open a loophole for groups that claim they are merely educating voters, not advocating.

Nelson said that loophole already exists. Mello denied that, saying "Anyone who uses an automated dialer whether it's for education purposes, nonadvocacy or political, all have to follow the same process." Nelson responded "The problem is, Sen. Mello, they don't follow it. They don't register."

Under the Accountability Commission statutes, even if a group making calls didn't ignore the law, it wouldn't have to report if it spends less than $5,000. But Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher suggested that with technology allowing someone in China to use the Internet to make automated phone calls, regulation is futile.

" As a practical matter, are we doing anything with any of these laws?" he asked Nelson, who responed "So far as I know, we are not."

"So why have we spent four days on this?" asked Schumacher.

Despite that, senators ran out the clock without reaching a first round vote on the bill. When they resume Monday, they will quickly reach the unofficial 8 hours of cumulative debate time after which there can be a motion to cut off debate and vote. But it's not clear whether there is the 2/3 majority needed for such a move to succeed.

In other news Friday, the Foster Care Review Board accepted the resignation of longtime executive director Carol Stitt. Board chairwoman Georgie Scurfield said there were concerns about Stitt's management.

Former Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey said he thinks Stitt's criticism of child welfare privatization under Gov. Dave Heineman had caused Heineman appointees including Scurfield to want to get rid of her.

Scurfield denied that, saying the board had unanimously called for audits of the way the Department of Health and Human Services was handling child welfare reform.

Under an agreement, Stitt will remain as a consultant until May, while former Voices for Children Director Kathy Bigsby Moore is expected to step in as interim director.




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