Proposed LGBT job discrimination ban falls short in Nebraska Legislature after 3-hour debate

Proposed LGBT job discrimination ban falls short in Nebraska Legislature after 3-hour debate
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — The latest attempt to ban job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in Nebraska hit a dead end Tuesday.

But State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who introduced Legislative Bill 627, took hope from strength of support for the bill and the “strong, loving” voices raised during debate.

“We’re closer than we were two years ago,” she said. “The LGBT community should feel heartened by this.”

LB 627 stalled after backers fell short on an attempt to force a vote on the measure after nearly three hours of debate.

The failure of that effort means that, under a policy of Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer, the bill was pulled from the legislative agenda. Backers would have to find 33 votes for the bill to be brought back.

Pansing Brooks said she had “close to” the 25 votes needed to advance the bill. But she said she does not have the 33 votes for a filibuster-ending cloture motion.

It was unclear how much support the bill could have gotten. The procedural motion that would have led to a vote on the measure failed with 26 senators voting against it, 16 voting for it, two abstaining and five absent.

LB 627 would have given lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers the same protection against job discrimination that current law provides for people based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, marital status and national origin.

The bill is similar to Omaha’s anti-discrimination ordinance and to legislation debated four times over the past five years.

Supporters argued that the bill would help Nebraska attract and retain much-needed workers, while carrying out the state’s motto: Equality Before the Law.

For some the argument was deeply personal. Along with Pansing Brooks, who has a gay son, the Legislature this year includes the state’s first openly LGBT lawmaker, Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha.

Hunt said she knows many young people who have left Nebraska because they believe the state doesn’t treat people equally.

“This is something that has real consequences for people,” she said.

Another new lawmaker, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, a Catholic, expressed disappointment that the Nebraska Catholic Conference was working against the bill.

“History will not look kindly on you,” she told opponents. “There is no room for hate in this state.”

Most opponents of LB 627 began their speeches with an assertion that all people should be treated with dignity and respect. But they argued the bill was unnecessary and would limit employers’ ability to exercise deeply held beliefs.

Among them, Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil read an email from a constituent who raised concerns that the proposal would promote intolerance of people with traditional beliefs and religion.

He also said he knows of some young people moving back to Nebraska because of the state’s conservative values.

Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair questioned the claims that the lack of job protection for sexual orientation and gender identity caused many people to leave Nebraska. He said businesses have an interest in hiring the best workers.

Another opponent, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, said laws protecting certain classes of people should offend those people and engender prejudice among those outside those classes.

Grieving Omaha family asks lawmakers for better safety measures for road construction

LINCOLN — The grieving family of a City of Omaha public works employee killed in a work site accident in 2017 are asking state lawmakers to force the city to update its safety standards.

At a public hearing on Tuesday, family members and friends of Salvatore “Sammy” Fidone testified in favor of a bill that would require Omaha to review and update its safety standards for road construction every year.

Right now, they said, the city relies on federal standards that haven’t been updated since 1999, as well as a 13-page addendum adopted after Fidone was struck and killed.

“This bill could potentially save lives,” said Sara Porter, a friend of Fidone’s. “And make a dangerous job a little safer.”

Legislative Bill 520 was introduced by State Sen. Mike McDonnell, who said that the 13-page addendum was inadequate and that the city should be required to update its safety standards every year to keep up with changing traffic patterns and safety measures.

“In my experience on the (Omaha) Fire Department, 13 pages is not sufficient for standard operating procedures,” said McDonnell, a former chief of the department and president of the firefighters union.

Fidone, 48, who was survived by a wife and two sons, was working on a two-truck crew to fill potholes on Jan. 23, 2017. He was standing on the driver’s side of his city truck on 144th Street near U Street when he was struck by a car. He died later at the hospital. The driver, who investigators said was not speeding, texting or impaired, was sentenced to 14 days in jail and two years’ probation on a misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide charge.

Those testifying in favor of LB 520 said that the “mobile” work site on which Fidone was working met the minimum standards as outlined in the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices but that the city should do more. Porter and Tony Burkhalter, president of the city employees union, said the addition of a third city truck, with a lighted arrow directing traffic around the work site, might have prevented the accident.

Austin Rowser, a street maintenance engineer for the City of Omaha, also testified for the bill.

The Urban Affairs Committee took no action on LB 520 after the public hearing Tuesday.

Two senators on the committee, John Lowe of Kearney and Justin Wayne of Omaha, questioned the need for a state law when the city, through an ordinance, could accomplish the same thing. Porter and others said a state law would ensure that that would happen.

Senator says Nebraska needs to be more ‘food-truck friendly’

LINCOLN — An Omaha senator wants Nebraska to be more “food-truck friendly.”

State Sen. Tony Vargas joined some food-truck operators on Tuesday in telling a state legislative committee that the growing food-truck industry is hampered by a “patchwork” of city-by-city rules and sometimes high fees.

For instance, it costs $100 a year to license a food truck in Omaha ($200 if operating in downtown Omaha), $300 in Bellevue, $275 in Papillion and $175 in La Vista.

Under Vargas’ Legislative Bill 732, trucks would be required to obtain a state license for $75 and pay no more than $40 for a health inspection. Cities and counties would be barred from adopting more restrictive regulations, under the proposal, which the senator said would encourage entrepreneurs.

“This allows Nebraska to prove it’s a food-truck friendly state,” said Vargas, during a public hearing Tuesday before the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee.

Food truck owners said it’s sometimes difficult to discern the different regulations in different communities facing their mobile eateries. Tom LeBlanc, who operates a Cajun and barbecue truck, said it’s getting more and more expensive to operate due to licensing fees and health inspection costs.

But officials with the state restaurant association and the City of Omaha testified against LB 732. They said that local communities need the power to regulate food trucks as they see fit.

The city’s lobbyist, Jack Cheloha, said that Omaha reached a compromise with food truck owners so they didn’t park right in front of existing brick-and-mortar restaurants. They are also required to collect the city restaurant tax, like regular eateries.

The Agriculture Committee took no action on the proposal Tuesday.

Hastings Sen. Steve Halloran, who chairs the committee, said LB 732 will require some amendments before he could support it, including allowing local communities to continue to enact local regulations.