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OTHER VOICES: Nebraskans deserve to know how state senators voted

March 9, 2019

Two topics very important to Nebraskans – energy policy and property rights – collided last week in the Legislature.

A bill sought to tackle that intersection head-on by proposing to bar private enterprise from using eminent domain to install transmission lines and other infrastructure. The measure was defeated after garnering just 23 of the 25 votes needed to advance.

The Lincoln Journal Star editorial board is dismayed not that the measure was defeated, but at how it failed to progress despite a 23-8 vote in favor. Of the 45 senators in the chamber, 14 cast a no vote.

Senators’ apparent unwillingness to go on the record for what was undoubtedly a difficult vote still deserves criticism. Though senators aren’t being paid the big bucks, their office in this citizen Legislature entails making tough choices and requires accountability to voters after the fact.

Their great power to set policy and rewrite Nebraska law comes with this great responsibility.

On this particular topic, both sides offer compelling arguments. Wind energy creates jobs and cleaner power, but the people who benefit from this greener source of electricity are rarely those with turbines as neighbors – and forced to allow feeder lines on their property.

Both “aye” and “nay” votes will clearly offend some constituents. But not voting at all on a matter of such importance should be more insulting to Nebraskans.

To be clear: The designation of present, not voting has its merits. For instance, it offers senators a chance to be in the chamber while not weighing on a topic that may involve a conflict of interest.

But the defeat of this bill provides just the latest example of how senators are increasingly using the tactic – effectively, voting no without being recorded as such – to dodge controversial choices.

One particularly galling example came two years ago. Two mild legislative resolutions supporting immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and refugees garnered a simple majority, but neither gained 25 votes; 17 and 14 senators, respectively, were present, not voting.

That silence spoke volumes. More than a quarter of the body refused to express support for the less than 1 percent of Nebraskans trapped in the shadows of a broken federal immigration system.

Property rights and energy policy, meanwhile, affect far more Nebraskans.

We saw the Legislature deeply divided over whether a private enterprise should have the ability to piggyback on a government’s right to use eminent domain for a public use. That division is fine – even healthy – if it advances the public debate to benefit the state, rather than cutting it off at the knees.

Constituents deserve to know where their representatives in the Nebraska Legislature stand and how they voted. Ducking a tough vote by being present, not voting denies them that critical knowledge.