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Legislative gridlock extends through a second day with focus on appointee’s social media posts

April 3, 2019

After a long weekend, the Legislature picked up Tuesday — the first day of all-day debate — where it left off last week.

Gridlocked and, according to one state senator, pugnacious.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, who last Thursday used a pair of confirmation hearings to stall the Legislature, once again stretched out an otherwise routine duty for lawmakers in confirming appointments made by Gov. Pete Ricketts to various boards and commissions.

This time, instead of discussing the history of racism in how economic incentives were exclusionary to minority communities, Wayne needled the diligence of some legislative committees in vetting candidates put forward by the governor.

“It’s inconceivable to me that we don’t sit down and have a conversation about somebody ahead of time,” Wayne said, adding he was concerned the Education Committee did not question some social media posts made by an appointee to the Nebraska State College System Board of Trustees.

Ricketts nominated Bob Engles, the former mayor of Auburn and 12-year member of the Auburn Board of Education, to serve another six-year term on the board. Engles, a graduate of Peru State College, was originally appointed to the board by Gov. Dave Heineman in 2011 and re-appointed in 2012.

Wayne said he doesn’t believe Engles is racist, but said the committee failed to ask him questions to ensure the nominee would foster a welcoming and safe environment to all students at Nebraska’s three state colleges.

One of the Facebook posts made by Engles and highlighted by Wayne on Tuesday addressed the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the day after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in 2014.

“Why are there no demonstrations for the carnage taking place between black men against black men in this country,” Engles wrote on Nov. 25, 2014. “Watch the local night newscast from almost any major metropolitan area and there are countless stories of violence from Black vs Black.

“It almost appears this is the norm in the Black communities and accepted as part of the culture,” he added. “Being an insulated, uninformed guy from small town Nebraska, I don’t expect to know all the factors that could play into this equation. So please, someone enlighten me.”

Another discussed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Wayne said, while another asked why Muslim leaders had not condemned an attack made by two Islamic extremists on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical newspaper, in January 2015.

“What sort of religion does not have a spokesperson who speaks for the masses and condemns the slaughter in Paris,” Engles asked. “Even our own president referred to the incident as an act of violence.”

Wayne said the posts raise the question whether Engles “is culturally competent to understand the issues that affect many of the students who go to state college institutions” and faulted Sen. Mike Groene, the chair of the Education Committee, for not conducting a more thorough confirmation hearing.

“Social media posts matter, they matter because they sometimes define how you think and how you feel,” Wayne said. “And if we have anybody come before a committee and we don’t have somebody Googling them? Shame on us.”

Groene accused Wayne of seeking revenge for his opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment (LR14CA) Wayne introduced to expand tax-increment financing benefits in “extremely blighted” areas, a proposal Wayne said would spur economic development in his North Omaha district.

“I see no hate or prejudice,” Groene said, adding the debate about Engles’ social media posts on the floor was beneath the dignity of the Legislature and threatened to jeopardize any future volunteers from putting their names forward to fill vacancies.

Other senators came to Engles’ defense, including Sen. Julie Slama, who represents Auburn, calling Engles a dedicated public servant with a long and distinguished career, and Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, who said he’s known Engles for decades and believes him to be of high character.

As the debate wore on Tuesday morning, Engles again posted to Facebook, and Slama read the post aloud:

“I strongly support the work of the Nebraska State College system at our three campuses in Chadron, Peru, and Wayne, Nebraska. I welcome the opportunity to help promote the educational goals of all students regardless of race, creed, and national origin. All students are welcome in our schools with open arms.”

That spun off another skirmish, this one between Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers and Slama that began just before and concluded immediately after the lunch break, after Chambers decried “a message delivered by a woman.”

Slama said Chambers’ comments, which she rebuked as “blatantly sexist,” were directed at her because she was a “strong conservative woman.”

“In this body, I’m a senator and deserve to be addressed as such,” she said.

Chambers replied he believed Engles should have brought his message to the Legislature himself rather than “hide behind a woman’s skirts.”

Another rift opened up after lunch when Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt passed around a North Platte Bulletin article describing comments made by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon in a town hall meeting in Stapleton.

“One woman is transgender and reminds us of it most every day,” the article summarizes Brewer’s comments. “I have nothing against her sexual preference, but there should be a certain level of professionalism and decorum on the floor. We see children on the floor, which creates another distraction.”

Hunt, who drew rebuke from several conservative senators last week for comments she made on social media critical of Ricketts, said those lawmakers talk of civility in order to shut down those “standing up for the human rights of others,” but fall quiet when uncivil comments come from their side of the political aisle.

She turned and asked Brewer a question: “Do you think I’m trans?”

“I don’t know what you are,” Brewer responded.

Hours after debate began — the Rotunda was largely empty as lobbyists returned to their offices once it became apparent little would be accomplished — Wayne said he never intended to sink Engles’ appointment to the state college board.

Engles was later confirmed on a 28-3 vote, with Chambers, Hunt and Matthew Hansen of Lincoln opposed. Thirteen senators did not cast a vote.

Wayne said his goal, rather, was to draw attention to the legislative process, saying he would use the remaining 39 days of the 90-day session to draw attention to the failed process that allowed senators to sink LR14CA and his goal of bringing economic development to his district.

“There has to be a process and that process includes give and take on both sides,” Wayne said. “Urban vs. rural, Democrats vs. Republican, conservative vs. liberal. Whatever it is, we have to come to an agreement.”

If they can’t come to an agreement, Wayne said, that’s fine: “I’m going to play by the rules you all create.”

All-day debate is to resume Wednesday morning.