Paul Fell

“It’s not likely that tolerance will soon break out in Nebraska.” Those words from Charles Kuralt on a Dateline America piece about the Nebraska Interstate 80 Bicentennial Sculpture Project in 1976. Still haunting. Sadly true.

Kuralt was standing in front of Erma’s Desire, a piece that still stands, almost forgotten, at the western edge of the eastbound I-80 rest stop at Grand Island. The project raised eyebrows and controversy since none of the artists were from Nebraska and the artwork was abstract. A series of statewide public hearings were held to discuss the project … and not everybody liked it.

Four decades later we’re still struggling with intolerance in Nebraska. Attorney General Doug Peterson announced that he is joining nine other Republican state attorneys general in asking that the Trump administration reverse its earlier decision to allow so-called DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) youth to retain legal presence in the United States. That would impact more than 3,000 young immigrants in Nebraska.

Until this session, Nebraska lawmakers have consistently supported the DACA youth who were brought to the country when they were babies or young children. Passed over gubernatorial vetoes (one during the Dave Heineman administration and two under the Pete Ricketts administration), lawmakers granted resident college tuition rates, driver’s licenses and professional and commercial licenses.

But, the wheels came off the tolerance wagon this year when state senators narrowly approved a resolution (LR26) opposing any federal action to rescind protections for DACA youth. The resolution was approved on a 24-1 vote with 17 senators present but declining to vote. There were seven senators excused and not voting.

Of those present and not voting, 16 were Republicans and one Democrat, Burk Harr from Omaha. So, when is a senator’s “present and not voting” the same as a “no” vote. It’s often just a safe way to appease both the constituents who elected them and the governor who keeps track.

Peterson admits that he struggles with the issue on a personal level, but his duty is “fidelity to the Constitution” and that the executive branch has exceeded its authority in the matter and must be reined in (my words, not his). The Trump administration has vacillated on the issue thus far.

What if part of Peterson’s position is based on the big R behind his name? Given the votes in the Legislature and the history of vetoes by Republican governors, fighting DACA just seems to be the Republican thing to do. Just as much as voting for the proposals seems to be the Democrat thing to do. Or so we would deduce based on our understanding of the parties.

The post-session action is a fitting end to the 2017 Session of Our Discontent. Never has the nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature been this polarized. Peterson’s action doesn’t do anything to ease the situation.

J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.


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