LINCOLN — Nebraska's seven-year-old ban on paying petition workers for each signature they collect could be on its way out.

Lawmakers voted 38-0 Wednesday to advance a bill that would eliminate the ban, with supporters arguing it hinders grassroots efforts to place issues on the ballot.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who sponsored LB367, pointed to a "civil war" between the Legislature and the people of Nebraska, which started 15 years ago, when voters enacted term limits on state senators.

"It’s time for this body to call a truce," Groene said Wednesday.

His measure would need two more rounds of support by the Legislature and the governor's signature to become law.

Groene has been at the center of the issue for years.

He led a 2006 campaign to cap state spending growth, using petition workers paid by signature to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The measure failed, but its opponents lobbied the Legislature to prohibit pay-per-signature petition drives in an effort to keep the issue from resurfacing, he said.

"It has really broken the back of people trying to take part in their government through the petition process," he said.

A handful of senators stood up to support the bill Wednesday. Among them was Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, executive director of the voting rights group Nebraskans for Civic Reform, who asked whether paying petition workers by the signature could motivate them to commit fraud.

Pay-per-signature actually helps prevent fraud because petition organizers would double check signatures for validity before paying workers, Groene said.

Omaha Sen. John Murante pointed to the success of the state's recent minimum wage increase, which was placed on the ballot through petition initiative.

He didn't support the increase, he said, but "that’s the way government should work.”

However, he said the process should be accessible to more than just billionaires and labor unions, poking at the million-dollar minimum wage campaign funded largely by left-leaning Omaha philanthropist Richard Holland.

Expanding the petition process also helps keep lawmakers in line, said Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus.

The ban on pay-per-signature petition drives was "reflective of a government that was afraid of its people," he said.

"A government that fears its people has got a real problem.”

Actually, said Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion, "when the government fears its people, you have liberty.”

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