The cautious optimism undergirding a spirit of cooperation at the Nebraska Legislature crumbled on Thursday as frustrations over policy disputes exploded into open hostilities between lawmakers.
With 40 days remaining in the 90-day session, the period of relative peace that marked the beginning of the 106th Legislature appears to be over.
Sensing the growing discord in the chamber, Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk offered what he described as a scolding to lawmakers.
"Please, do not make it personal. Do not take it personal," he said at the beginning of Day 50 and the last day of debate this week. "The system will run much better if we do neither."
But as legislative business began with the innocuous task of confirming two members to the State Emergency Response Commission, several senators indicated the speaker's warning had come too late.
In a series of impassioned speeches that gobbled up much of Thursday morning's debate, Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne described what he said was a betrayal of trust from several senators earlier this week.
Wayne's proposed constitutional amendment (LR14CA), which would authorize the Legislature to extend Nebraska's tax-increment financing benefits for "extremely blighted" areas in the state, died after opponents ran out the clock.
Other senators, even opponents, promised they would allow a vote on the proposal, he said. But as debate wore on and more and more senators entered the speaking queue, the three-hour time limit on debate ran out and Scheer pulled it from the agenda.
"I could have called the question, but I relied on my colleagues' good faith to talk to me about what was going on and that word was broken," Wayne said.
Wayne said he would have been OK if his bill would have been defeated on a straight up-or-down vote, but the procedural maneuvering that led it to be pulled before a vote was what angered him most. He promised to return the favor to senators sponsoring bills to lower agricultural land valuations, change the school funding formula and other issues.
"That's where I'm at," he said. "You can sleep on it this weekend."
Most of Wayne's comments were directed toward Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who led the fight against the proposed amendment this week. Groene said it wasn't his intention to lead a filibuster, only to discuss his issues with the proposal.
The two senators traded barbs back and forth. Wayne called attention to what he characterized as contradictory positions by Groene. Groene responded he's been burned by Wayne in the past.
Other senators also described an increasingly dysfunctional environment inside the George Norris Legislative Chamber this week.
Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, whose bill (LB169) to remove a ban on food assistance to convicted drug dealers fell short of breaking a filibuster, said this week was a learning experience, albeit a painful one.
"What I learned is who I can't trust, who doesn't work in good faith, who works for the executive branch and not the legislative branch, who's not serving the tens of thousands of people who elected them," Hunt said. "I learned who can be bullied, who doesn't have courage and allows themselves to be taken advantage of when it mattered."
Hunt said she believed she had more than enough votes to see her bill advance into the second round, but senators called into question posts she made on social media singling out other lawmakers.
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The freshman lawmaker said she did not post anything online she would not say in the Chamber.
And Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, also of Omaha, who asked opponents of Hunt's bill one by one if they felt people deserved to eat, said she was told "your word is all you have" in the Legislature.
"And if you change your mind about a vote, you tell the person you committed to you changed your mind," she said. "That didn't happen yesterday, and it's sowing seeds of distrust in this body."
At the beginning of the 105th Legislature, Cavanaugh said the state watched lawmakers fight over the rules, which led to a toxic environment that made it difficult to create working relationships built upon trust.
"I really had a great deal of hope, and it obviously was misguided, that we could do better this time," she said.
Still others leveled criticism toward Hunt, Cavanaugh and others for what Sen. Julie Slama of Peru described as a refusal to "act like adults and conduct the lawmaking of this state."
Slama said senators should be focused on the remaining 40 days in the long session, and not standing up "to scold members of this body, to grandstand about their feelings and just spread falsehoods about what they think happened during a vote yesterday."
Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair told the body "the floor of the Senate is not a sounding board to express our feelings about everything that happens on every one of our bills," adding senators on both sides of the political spectrum were at fault.
"I understand we have hurt feelings, but I don't think that should be heard on the senate floor," he said. "That's what we have health care professionals for, our spouse, our dog. Go home and vent your feelings to them."
After more than two hours, the Legislature confirmed Emergency Response Commission appointees Richard Grauerholz and Tim Hofbauer.
Wayne once again pledged to continue taking every bill to the three-hour time limit, forcing supporters to break a filibuster.
Sen. Ernie Chambers, known for drawing out debates to "punish" other lawmakers, said he was proud of his junior partner from North Omaha for taking up the cause of their community, and warned him of accepting a truce from any of the senators he spoke against on Thursday.
Chambers told the folk tale of the "Scorpion and the Frog," in which a scorpion convinces a frog to carry it across a river despite the fears the scorpion would sting the frog. When the two near the opposite bank, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, and both begin to drown.
"Why did you sting me?" the frog asks.
"I couldn't help it," the scorpion replies, "it's in my nature."
Chambers said he's learned that lesson in his 44 years in the Legislature, and that this week, the final week before lawmakers move to all-day debates, taught others that lesson, too.
"I know what these people are and what these people do," he said. "They look you in the eye and lie."