Nebraska legislative briefing day takes on tough topics
More than 200 people gathered Feb. 13 to learn more about legislation and difficult topics that are being addressed by the Nebraska Legislature.
The annual Ecumenical Legislative Briefing Day at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln provided attendees with the opportunity to explore such weighty topics as the death penalty, human trafficking, climate justice and the widening poverty gap. Organizers said the key takeaway from the event is that everyday residents can make a real impact on the laws that are passed within their state.
“It always surprises me how many people think they can’t contact their senators,” said Ruby Thelander, who has helped lead the annual day of workshops and discussion nearly every year since its inception in 1975. “People can help make changes, but we can’t do that unless we pay attention to what is really in the bills.”
With topics ranging from the future of education in the state to immigration issues to topics of vital concern to senior citizens, participants could select three workshops to attend, all organized to help attendees better understand issues surrounding the topic and how they can get involved in the political process, regardless of the stances they take on the issues.
Though the participants were comprised heavily of United Methodists, attendees also included Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans, among others.
The Rev. Richard Randolph, lead pastor at Christ UMC, set the tone for the day with a sermon during opening worship that included his call story – from a teenager who questioned his faith to a college student who explored other philosophies to an adult with a passion for addressing hunger issues. In fact, in the 1980s, he helped found the African Family Relief Task Force and the Americans Against World Hunger political action committee, he said.
He said he “came to see if there really was going to be an end to hunger in the world, there had to be a base for it. The only organization that could do so was the Christian church.”
He said that realization led him to pursue ordination and the entrance into prophetic ministry.
Randolph noted call stories from the Bible, including Isaiah’s story, a man who Scripture tells us felt inadequate and unclean. God decided to use him to reach the people of Israel anyway.
“It wasn’t up to Isaiah and his personal power,” Randolph said. “Instead, he needed to give up himself to allow God to use him as a prophet.”
Randolph urged everyone in attendance to keep an open mind as they listened to presentations to see where they could help in providing justice.
“I believe everyone in this sanctuary has been called to be a prophet,” he said. “Maybe you are a role model for others in your community of faith to answer God’s call to prophetic witness.”
One heated debate will not be decided until November, when Nebraska voters will decide whether to keep in place a repeal of the death penalty or whether to reinstitute capital punishment. Sentiment on the issue was clear during a breakout session.
“One thing I’ve come to understand is I believe capital punishment is a sin against the Holy Spirit,” said the Rev. Lauren Ekdahl, a retired pastor who now lives in Scottsbluff. “It robs the Holy Spirit of the opportunity to transform a person and bring them to faith in Jesus Christ.”
Ekdahl shared his criticism of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who reportedly has helped fund a petition drive to bring the death penalty to a vote. The Nebraska Legislature voted in May to abolish capital punishment in the state. Ricketts vetoed the bill, but senators voted to override Ricketts’ action. A ballot initiative then was started to bring the issue to a vote of the people.
Ekdahl said he was disappointed in the governor’s actions, particularly given the way Ricketts had worked with him on anti-gambling issues in the past. Ekdahl provided the prayer at Ricketts’ inauguration.
“He thanked me for it. I just wish he would have actually listened to the prayer,” Ekdahl said.
He pointed out news reports that Ricketts and others at the state level had been trying to secure the three-drug cocktail necessary to carry out lethal injection. One of the drugs, sodium thiopental, is not manufactured in the United States and, therefore, must be imported from overseas. Ricketts reportedly told the Omaha World-Herald that the state was trying to import the drug from India as recently as October, which would be a violation of laws enforced by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“I think the person who ordered the drug or who ordered the ordering of the drug should be arrested for drug trafficking,” Ekdahl said. “Any regular citizen would face that kind of penalty.”
The Rev. Stephen Griffith, executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the governor was trying to secure 300 doses of the drug despite the state having just 10 people on “death row.”
Griffith provided a history of the issue in the state. He said the Legislature attempted to end capital punishment in 1979, but then-Gov. Charles Thone vetoed the bill. Griffith said that action from 37 years ago shows the desire to eliminate the death penalty has permeated the state for quite some time.
“This is not something the Legislature did willy nilly,” he said. “They studied it for years. They listened to their constituents and came to the conclusion that the death penalty is broken and can’t be fixed.”
Griffith said a key part of the November election will be the language on the ballot itself. He said the language could be misleading to many people because a vote to “retain” in this case means to retain the Legislature’s action to abolish the death penalty. A vote to repeal would be to reinstate the death penalty.
An organizing workshop for the election is scheduled for March 19 at First United Methodist Church in Lincoln. Details of the event will be coming shortly. Watch the Great Plains Conference’s weekly GPconnect email newsletter for more details as they become available.
An alarming number of people still think human trafficking is something that happens elsewhere, and not in Nebraska, said Anne Boatright, a forensic nurse who also serves as coordinator of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) team. She is based at Methodist Hospital in Omaha.
Boatright said human trafficking is the second-fastest growing criminal activity in the nation. It is a $150 billion industry. She then gave more sobering statistics, such as the average age of youth entering prostitution is age 12 to 14, and three of four runaways are approached about entering the sex trade within 72 hours of leaving home.
Boatright said one key is to figure out which services people attempt to solicit while in the role of being what amounts to sex slaves. She quoted a Beazley Institute for Health Law study that showed 87.8 percent of people in the sex trade sought out health care.
“We’re seeing them more often than law enforcement,” Boatright said. “So we have to figure out how to identify these people better.”
She said the children most at risk come from situations in which the child was either in state custody or ran away from home, came from a family with a history of sex abuse or who have parents struggling with addiction.
And the dangers no longer lurk on street corners, but in advertisements easily found online, particularly on the websites backpage.com and Craig’s List.
“Now it’s online ads disguised as ads for escort services,” Boatright said.
She said the task for Nebraska is to study the three “R’s”:
Realize a problem exists in Nebraska.
Recognize basic signs that there is human trafficking going on.
Respond appropriately to the crime.
Education is a key to all three R’s.
“I’m not defending the customers of this crime,” Boatright said. “But I think most of them are thinking they are buying a sex act and not that they’re buying a 14-year-old girl.”
Carol Windrum, former Micah Corp director for the Great Plains Conference, led a full room of participants in a discussion about three bills being considered by the Nebraska Legislature that could help close the poverty gap or protect people with lower incomes.
One bill, LB1089, would raise the minimum wage for employees who receives tips as part of their compensation. Windrum explained that a federal 1966 law set a formula that said tipped employees must earn at least 50 percent of the minimum wage. That law changed in 1991, meaning tipped employees only have to be paid about $2.15 per hour.
“Such a low wage makes it much more likely that these workers will be living on public assistance,” Windrum said.
The bill under consideration this year in Nebraska would restore the former formula, meaning tipped workers would earn a minimum of $4.50 per hour, plus tips.
Another bill, LB 1036, would reform payday lending laws. Windrum said as of now, these companies can charge as much as 461 percent interest on loans, often using vehicles or other larger assets as collateral.
“These loans aren’t so bad if you can pay it back within a few days or a week,” Windrum said. “for those who can’t, it traps families in a cycle of debt.”
The bill under consideration would set a limit on loan payments being 5 percent of a person’s gross monthly income, would limit interest to 36 percent per year, would set a maximum loan amount at $500 and would spread out costs evenly over the life of the loan, with the principal being factored into those payments as part of the terms.
The farthest-reaching of the bills discussed during the breakout session involves health care expansion in the state. LB 1032 would expand the Transitional Health Insurance Program (THIP). Windrum said Nebraska currently has more than 77,000 people without health insurance. They tend to be families that make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but earn too little money to be able to purchase private health insurance.
Windrum said the Legislature, if it passes the bill, would be able to provide more affordable health coverage for the uninsured and would bring back to the state federal dollars already allocated but that won’t be accessible without an expansion of the state’s health care payment system. She said the bill also would promote personal responsibility because expansion would require customers to pay a nominal premium each month and would require a $50 co-pay for emergency room visits if the patient goes to the ER for a non-emergency situation, often the means for the uninsured to seek out health care because they cannot be turned away from hospitals.
“Missions committees or Outreach committees could play a big role in helping educate people in our churches and in helping make important changes in Nebraska,” Windrum said.
Contact Todd Seifert, conference director of communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org.