The morning debate ended in disappointment for the 40 or more Sandhills residents who came to the Capitol on Wednesday to see how a “property rights” bill would fare.
The bill (LB155), introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, would have taken away the ability for a private enterprise to piggyback on a government right to eminent domain. It went down on first reading on a 23-8 vote, with 14 senators present, not voting.
The bill needed 25 votes to advance.
“Next to property taxes, there’s nothing that’s more important to the people in my district than the ongoing adverse effects that industrial wind energy is having on the constituents of my district,” Brewer said.
Private companies, he said, should not have the power normally reserved only for government to use against their neighbors so that they can make money.
If a landowner signs an agreement, for profit, with a wind energy company to allow a wind turbine on his or her land, that doesn’t mean a neighbor should be forced through eminent domain to allow a feeder line to pass through the neighbor’s land, he said.
Brewer, who made the bill his priority, was fuming after the vote. Not about those who voted against the bill necessarily, but about senators who were present but didn’t vote.
“It’s the issue of this body. There’s too many cowards who don’t want to vote,” he said. “If you’re going to vote against it, or sit on your hands, at least stand up and explain why.”
A wave of folks did not want to commit to the bill and have their names attached to their votes. So they did nothing, he said.
It was heart-wrenching for Brewer, he said, to see the Sandhills residents in the balcony, who were there for probably the fifth time on the issue, watch as senators who were elected to represent their districts be unwilling to listen to the debate. And then walk in at the end and not vote, or vote against it.
“It really doesn’t leave a very good taste in their mouth about what this unicameral’s all about,” he said.
Twyla Witt of Thedford said most of the senators against the bill were not knowledgeable about the Sandhills and its issues with wind farms and the R-Project.
Robert Bernt of Spalding, whose family owns Clear Creek Organic Farms, said senators who consider themselves to be pro-environment voted against the bill or did not vote on Wednesday, which is at odds with the environmental cause.
A proposed wind turbine farm and the R-Project, the Nebraska Public Power District’s 345-kilovolt transmission line, would cut across a central flyway of the endangered whooping crane and could cause injuries and deaths among the birds. NPPD decided not to apply for an “incidental take” permit for the endangered cranes, and it is waiting for a permit for the endangered American burying beetle.
Bernt said the Sandhills residents are going to need those senators who care about the environment because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seemingly ignoring the protection of the whooping crane. The senators need to be brought on board, he said.
“The fact that we could wipe out the whooping crane population in the United States, let alone the world, is a very serious issue and they agree with that, they understand that,” he said.
Opponents of the bill, including Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, said LB155 sends a message to the renewable energy industry that Nebraska is not open for business.
“Here we have the third-best renewable energy capability in the country and we would be restricted in some way from developing that energy,” McCollister said.
Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart said that when she goes out to help with cattle branding season in rural parts of the state, most ranchers talk to her about the ability to add this additional source of revenue to their budgets.
She said she ran for the Legislature because of the potential the state has to be a leader in clean energy. As someone who plans on spending the rest of her life in Nebraska, she finds it disappointing that people are not taking advantage of the resources the state has in ethanol, solar energy, manure production and wind.
Nebraska should be looking not only at producing energy for itself but also exporting to other states and making money from it, she said.
“It is really concerning to me that I feel like I’m standing here and I’m hoping that we can find a solution, but I don’t think we should be going in an anti-business, anti-renewable energy direction,” she said.
Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne said the bill just provides a Band-Aid for the issue, and there needs to be a bigger conversation over the summer about the issue of public power and energy sources in Nebraska.