Saturday, June 23, 2018
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Where do your loyalties lie?

State senators balance needs of state, own districts.

LINCOLN--State senators are heading into their third week of a special legislative session. All are trying to make sense of testimonies, reports, studies and phone calls pouring in concerning Keystone XL.

The dynamics changed abruptly Monday when Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk announced that pipeline builder TransCanada was willing to change the proposed route in response to concerns about the oil pipeline crossing the ecologically fragile Sandhills and its Ogallala Aquifer.

But last week, senators commented on the complicated decisions they face in dealing with issues that directly affect some parts of the state but not others.

The issue, said Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, is not simple. The Keystone XL pipeline as proposed would only directly affect five of the state’s 49 districts.

The question, then, is how senators from unaffected districts will vote, when their constituents won’t have a pipeline running along their property.

Opinions range across the board concerning Keystone XL, which, if built, will carry tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The original proposed route would run through the eastern edge of the Sandhills and over the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive water resource for the Midwest.

Mello said his district has no overwhelming opposition or support concerning TransCanada’s proposed pipeline.

And while listening to one’s district is important for state senators, Mello said, it is also their duty to “sift through fact and fiction” as they look out for the short- and long-term interests of the state.

Looking both to one’s own district and others is part of the state senator’s job, Papillion Sen. Jim Smith said. “We can never think of divorcing ourselves from the state.”

State senators are obligated, he added, to seek out fellow senators, lobbyists and constituents to get the facts and contrasting viewpoints.

Schuyler Sen. Chris Langemeier, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, agreed.

“Otherwise,” he said, “there would never be a road built. The Omahans would never get anything from the rural districts, and the rural districts would never get anything from Omaha.”

Some districts, however, are visibly aligned on one side of the fence. Melissa Hilty, legislative aide to Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz, said most within District 47 are showing support for the proposed pipeline route.

In fact, she said, most constituents calling in say, “if they have to have it, move it to Western Nebraska.”

This openness to the pipeline, Hilty said, is largely due to the decline in population and economic development in Western Nebraska.  Increased property tax revenue pipeline supporters say it would generate would also boost affected counties and school districts, she said.

“What’s good for Western Nebraska,” she said,  “is good for all of Nebraska.” She added that Schilz always keeps an open mind to new information concerning the pipeline and his constituents’ views.

Imperial Sen. Mark Christensen is also listening for something new in the pipeline debate.

Christensen said three-to-one of those who contact him from his district say to “leave it [the pipeline route] alone.”

“Unless there’s new news concerning the pipeline,” he said, “I’m not going to vote to change anything.”

Ellsworth Sen. Leroy Louden also said his constituents were for the pipeline. He said it was no use “wringing your hands” over the transportation of oil across the state.

“It’s going to go out anyways,” he said, “whether we want it to or not.”

He said his primary focus was to keep the people of Nebraska safe during the process. “We need to get our own inspectors,” he said. “We ought to be setting safety regulations on the pipeline.”

While Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms also believes the issue of safety concerning the proposed pipeline needs to be addressed, he said senators still need “to take everything into consideration.”

“You have to listen both ways. You have to weigh it out between people within and without your district.”

Gov. Dave Heineman called the Legislature to special session on Oct. 25 to address the controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The U.S. State Department, which has the authority to approve the pipeline because it crosses an international boundary, has since indicated it will examine alternate routes of the pipeline through Nebraska.

Renee Pflughaupt,

Nebraska News Service