Nebraska lawmakers criticize ‘zero-sum games’ in Legislature, lack of support for North Omaha

State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne say their community can’t keep waiting

By: - March 31, 2023 5:15 am
State Senators Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne are shown speaking on the floor of the Legislature on two different days in a photo composite. The pair has criticized "zero-sum games" by some in the Legislature.

State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, who introduced the original Economic Recovery Act proposal. (Photos by Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

LINCOLN — Two Nebraska lawmakers this week criticized the actions of certain state senators for playing “zero-sum games” that could hurt North Omaha.

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, who both represent North Omaha, said critical legislation might not be considered this session. This could include prohibiting hair discrimination in education or expanding support for their constituents and some of the state’s poorest residents.

“These zero-sum games from either side have never benefited my community,” McKinney said. “Because if it did, my community wouldn’t be the poorest economically, wouldn’t have the poorest educational outcomes, wouldn’t have the lowest life expectancy.”

‘Walking a thin line’

Endless filibusters this session have come largely in response to Legislative Bill 574, proposed by State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha. The bill would prohibit certain gender-affirming procedures for minors in the state including puberty blockers, hormone therapies and genital or non-genital surgeries. 

Health care providers’ referrals for such procedures would also be prohibited.

Kauth introduced an amendment to narrow the bill to prohibit only the surgeries. If the amendment were adopted, it could strengthen support for the bill. But opponents have vowed not to let such a “compromise” happen.

McKinney and Wayne said they are aware the bill could cause harm and have never supported LB 574, whether or not the amendment is adopted.

McKinney told the Examiner on Thursday that the frustrations he and Wayne voiced don’t mean they don’t support trans rights nor the cause some senators are fighting for.

However, McKinney said, the body is “walking a thin line” and could fail to address critical issues.

‘Dad will keep trying’

Efforts to mandate education on slavery, lynching and racial massacres in addition to Holocaust and genocide teachings, as well as criminal justice reform, failed in 2022, McKinney said. 

Instead of blowing up the session over those issues, McKinney said, he had to keep fighting.

McKinney said criminal justice reform might not be considered again this year, while funding might be approved for a new prison.

“You keep telling Black people to wait, we’re going to help you,” McKinney said. “And when it’s time to help, the political will isn’t there.”

McKinney proposed LB 630 this year, calling for the Nebraska Department of Education to develop and require school boards to adopt a written dress code, which could protect children, such as his daughter, who wear braids and fight hair discrimination.

The bill also came in response to a spring 2020 incident in which a school secretary cut two Lakota girls’ hair without parental consent. 

State Sen. John Arch of La Vista, speaker of the Legislature, prioritized LB 630.

However, bills such as LB 630 — which was pulled from the agenda after LB 574 advanced — may not be considered this session due in part to the filibuster.

“If my daughter gets discriminated against again this year, I’m going to just tell her, ‘Hey, Sana’a, you know your dad tried to introduce a bill to get it passed, but you know, we had to wait again. So I’m sorry you got discriminated against, but Dad will keep trying.’”


McKinney read excerpts Wednesday on the floor of the Legislature from the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” penned by Martin Luther King Jr., as well. One passage stresses that King was told for years to “wait.” 

“It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never,’” King wrote. “It has been a tranquilizing Thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

Wayne said he has faced excuses and “nice racism” this session, such as being told to “wait,” too.

There was a significant investment in North Omaha in 2022, largely funded by federal pandemic relief funds, not state dollars, he said.

Wayne said some of his colleagues have questioned why more money should go to North Omaha when an investment has already been made. However, he pointed out, no one has said the same after years of income and property tax relief.

“They pay taxes every year, and they’re getting zero on their return right now,” Wayne said. “So maybe I’m going to be the one-man crew of burning [the session] down for a different reason going forward.”

‘One-way street’

Wayne has specifically targeted investments to build a canal in western Nebraska and to spend more than $1 billion in education. Neither, he said, would not address poverty or support the members of his community who are most in need.

With State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island still recovering from surgery (he returned last week to advance LB 574 but has not returned since), Wayne is left as the deciding 33rd vote on whether to end debate and advance legislation.

“But the 33rd means: If you’re not going to deal with me, don’t ask me to be the 33rd,” Wayne said. “And I don’t mean just deal with me one-on-one. I mean bring people to the table who are also going to support the change that we’re trying to make.”

“Right now it’s a one-way street, and I’m getting ready to pull off on the side of the road and let you guys go on your own,” Wayne continued.

Intersectionality in trans community

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who has been among the senators leading the filibusters, said she is fighting for Black and brown trans people “first and foremost.”

Passage of LB 574 could most harm trans people of color, including those in McKinney’s district, Hunt said. 

She told McKinney they’re advocating for the same community.

“It’s completely disgusting and wrong that an entire community has had to sacrifice and compromise for decades to get what they deserve, and we haven’t even given them that,” Hunt said.

McKinney said on the floor Wednesday that, while he was addressing the body, some senators leading the filibuster were laughing. And some legislative staffers have said in group chats that McKinney isn’t representing his community, he said.

“All because I chose to speak up for my community,” McKinney said.

‘Real conversation’ about moving forward

Multiple senators leading the filibusters have evoked the name of former State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha in their efforts. Chambers’ filibusters often brought the Legislature to a standstill.

But Wayne said there’s one critical difference: Chambers didn’t close off the whole session. Instead, he limited his filibusters while letting certain bills move forward.

Wayne said more rules changes are likely to follow those approved Tuesday, 32-13, that were meant to weaken the filibuster

However, lawmakers need to stop being selfish, both as individuals and as a body, Wayne said, and figure out how to help the entire state.

“When this body is ready to have a real conversation about moving things forward, I’m here to talk, I’m here to figure out a game plan,” Wayne said. “But if I can’t get the commitments for my community, I’m not committing to you guys.”

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling is a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, double-majoring in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C., and has reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan.