Electric Currents

Democracy and LB 95

Feb 21, 2015

Two bills were up for a vote in a predominately Republican-controlled state legislature: one would require photo ID in order to vote, the second would allow electric bicycles on public trails. One passed this week, the other got buried. Guess which one is now set to become the law in Nebraska?

Two pieces of legislation here in my home state of Nebraska came up for consideration this week by our State Senators: voter ID and electric bicycles.

LB 111 was yet another attempt to require a valid photo ID in order to vote. A number of other States have passed similar bills, which many, including me, view as discriminatory: aimed at preventing minorities, students and the elderly from voting.

The second bill, LB 95, would revise the statutory definition of a bicycle to include electric-assist models as long at they conform to federal Consumer Product Safety Commission regulations, which basically means they need to have working pedals, an electric motor of no more than 750 Watts or the equivalent of 1 horsepower, and a top motor-assisted speed of 20 mph. Faster than 20 mph, the motor automatically cuts out.

Defining such e-Bikes as 'bicycles' means they can be ridden on trails and bike paths that are posted off-limits to "motorized vehicles." Because it is primarily older riders 50-years and up who are buying e-Bikes, passage of the bill would give them safer places to ride away from city streets.

Here in my community, we have many miles of paved hiking and biking trails around a series of flood-control reservoirs, beautiful places to picnic, fish, boat (trolling motors, paddles and sails only), and ride bikes. And, best all, that network is steadily expanding, as I learned yesterday morning over coffee at the monthly Mode Shift meeting, this time at the Howling Hound Coffee Shop in downtown Omaha.

Eric Williams, with the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resource District, which manages the flood control system in the area, brought a small group of a dozen or so community activists and cyclists up to date on current development plans. As the map just below shows, there already is an extensive trail system and more planned: those are the dotted lines.

Map of Omaha area bike trails in 2014

All of the trails around the NRD-managed reservoirs - those lakes on the map - are marked with signs that clearly state: "Motorized Vehicles Prohibited." Without a state definition of what a 'motorized vehicle' is and isn't, the NRD and local law enforcement could, in theory, include electric-assist bicycles in the ban. In fact, states like New York currently do define them that way by default. Efforts have been going on in Albany for years to clarify the definition and bring state statute into conformity with federal regulations: to no avail, so far.

While New York State, long considered a bastion of liberalism in America, seems to wrestle year-after-year with what their lawmakers obviously consider a low-priority item, out here on the Great American Plains, Nebraska is usually considered at the opposite end of the political spectrum. There is no doubt this is a conservative state. Most of the population, which could fit into one of New York City's five boroughs, lives in the eastern edge of the state and most of those around the greater Omaha-Lincoln-Council Bluffs region.

So, you would expect that a voter ID bill would sail through the Republican-dominated legislature - and I should point out that Nebraska has the only single house legislature in the country, called the Unicameral - while something like an electric bicycle bill would get mired down and lost in the noise.

Well, you'd be wrong. In an encouraging act of bipartisanism, Republicans, Democrats and one Independent joined forces this week and buried LB 111 at the bottom of the stack of legislation being taken up this year, which effectively means it's dead - again - for this session.

Meanwhile, LB 95 sailed through the legislative process. In January, it was nearly unanimously voted out of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, chaired, incidentally, by the bill's sponsor, Senator Jim Smith, a Republican. The vote, which occurred while I was driving home from the capital after testifying before the committee, would have been unanimous, but one of the Senators was absent that day. The hearing, itself, was held the day the legislature officially opened for business.

The next I heard from Senator Smith's office was maybe two weeks later. The bill had now advanced through the second round debate, without any debate. It's next stop would be a Final Reading. That apparently happened sometime between the time I left Howling Hounds and my 10 AM appointment with Mayor David Black, who is the VP for commercial lending at my hometown bank. We were to talk about what I need to know about getting a commercial loan for ePEDALER, my electric bicycle rental startup. That meeting lasted over two hours as we talked not only about renting electric bicycles, but the expanding trail system around the county -- we are the county seat -- and Formula E racing. He's a huge Nascar fan.

By the time I got home after the noon hour, an email was waiting for me from Lisa Johns, Senator Smith's legislative aide, informing me that LB 95 had passed with 48 votes in favor and one senator absent. Ironically, that one senator, Ken Haar, is probably the most active environmentalist in the Unicameral. Basically, the vote was unanimous in a predominately Republican-controlled state.

Of course, now the bill has to go to the Governor, Pete Ricketts, who just took office last month. He may not recall this, but he was in my first "Introduction to the Internet" class that I taught for the AIM Institute in 1993. After the class, he invited me to meet with his father, Joe Ricketts, the head of Ameritrade. At that meeting, Joe commissioned me to build their very first website. Ameritrade would go on to become TD Ameritrade and the Ricketts family, billionaires.

Now I am hopeful that he'll sign into law the bill that I authored.

Yes, that's right, I am the author, or maybe more accurately, "instigator" of LB 95. Back in the fall of 2013, I attended a town hall meeting at which Senator Smith and Ms. Johns were present, along with Mayor Black and the mayor of neighboring La Vista. I took my aging TidalForce M750 electric bicycle along and after the meeting chatted with both the Senator and Ms. Johns about an e-Bike bill. Senator Smith agreed to consider sponsoring it and thus began an email dialogue that eventually resulted in LB 756 in 2014. That bill was voted unanimously out of the same committee, but at the time it was chaired by now U.S. Senator Deb Fischer. However, it ran into a logjam of other, more pressing legislation and went nowhere.

Thankfully, Senator Smith pledged to re-sponsor the bill in 2015 and LB 95 was the result.

I bring this up because I think a lot of us view this whole politics thing as an impenetrable maze reserved for the rich and their smooth-talking lobbyists. That might be true in Washington, D.C. It's not necessarily the case here in Nebraska. LB 95 is the second bill that I have successfully introduced in the state. The first one, passed in 2012 legalized the use of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles or NEVs on city streets in the state with speed limits less than 35 mph.

The key seems to be finding the right sponsor(s) and then working at the 'grassroots' level to generate community support and often it doesn't take that many people. Both bills, honestly, weren't all that controversial; and the timing seemed right to propose them. After all, I wasn't advocating growing of hemp as an agriculture crop or the sale of medicinal marijuana. Those would be much more difficult measures to achieve consensus on either in the legislature or among our citizenry.

Helping an aging population of baby boomers ride bikes so they can stay active by giving them a bit of quiet, clean electric assistance is a pretty easy sell, really. It just needed someone to raise the issue and follow through the legislative process, assisting when and where possible; at the very least making an effort to show up and testify at any public hearings. That's how Democracy works.

At least that's how I found it works here in Nebraska.

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