LINCOLN — The political math says that Gov. Pete Ricketts needs to subtract four votes Wednesday to win a veto showdown with the Nebraska Legislature over the divisive issue of illegal immigration.
Lawmakers voted 33-11 last week to pass Legislative Bill 947, which would make immigrants who were brought to the United States unlawfully as children eligible for professional and commercial licenses.
The governor has been working hard the last few days to see that supporters of the bill Wednesday get no more than 29 votes, one fewer than the 30 needed to override his veto.
Two senators who supported the measure on final reading said Tuesday that they are reconsidering. But three other senators whom the governor lobbied already have told him that they will not flip their votes.
So the stage is set for a dramatic 60th and final day of the 2016 legislative session.
“I think it’s going to be close,” said State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, sponsor of LB 947.
The veto vote is a bit of a rerun for both the governor and lawmakers.
A year ago, senators voted 34-10 to override the governor’s veto of a bill that authorized Nebraska driver’s licenses for the same group of immigrants, those accepted into a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The federal program, started in 2012 by the Obama administration, provides two-year, renewable work permits for those who grew up and were educated in the U.S. after having arrived illegally as children.
By the end of 2015, the federal government had approved 3,111 DACA applications in Nebraska.
Under this year’s bill, DACA recipients would qualify for the roughly 170 licenses that the state requires for some occupations, ranging from doctors and lawyers to teachers, plumbers and cosmetologists.
The buildup to Wednesday’s override vote prompted political sparring between the Republican governor and Mello, a Democrat.
During his monthly radio show Monday, Ricketts referred to LB 947 as “Sen. Mello’s amnesty bill.”
Tuesday, Mello pointed out that the governor signed a bill this week that repeals a ban on issuing liquor licenses to those who are not U.S. citizens. The new law says no liquor license shall be issued to “a person who is not a Nebraska resident and able to work in Nebraska.”
“DACA youth can get a liquor license to run a bar but can’t be a plumber or an electrician? It seems to be a serious contradiction,” Mello said. “It counters all of the arguments he’s been making on LB 947.”
Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman, said Tuesday that the bills are not comparable. He said one allows legal immigrants to get a liquor license, while Mello’s bill “would allow people who came to Nebraska illegally to acquire professional licenses.” Because the DACA program does not give immigrants legal status — but rather, temporary legal presence — the governor does not consider them to be legal immigrants.
Supporters of the measure argue that it makes no sense to block the immigrants from working in their chosen professions or trades when the federal government, which sets national immigration policy, says they are free to work and live in the country.
Ricketts countered by saying that the state should follow the “rule of law” and reject granting privileges to those lacking legal status to live permanently in the U.S.
Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, however, said, “We’ve educated most of them. Let them work and pay taxes.”
Last year, Ebke abstained on the veto override of the driver’s license bill. This year, she said, she told the governor that she plans to vote for the override.
Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha voted against the DACA bill last year. This year he voted for it, which raised questions about his position on the veto override. On Tuesday, he said he plans to vote for the override.
“I see it as a workforce issue,” he said.
Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings said the governor called last week and asked him to switch his vote. Seiler said he considered the request for a couple of days before sending a letter to the governor explaining why he won’t flip.
Seiler is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which heard the DACA bill. He said 27 people testified in support of the measure while no one testified against.
College students who came to the hearing and spoke in favor of the bill want to pursue their chosen professions in their home state, Seiler said.
In his effort to flip votes, the governor also made the argument that the bill would open up licenses to other categories of immigrants allowed to work by the federal government. Those could include immigrants seeking asylum.
That argument carries weight for Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, who voted for LB 947 last week and voted to override the governor last year. On Tuesday, he said he now has serious concerns about the bill.
“I think that’s a reason why a lot of immigrants come to this country. They come from nations where the rule of law is not as strong as it is in this one,” he said.
Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson supported the driver’s license bill last year and the professional licenses bill this year. He said he remains sympathetic to the idea of keeping the best and brightest in the state, but he’s also re-evaluating whether this year’s bill is too broad.
“I’m firmly sitting on top of the fence,” he said. “I can argue both sides of this.”
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