NCC hopes for legislative victories, sees progress on human-trafficking bills

Advocates working to curb human trafficking, including the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), are close to securing legal advances as the state Legislature’s 2018 session draws to an end.
Lawmakers at one point appeared ready to adjourn at the session’s last day April 18 without acting on a bill, LB747, designed to restore regulation of “bring your own bottle” establishments – also known as “bottle clubs” – as opponents of the clubs contend some operate as strip clubs featuring women who are victims of sex trafficking.
But the bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Theresa Thibodeau of Omaha, won a 34-0 vote April 3 to use a liquor-control bill (LB1120) as the vehicle to require liquor licenses for bottle clubs for the first time since 2004. 
LB1120, which then won 41-0 first-round approval, will need further rewriting before final passage to guarantee law enforcement can inspect the clubs to ensure local and state laws are being followed, said Thibodeau and NCC Executive Director Tom Venzor.
But after the floor votes, “I feel very hopeful that we will get some action to reopen these clubs to law enforcement,” said Thibodeau, a member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish.
That step would be “a critical first step in moving the ball on regulating bottle clubs to deal with the public-safety and sexual-immorality issues” surrounding them, Venzor said. “We’re very grateful to Senator Thibodeau for pursuing these issues. She’s been very tenacious.”
Senators also appeared poised to give final approval to a separate measure, LB1132, that would allow people who have served time for sex-related crimes and are able to show they were victims of sex trafficking to ask courts to set aside their convictions and seal case records.
Passing LB1132 would help women once caught in the web of sex slavery to rebuild their lives, said Stephen Patrick O’Meara, a retired state and federal prosecutor who speaks to Catholic and other groups about the rapid, online-aided spread of human trafficking.
A member of St. Mary Parish in Bellevue and former president of the Omaha-based Coalition on Human Trafficking, O’Meara said he also favors restoring bottle-club regulations. He said he saw “a significant anecdotal relationship between strip clubs and sex trafficking” during his 45 years of legal practice in both Nebraska and Iowa.
But “the thing most of us can do is live better lives and change the culture,” O’Meara said. “What makes this happen is that so many people buy commercial sex.”
Unlike traditional bars, bottle clubs charge membership fees that allow patrons to bring in and consume their own alcoholic beverages. In 1965, the Legislature required the clubs to obtain liquor licenses for the types of alcohol allowed inside their doors.
That ended in 2004, when senators passed a bill to streamline the number and types of liquor licenses. While supporters of the streamlining bill said on the legislative floor that they intended to retain liquor licenses for bottle clubs, the bill inadvertently stripped the 40-year-old language requiring just that, and lawmakers failed to notice, Thibodeau said.
Without such language, law enforcement officers cannot enter bottle clubs to ensure their compliance with other state and local laws – including those involving prostitution and sex-related crimes, she said. 
While the General Affairs Committee declined to advance Thibodeau’s LB747, the Judiciary Committee gave a green light to LB1132, sponsored by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, and senators have given the latter bill the second of a required three “yes” votes.
Thibodeau attempted on March 28 to write her bottle-club bill into LB1132, but gave up after Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, the Legislature’s presiding officer, ruled the move would violate the Nebraska Constitution’s requirement that bills address only one legal subject.
Over Easter weekend, Thibodeau worked out an agreement with Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill, the General Affairs Committee chairman, to let her seek to restore the liquor-license requirement for bottle clubs when his LB1120 reached the legislative floor. Larson’s measure would make several other unrelated changes to state liquor laws.
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