Your Capitol Fly on the Wall is back (with a mask of course)! It was a very busy first week back, with big policy proposals debated along with a little drama amongst senators. To remind everyone, waaaay back in March, Speaker Scheer decided to postpone the current legislative session due to the spread of COVID-19. Senators briefly came back to Lincoln at the end of March to pass emergency relief funding for the Governor to spend to combat the pandemic but have since been holed up in their home districts for the most part.
Though most senators and their staff have been working remotely the last four months, many were hard at work helping constituents navigate unemployment claims, rent relief, and other forms of assistance. Some senators spent the break trying to ensure the Governor and state agencies were doing what they should to address the pandemic because, the way our government is set up, they are the entities given more power to act quickly in a declared state of emergency. Senators pressured the Governor to spend emergency funding effectively and fairly, advocated for oversight of meatpacking plants and nursing homes as they faced COVID-19 outbreaks, criticized the $27 million no-bid Test Nebraska contract the Governor signed to conduct COVID-19 testing and conducted listening sessions, briefings, and other (usually remote) meetings to keep up on the urgent issues facing their constituents.
In spite of this work, for many of our 49 state senators, this was a frustrating situation. With the session stalled (and two-thirds already over), it was impossible to address urgent issues with policy changes. This is exactly the reason senators, even as COVID-19 cases rise in Lincoln, were excited to finally get the chance to reconvene this week to finish the rest of the legislative session.
Let’s start with the good…
Let’s start by going over the progress senators made on important bills. Things started off smoothly on Monday, as senators came together to advance a group of bills aimed to address the ongoing issues of juveniles housed at the state’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers. Changes proposed include making sure the young people are separated by gender, providing better programming and medical services, and the postponement of any plans to transfer or close any facilities until next year.
Throughout the week, senators continued to advance bills that had been put in motion long before the pandemic but that are helpful policy changes, nonetheless. Senators advanced bills to combat wage theft (LB1016), prevent utility shutoffs when facing a medical issue (LB632), make small but important reforms to our outdated sentencing and bail system (LB881), and allow for the creation of land banks outside of Omaha (LB424). Land banks, in particular, may not seem very flashy, but finally passing this legislation (it has failed to pass for several years) would mean cities could begin to address the widespread problem of vacant and neglected properties in their communities, which could then lead to more affordable housing available on the market. They basically give a city the ability to take over problem properties and manage their conversion to be a usable (and taxable) property again when the private market fails to do so.
Another high point of the week came when senators passed (by two votes!) a rarely used motion to suspend the rules so Sen. Wayne could introduce new legislation that would mandate police oversight in cities. Normally, new legislation can only be introduced the first ten days of session (which ends in January), but Sen. Wayne argued that the current unrest and racial injustice justified him introducing legislation outside that window so that something could be done this year. Any other legislation would have to wait until next year.
The bill still has a difficult road ahead. Now it must have a public hearing in the Urban Affairs committee before finding a way to the floor for debate. Because senators’ priority designations were due in February, it will not be able to be prioritized and Speaker Scheer has said with so little time left in session, only priority bills are guaranteed to be scheduled for debate.
Although some progress was made, it seems that most senators do not realize the magnitude of the impact of COVID-19 and the longstanding problems that are being exacerbated by the pandemic for most Nebraskans. Senators debated bills that would attempt to decrease property taxes (LB1106) and provide for tax incentives for businesses (LB720). Both would cost the state a ton of money at a time when our economy and tax revenue may take a huge hit as a result of the pandemic. Both also fail to directly help many low-income Nebraskans and the immediate needs they face. Both were removed from the agenda after being debated for their allotted time limits but will probably be scheduled for more debate soon.
And the Ugly.
In addition to the several policy changes debated this week, several senators were embroiled in personal attacks on each other that could affect potential progress in the three weeks left of session. Sen. Chambers began on Monday by criticizing Sen. Slama and her alleged involvement in a racist mailer sent to voters in her district attacking her opponent in the upcoming election by trying to associate her with Sen. Chambers. Sen. Chambers used inappropriate (and, yes, sexist) arguments to make his point and debate quickly devolved from there.
Things only got more heated when on Tuesday night, senators were debating whether to approve a motion made by Sen. Geist to “pull” her bill from committee that would ban a type of abortion procedure. This motion is a way to bypass the usual committee process when a bill doesn’t have the votes to advance from committee. Sen. Groene and Sen. Pansing Brooks got into an argument that involved him telling her to “shut up” and allegedly making an inappropriate gesture towards her.
It seemed to have blown over by the end of the week until Sen. Groene became upset by the feedback he was getting over email and phone calls criticizing his actions. He brought this up on the floor Friday morning and senators began to again make various personal attacks until Speaker Scheer abruptly adjourned session for the week well before lunchtime. He ended with this advice, “You don’t have to like each other, but you have to respect each other.” We’ll see if that happens in the three weeks left of session.
Until next time!
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall