108th Legislature, 2nd session: Back to The People’s Business?
Your 49 state senators returned to their desks in the George W. Norris Chamber this week to commence the shorter 60-day session of the biennium. Our legislature operates on a biennial system based on the structure of our state’s budget: Odd numbered years are the first of the biennium or 90-day sessions, which are longer in order for lawmakers to establish the budget for the coming two fiscal years. Even numbered years are short sessions and are given less time because the budget has already largely been established for the biennium; though legislators will typically spend a relatively short amount of time making tweaks to the budget they set the prior year in short sessions, as needs may have evolved.
After a 2023 legislative session marked by rancor, bitter division, and extensive filibustering over highly controversial bills, I can say with some confidence that most, if not all of us Unicameral-adjacents are hoping that the long interim break away from one other allowed senators some much needed restoration, perspective and reflection so that we might have a much more boring session this year. A little more goodwill and collaboration, a little fewer fireworks, and more passing of good governance bills: these are all hopes that have been echoed by Speaker Arch in comments to media and senators of late, and this Fly’s fingers are crossed that they may manifest. In my conversations with senators and staff it sounds like this is more or less the popular sentiment, though feelings are understandably mixed for some.
Election of Exec Board Chair
After former Executive Board chair Tom Briese was appointed State Treasurer by Governor Pillen this fall, senators early this week held a vote to select his replacement. Senator Ray Aguilar won the role, and Sen. Lowe was chosen as vice-chair. The Executive Board Chair is a powerful leadership position in the body: he or she has authority to make decisions about the legislature’s internal policies, which committees bills get referenced to, and questions of legislative ethics. The Executive Board also governs the Legislative Council, which supervises legislative employees and services. Notably, when the workplace harassment incident involving former Sen. Mike Groene occurred in 2022 that ultimately led to his resignation, it was up to the Executive Board chair to determine how the complaint should be handled, and later, to guide the body’s adoption of new workplace harassment policies.
There’s been a lot of buzz about proposed changes to the legislature’s rules this year, and for good reason. Much of last year’s extended filibustering was the result of the majority’s attempt to stymie some in the minority’s strategic use of procedural tricks in order to stall debate, filing successive motions on bills they didn’t like in order to prevent supporters from speaking; in response, the majority approved a temporary rule change to bar this move for the remainder of the session. With a tool removed from the minority’s toolbox, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh was driven to filibuster the contentious LB 574 by other means, filing successive amendments on every bill in order to run up the session clock.
As a consequence, there’s a lot of animus for rules reform this year to prevent a repeat of what we saw last year. A hearing on 34 rule change proposals will be held on Monday, January 8th at 1:30pm at the Capitol. At the time of this writing Sunday evening, Speaker Arch has told the Nebraska Examiner he expects the hearing to go on as scheduled despite the forecast snow. The hearing will be streamed on Nebraska Public Media, and anyone who may not want to risk the weather to attend can submit an online comment before noon Monday here. The text of all of the proposed rule changes is also available at that link.
On Tuesday, the body will convene late (1:30pm) to allow the rules committee to vote on which proposals will make it to the floor for debate; then on Wednesday the body will begin all-day debate on those selected proposals. Speaker Arch has been vocal about his intention to not allow this rules debate go off the rails as it infamously did in the 2017 session, and he’s planned for about three days of debate on them. We’re slated to begin debating carryover bills (bills from last year that are on the “worksheet”, or out of committee) on Tuesday the 16th.
Speaker Arch has emphasized that with limited time in this short session, and especially because many senators lost out on having their priority debated last year due to the filibuster, bills this year will almost certainly need a priority designation in order to see debate; and he has cautioned senators to choose wisely and consider that with their selections they are setting the tone for how the session will go. We’re already seeing personal priorities roll in, markedly early this year. Maybe an effort by senators to have their bill jump the line and be voted on before the dreaded LB 575 (Kauth) Sports and Spaces Act is scheduled. We don’t know for sure yet if or when that bill will be scheduled, but it has been prioritized.
A Note about Summer EBT
Since I believe many of you are already aware of and interested in the Summer EBT issue, there was a small development over the weekend when Governor Pillen posted a column late Friday reaffirming his decision not to opt Nebraska into the program. Perhaps this was in response to mounting pressure from constituents, a petition with 6,144 signatures delivered to him in support of the program by our friends at Nebraska Appleseed, or a bill introduced by a bipartisan group of 17 senators that would require our Department of Health and Human Services to permanently opt into the program (LB 952, Day), or all of the above. I have heard through the grapevine that there is some will among an even larger contingent of senators from both sides of the aisle and perhaps even Speaker Arch to assert their power as a separate, coequal branch of government on this issue, and that they won’t just bow to what Governor Pillen decides. But will it find a priority designation, and will they have 30 votes to be veto-proof, or 33 votes to be filibuster-proof?
Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall