Fly on the Wall 2022: Contentious legislative session ends with few wins for vulnerable Nebraskans

That’s a wrap!  As of last Wednesday, the second session of the 107th legislature has adjourned Sine Die. The term Sine Die translates to “without day” in Latin, and means that the governing body has concluded its business without any more days remaining in this session. With no additional vetoes issued by Governor Ricketts last week, the body did not have to conduct any override votes. Most of Wednesday was spent on speeches with closing remarks from the Governor, Speaker Hilgers, and departing legislators.

2022 Session Standouts

This year’s session was a historic one. With excess state general funds and the whopping $1 billion in federal COVID relief (ARPA) funds, the body faced an enormous challenge in coming together around proposals for how all of that money should be divvied up in a short 60-day session that was riddled with filibusters. Outside of budget discussions, senators competed to get floor time for their individual priorities, which included many hot-button policy issues like gun access, abortion, and criminal justice reform. Because of the ever-increasing use of the filibuster – in which lawmakers essentially stall debate for hours on end to try to kill a bill they don’t like – many priority bills didn’t get the floor time needed to have robust debate or be advanced.  Overall, from a CSN reader perspective, I think it’s safe to say that there’s widespread disappointment about the legislature’s failure to enact substantial relief for struggling Nebraskans, in favor of investments in nonessential projects and tax cuts for the wealthy. Here’s my roundup of noteworthy themes from this year:

  • Tax relief: LB 873, the massive tax relief package, is estimated to provide $950 million in tax cuts by 2028. While this might sound great, that’s also $950 million in reduced state revenue that could be needed to fund essential services and programs down the line. It’s been touted by proponents, including the Governor and Speaker Hilgers, as the largest tax relief package in state history. Key components include a phaseout of Social Security state income tax, cuts to the top corporate and individual income tax rates, and an increase in the amount of money the state provides in property tax credits. The Social Security tax phaseout was the most popular component among senators, and will provide welcome relief to vulnerable Nebraska seniors. Much of the rest of the package, however, is expected to mostly benefit the wealthiest Nebraskans and out-of-state corporations that do business here. You may remember that there was some gamesmanship in getting this passed, in which veto override votes on funding for providers of nursing home and developmental disability services were leveraged against LB 873, forcing some senators to support LB 873 that may not have otherwise done so.  Analysts have hypothesized that this could cost us in the long run; we should start seeing any budgetary impacts of these cuts within a couple of years. 

  • Water projects: The Perkins County Canal and what’s become known as “Lake Mike” – a new sandpit lake to be dredged between Lincoln and Omaha, nicknamed for three of its main supporters – both overcame opposition to win approval and funding. The question of whether the canal project is necessary or a worthwhile investment in Nebraska’s water supply remains unsettled. The lake is touted as a major tourism draw and way to attract workforce, but opponents questioned its potential environmental impact on the surrounding area; how landowners at the proposed site will be impacted; and whether this is the best use of a large amount of funding. These two projects, among other major expenditures this year, have some observers pointing to inconsistencies in what Nebraska’s government leaders say the state does and does not have money for, when other bills that proposed direct aid and services to Nebraskans failed due to their price tags. The canal project is estimated to cost upwards of $500 million, and the lake is estimated to cost somewhere around $1 billion when all’s said and done; though backers are saying much of that will come from private investments.

  • Prison overcrowding & justice reform: The $270 million required to build a new state penitentiary has now been earmarked or “set aside” for this project, though the legislature stopped short of authorizing the funds’ use to begin construction just yet.  Expect this to happen next year. This is certain to be a contentious debate after the well-studied proposal of criminal justice reforms designed to reduce overcrowding in LB 920 (Lathrop) was blocked by opponents. The push and pull of “more prison capacity” vs. “smart justice reforms to reduce overcrowding” is certain to continue to be one of the most contentious issues next session. 

  • Housing security: Some wins and some losses in this category. The hard-fought federal Emergency Rental Assistance bill failed to overcome a gubernatorial veto after a valiant effort by introducer Sen. Hansen and advocates to get it passed. The US Treasury has since sent a letter to Governor Ricketts urging him to take advantage of the available funding and underscoring the existing need for rental aid in Nebraska.  Ricketts publicized his response to that letter this week, in which he asserts that the pandemic is more or less over and cites federal overspending as a key contributor to inflation. Around $70 million of the funds will still go to the Lincoln and Omaha areas, with rural Nebraska likely losing out on any additional aid. 

$355 million was won for economic development and affordable housing to revitalize high poverty areas in North and South Omaha. A portion of that funding was recently authorized for use in Lincoln and other high poverty parts of the state. An additional $40-some million in ARPA funds was approved to be used for refugee & immigrant housing, development of low income rental housing, and rural workforce housing. 

And now, some predictions for what we might see next session:

  • Things that didn’t happen, but still could: I think we can expect abortion and gun rights debates to come back, as well as efforts to privatize public schools, dictate curriculum or otherwise limit the decision making authority of school boards or teachers.  Debates around critical race theory and sex education are still getting a lot of attention at the local level, so I don’t foresee them dissipating anytime soon. I’d heard a rumor about a potential bill around restricting trans students’ rights to participation in school athletics; since it didn’t happen this year but it’s an issue that’s still winding up a certain voting demographic, it could still be coming. 

  • Impact of elections: Just as this year was shaped by being an election year, next year will see ripple effects of those elections being held and a new legislative body that may not be as concerned about how votes on bills may impact their candidacy. We’ll have 13 new senators; possibly more if any current members running for other political offices are successful. For example, Speaker Hilgers is running for Attorney General. If he wins, we’ll have a new speaker and a new senator will be appointed for his district. If either of the two sitting members running for congress should win (Flood or Vargas), those members will be replaced by someone of the Governor’s choosing. And of course, we’ll have a new governor, a position which has been increasingly able to wield substantial influence over the body. 

  • Shifting committees and leadership: Along with new members, every biennium the body elects new committee chairs and leadership. Members are all reassigned to their committee placements. So as with the above, there could be a lot of movement. With the loss of some key longtime committee chairs and an influx of new legislators, committees could look completely different. This will impact which bills have a chance of advancing from their respective committees. 

  • Filibuster power could be at stake: Currently, filibusters can be effective if 17 members of the minority or those in opposition can hold strong, preventing supporters of a bill from getting 33 votes for cloture. A few races in competitive legislative districts open up the possibility of a shift in those numbers, possibly endangering the minority’s ability to filibuster.

Next session is set to begin on January 4, 2023. As I’ve mentioned, the special session later this year is a possibility, but for now, plan on the Unicameral reconvening in January unless we hear otherwise this summer or fall. 

And with that, I’ll be buzzing off…Until Next Session,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall