Fly on the Wall 2022: Floor debate ramps up, big-ticket water bills advance

This week the legislature transitioned to full-day debate, after committee hearings concluded last week. With all the time now being spent on the floor, more big bills are moving through debate. LB 1173 (Health and Human Services Committee) which includes several child welfare reforms, including ending the Eastern Service Area child welfare privatization project that led to the St. Francis Ministries debacle, advanced to final reading. It was also amended to include provisions of Senator Hunt’s LB 932, to require DHHS to notify foster children and their attorneys about the child’s Social Security eligibility and the State’s management and retention of their benefit money. 

LB 773, Senator Brewer’s bill to allow people to conceal carry firearms without a permit, was successfully pulled from committee and overcame a filibuster to advance to Select File. It got 35 votes, which is just two more than it needed to stay filibuster-proof. It could face a continued challenge on Select File, where it’s possible that one or two members may shift their votes, affecting its fate. Also advanced were Senator Morfeld’s priority bill (LB 519) to provide legal immunity from drug or alcohol offenses for witnesses that report sexual assaults; and Senator Wishart’s bill to provide grants to struggling small businesses during emergencies (LB 598).

Lake and Canal Proposals Advanced

Senators gave first round approval to two of this year’s biggest-ticket items, LBs 1023 and 1015 (both Hilgers). The first, a massive project and funding proposal which primarily serves to pave the way for a proposed 7-mile lake between Lincoln and Omaha, is touted as increasing recreational opportunities to bolster tourism and attract young people to Nebraska. Opponents questioned whether this is an appropriate or necessary use of the $70+ million price tag, saying that those dollars would be more wisely invested in economic and social safety nets for struggling Nebraskans. Concerns were also raised about whether the lake would be preserved for public use – as it is proposed to be funded through public-private partnerships; whether the lake would impact water supply to Lincoln and Omaha; and how it would impact landowners at the proposed site.

LB 1023 would have the Department of Natural Resources build a canal and reservoir system to divert water from the South Platte River in Colorado and funnel it to Nebraska for agricultural use. Nebraska and Colorado already share water from the Platte, which runs through both states. The system would cost at least $500 million, and is intended to protect Nebraska’s share of the water supply from increasing demand and use in Colorado as the Denver area population grows. It’s based on a hundred-year-old compact – an agreement between the states – dictating each state’s entitlement to their portion of the water, which some say does not clearly protect Nebraska’s share against increasing use in Colorado. It’s becoming apparent that there’s no clear consensus from scientists and experts on water issues as to whether proponents’ fears of Nebraska losing water to Colorado are realistic. Some have said that Nebraska is already retaining its fair share and its claim to the water is already legally clear. There’s also a chance that Colorado would pursue litigation with Nebraska should this move forward. 

You may have noticed that opposition seemed to give up on these pretty early, stopping short of a filibuster. This is largely due to scheduling and the timing of bills that remain. Many senators who are opposed to these measures but who support Emergency Rental Assistance allowed these bills to get to a vote so that LB 1073, the Emergency Rental Assistance bill, would have a chance to get a first-round vote that day. If it hadn’t, chances of it having enough time to clear each round would have been slim, since the agenda for the rest of the week was full and impending budget discussions will take up much of the remaining session time. That said, I think we can expect more opposition arguments on these on Select File, when senators that oppose the measures will be less pressed for time and could filibuster them. It’s unclear whether either measure will garner enough votes to break a potential filibuster, but of the two, the lake bill (LB 1015) seems to have more support among the body. 

Emergency Rental Assistance Clears First Round

LB 1073 (Wayne), Senator Matt Hansen’s priority bill to require Nebraska to apply for federal emergency rental assistance funds, passed its first test on General File, with 29 senators voting to advance it to Select File. As you probably know, Nebraska would be the 49th state to apply for the funds. About $120 million would be available and would be paid to landlords to assist tenants who have had trouble keeping up with rent due to the pandemic. 

This first-round victory is no small feat. However, supporters are not out of the woods yet; they will have to hold each of those 29 votes and probably add four additional votes to bring the count up to a filibuster-proof 33. We can also expect the Governor to veto this if it passes, which requires 30 votes to override. Typically, if 33 members support a bill on cloture to break a filibuster it will retain the 30 necessary for a veto override, but there are occasions when members that had previously supported a measure are hesitant to defy the Governor’s wishes.  It will be essential to affirm those senators to hold firm in their positions and reassure them that this is something that people in their districts need. If it passes and is signed into law, the bill has an “emergency clause”, meaning it goes into effect immediately rather than the standard effective date of 3 months after the session. 

Budget Proposals Up Next

Senators will be briefed about the budget proposals on Monday before diving into debate about them on Tuesday. Budget debate is expected to take up the majority of floor time this week.  Observers may notice that the budget bills (LB 1011 is the “mainline” budget bill) have many amendments filed on them, signaling that they might be held up by members with opposition points to make or changes to propose.

The mainline budget was advanced from the Appropriations committee without a provision that some called “sneaky” in the Governor’s proposal, that would have banned the State Department of Education from using any funds for sex education curriculum planning or implementation.   Appropriations Chair Stinner noted that the budget is supposed to be about just that – dollars and cents- and not substantive policy choices, like that piece of the Governor’s proposal would have been.

Fiscal analysts have concluded that while the state is in a good financial position now, our extra revenue is probably a temporary “bubble” mostly owing to the influx of federal covid relief dollars that don’t represent sustained economic growth. Some have cautioned that the state would be wise not to use this windfall as license to overspend on nonessential projects or tax cuts, because those funds won’t keep flowing in the long term.

On The Horizon

Speaker Hilgers announced Friday that the priority for the next two weeks will be moving the state budget and ARPA budget bills through all 3 rounds of debate. If time allows between those rounds, he will schedule some tax and spending bills, including LB 1024 (Wayne), the North Omaha Recovery Act. 

Also on the agenda will be a bill from Senator Briese to adopt year-round daylight saving time (LB 283) – appropriately coming right after we “spring forward”. Other outstanding priority bills that have yet to be debated will likely have to wait until the final two weeks of session, especially those that the Speaker expects to take more debate time. This leaves a lot of senators nervous about whether their priority bills will have enough time to clear all three rounds in the last stretch of session. This could put some pressure on senators taking issue with the budget (by filing amendments) to let it advance more quickly. 

Until next week,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall