Fly on the Wall 2022: New senator appointed, rental assistance bill gets priority designation

This past week was action-packed, as Senators discussed former Senator Groene’s resignation, heard some highly contentious abortion bills in committee, and welcomed the new North Platte Senator. Priority bills have all been designated, giving us a sense of what remaining floor time will be spent on and which bills will likely reach a vote. You can view a list of all Senator, Speaker, and Committee priority bills here.

While the bills with priority designations are now set in stone, some senators with bills they’re eager to pass which might not have been selected as priorities can now look to amend parts of other bills onto priority bills. This is something that happens somewhat regularly, if the subject matter of the additional bill is “germane” to the content of the underlying bill; and if the two introducers come to an agreement about an amendment. Generally, this kind of amendment to merge multiple bills only happens for non-controversial measures. 

On the Floor

LB 939, Senator Linehan’s proposal to cut Nebraska’s top income tax rates, cleared the first round with a 40-1 vote, breaking a longstanding filibuster. Some members agreed only to send the measure to Select File, where the introducer has promised to make any necessary adjustments based on anticipated new revenue projections and the forthcoming proposed budget. 

With former Sen. Groene’s resignation following allegations of sexual misconduct he committed against a female staffer, a handful of mostly female Senators took to the mic on Tuesday to share their stores of sexual harassment and to call for investigation into, and reformation of, the legislature’s harassment policies. Senators of all political stripes shared personal accounts of unwanted sexual comments and advances they’d experienced in and out of the legislature. The resounding message was that something needs to change in the legislature, where there’s no designated Human Resources department to serve employees. Duties that are carried out by HR departments for most other employers are either nonexistent in the legislature or spread across multiple staff roles in varying legislative branches, making it confusing, difficult, and/or intimidating for employees with grievances to seek resolution.  Senators questioned whether those in legislative leadership – especially Speaker Hilgers and Executive Board Chairman Hughes- acted in accordance with the legislature’s Workplace Harassment Policies in handling the complaints about Groene; and several said the existing policy needs to be strengthened and updated in order to better protect legislative employees moving forward. For example, the designated contact that employees are encouraged to report these kinds of violations to is a member of the Executive Board Chairman’s staff, who employees may not feel comfortable approaching, especially if the alleged perpetrator is a member of the Executive Board, or if they don’t trust the Executive Board chair to handle the matter appropriately due to political motivations. 

A three-member panel of Senators has been appointed to conduct a formal investigation of the complaint against Groene with the help of an outside investigator. If any evidence of criminal activity is uncovered, it will be forwarded to the Attorney General to determine whether prosecution is appropriate. The timeline of when we expect to see results of that investigation is unclear, but we’re told it will be “soon”.

Governor Ricketts acted quickly to appoint Groene’s successor in a press conference on Tuesday. The new LD 42 Senator is North Platte banker Mike Jacobson, who was already a candidate for the seat which Groene would have been term-limited from. Jacobson described himself at the conference as a strong conservative, who shares many values with Groene but with a different “style”.  Noting that he was coming in late in the session with a lot to learn, Jacobson said he sees his role in this session as a supportive one to help other senators move forward existing pieces of legislation that align with his conservative values. He said he hopes to prove to the people of North Platte that he’s the right guy for the job, as he’ll have to win the election this November if he wants to keep the seat. Senator Jacobson has been officially sworn in to the Legislature and appointed to fill Groene’s vacated committee assignments.  He doesn’t get to introduce new legislation. As for Groene’s bills, Senators were given a brief window to request to “adopt” them before they were wiped out. 

As an update on the emergency rental assistance front, which I know many CSN members are interested in, Senator Matt Hansen has designated that measure, which is now AM 1969 on LB 1073, as his personal priority for the year. This means it will come up for debate soon. Hansen and supporters will likely face an uphill battle in achieving the 33 votes necessary to overcome expected filibusters on the bill that would require Nebraska to accept federal rental assistance funds. Given the Governor’s vocal opposition to it, we can reasonably anticipate a gubernatorial veto if the measure is passed; which would then require 30 votes to overcome and force it to become law despite the Governor’s objection. Keep contacting your Senators if you’d like to see this passed, especially those that might typically vote in line with what the Governor wants. My advice is that Senators are most moved by personal stories from individuals in their districts who would stand to benefit.

The Week Ahead

This week brings the final week of hearings and half-day debate. Next week will be a week of regular full-day debate (concluding around 5pm) before we move to a late night debate schedule. The hours will vary depending on how quickly the legislature moves on priority  legislation and what’s on the agenda for each given day; a late night can mean senators work until anywhere between 6 or 11pm. The Speaker generally keeps members advised of those nights he anticipates being on the later end.  

Speaker Hilgers announced that this week he intends to schedule as many priority bills as possible that will require less debate (e.g. those that aren’t expected to be filibustered) in an effort to move more quickly through less contentious measures that are piling up. He also said that he will resume a practice he used last year of reserving the final day of each work week for “Christmas Tree” bills. This is a nickname for Committee Priority Bills that are made up of parts of several different bills that the committee has amended together into one package. You can see what’s gone into each bill by viewing the Committee Statement for a Committee Priority bill, which includes a summary of anything that has been amended into it. 

Until Next Week,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall