Fly on the Wall 2022: Heated debate theme of early session

Convention of States Advances and Private School Tax Credits Defeated – For Now?

In days 4-7 of the 60-day legislative session, lawmakers jumped headfirst into heated debate over controversial measures. Beginning with 2022 priority bills, LR 14 (Halloran – Convention of States), LB 310 (Clements – Inheritance Tax cuts), and LB 364 (Linehan – Private School Scholarship Tax Credits) faced filibusters from opponents. LR 14 advanced to Select File, but could soon meet its fate, as a handful of members who had agreed to support it on the first round have indicated they will drop off on the second. LB 364 saw a tense showdown that ended with the bill’s defeat; but it won’t be gone for long, as Linehan is expected to reintroduce the same bill anew this week.

Governor’s Address and Funding Update

The Governor delivered his annual State of the State Address in which he outlines his legislative and budget priorities for the year ahead. Ricketts’ goals this year include tax relief, water projects, and the approval of a new prison. It’s seeming increasingly likely that Senators will be pressured to give the final OK to start construction of a new state penitentiary to replace the existing one, which is 150+ years old.  Ricketts says the facility has deteriorated so substantially that a new one is necessary to improve quality of life for inmates. Those Senators that oppose this investment will continue to push for criminal justice reforms to reduce systemic overcrowding issues, but it’s unclear whether the body will find any consensus here.

Given the good financial position the state is in, Ricketts said, it’s imperative that some of the money in state coffers gets returned to the people.  He suggested he’d like to see this done through Social Security tax exemptions, reducing the individual income tax, and more property tax relief.  Proposed water projects include a new canal and reservoir system sourced by the South Platte River, which Ricketts says would help protect water in the area for drinking and agricultural operations. Some have questioned the need for such a project, and a battle over water rights with neighboring Colorado will likely ensue if this proposal moves forward. 

A committee established last year to study water access as it relates to tourism, the Statewide Tourism and Recreational Water Access and Resource Sustainability Committee (“STAR WARS”, as you’ll hear it referred to on the floor) has proposed a massive lake between Lincoln and Omaha. The lake would be the largest in the region and cost over $200 million to dredge. Backers say it would generate $5 billion in economic activity for the state once completed, but some are questioning whether this is the best use of funds during a time in which many Nebraskans are struggling with unemployment and housing insecurity. The bill containing the proposal is LB 1023.

ARPA Update

What will become of Nebraska’s $1+ billion slice of the federal relief fund pie?  Ricketts unveiled his proposal for how the money should be used this week in LB 1014. The largest recipients of ARPA funds under the Governor’s plan would be the proposed canal system and construction grants for nonprofit projects.  Other components include funding for public health and safety pay, aid for low income children impacted by learning loss during the pandemic, a marketing program to attract workers to Nebraska, state agency IT updates, loan repayment aid for behavioral health & nursing professionals, rate increases for child welfare providers, YRTC upgrades, flood mapping and planning, drinking and wastewater system improvement, community and state colleges, the UNK – UNMC Rural Health Complex project in Kearney, workforce housing, children’s mental health care and education projects, law enforcement training facility upgrades, and building projects that address public health measures or economic hardship due to COVID.  This is not an exhaustive list, and the plan isn’t set in stone. It now goes to the Appropriations committee for adjustments. 

Some raised eyebrows at the Governor’s notable criticism of mask and vaccine mandates on the same day that Nebraska Medicine, the state’s largest hospital, imposed Crisis Standards for how medical care should be allocated when the need for care has outpaced available staffing and resources due to the current coronavirus surge.

Another point of contention brewing is funding (or lack thereof) to high-poverty areas in North Omaha. Senators Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne, both of whom represent parts of North Omaha, have unveiled a plan to direct funds to the area, which is home to many people of color and suffers some of the highest unemployment rates in the state. They’ve introduced two bills (LB 1024 and LB 1025) to carry out their plan, intended to address economic issues in North O that were exacerbated by the pandemic. Following Ricketts’ address, the two sharply criticized Ricketts’ plan, saying it doesn’t provide enough relief to North Omaha in favor of funneling most of the funds toward projects in rural Nebraska that are less pressing. Comments from the Senators thus far set the stage for a battle over this issue, and I’ve heard rumors that they may filibuster other measures in protest of North Omaha not getting the consideration they believe it deserves for a greater share of funding.  This could have a domino effect on other measures’ progress.

The Week Ahead

The Legislature is closed Monday in observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  Hearings begin on Tuesday, shifting the daily structure to morning debate and afternoon hearings.  Introduction of new bills ends on Thursday.

Bills up for debate this week include Senator Pansing Brooks’ LB 568 regarding juvenile truancy, Senator Hilkemann’s LB 496 to require DNA collection at arrest for violent crimes, and Senator Machaela Cavanaugh’s LB 396 to increase support for families of children with developmental disabilities. LR 14, Senator Halloran’s Convention of States bill, will likely be back on Select File. Expect filibusters on LBs 496, 396, and LR 14.

Until next week,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall