Governor’s 180 on Summer EBT Surprising, But Welcome

As is often the nature of the beast in reporting news from the Unicameral, things changed rapidly from the time of writing my last post on Sunday to Monday’s surprise announcement from Governor Pillen declaring he had changed his mind and would be opting Nebraska into the Summer EBT program after all, citing his interactions with youth advocates as well as pressure from Sen. Aguilar as reasons for his change of heart.

At a press conference to announce the decision Monday morning, the Governor was joined by the heads of the state departments of Health and Human Services and Education, Sen. Ray Aguilar, who had prioritized the bill, and 20 other senators. Only three of the 21 all-Republican senators at the conference were cosponsors of LB 952, the Day/Aguilar bill that was bogged down by HHS Chair Sen. Hansen’s gamesmanship last week in committee: Sens. Aguilar, Hughes, and Bosn.

Notably, bill introducer Sen. Day was not present, and I am told that she was not notified of this decision nor invited to be a part of the press conference. Some observers called it a transparently political choice for Pillen to have such a major shift in thinking about this program and yet fail to mention or include one of the leaders who had been advocating for it all along. Day has since told multiple media outlets that while she felt her and other Democrat senators’ exclusion from the conference was a missed opportunity to celebrate a rare bipartisan win for Nebraska, she’s ultimately counting this as a victory for the kids who will benefit and doesn’t care who gets the credit.

At the end of the day, I’ve largely heard the same sentiment from most of us around the Capitol that supported the LB 952 effort: while there were clearly some unsavory political shenanigans and less than ideal statements made in the run-up to this result, the outcome is one we should celebrate. It’s important to remember and lift up in your networks that our voices do matter, and sometimes the right kind of pressure on our leaders does work.

Expected to launch in Summer 2024, Pillen spoke about his plan for Nebraska’s version of Summer EBT to include additional “touchpoints” to reach children in need and their families, like a website with nutritional information and links to other assistance programs such as WIC or Medicaid, and phone call or text check-ins from HHS staff members to help connect participants to summer youth programs and other resources. There was some concern among advocates initially about whether Pillen’s program plan will be more restrictive than what would have come out of LB 952, but at this time it appears that these touchpoints will be optional and not burdensome for participants. The Pillen administration was supposed to have submitted its application for Nebraska’s participation in the program by the end of the day last Monday. I have not yet seen official confirmation as to whether the USDA has approved the application, which will be the final signal that it’s for sure happening; but it’s largely expected to be approved.

As a larger contextual sidenote: of the minority registered-Democrat senators in the legislature, it’s well known that Sen. Day is Target #1 for the majority Powers That Be when she’s up for re-election this fall. When she was elected in her Republican-leaning Gretna district in 2020, she narrowly beat her then-Governor Ricketts-appointed opponent, Andrew LaGrone, by one point. With the minority party members hanging by a thread on their ability to block extreme legislation on a number of issues, knocking one of them out and replacing Day with someone more conservative is seen by the Nebraska Republican Party as one of the most viable avenues to gain a much more powerful and filibuster-proof majority. It’s the combination of several factors — the conservative-leaning demographics of Day’s district, the fact that she’s up for re-election this cycle, and her perceived cooperation with more outwardly progressive senators — that have placed a target on her back. So here’s the likely reason that Governor Pillen was not eager to hand her the political credit for Summer EBT after seeing it was overwhelmingly popular with the public. Sen. Aguilar is also up for re-election this fall and will face down a familiar opponent in former Sen. Dan Quick, a Democrat, so Pillen may have that motivation to give Aguilar some credit here; though the Quick/Aguilar race was not nearly as close as Day/LaGrone when they last squared off in 2020.

This bears discussing because Day’s seat is one to watch this fall that could have a huge impact on how things unfold for the next two years, and Day is likely being very cautious and calculated in how she moves this year with that in mind. Think of it this way: the magic filibuster-breaking number for a cloture vote is 33. If the minority wants to block a bill, they need 17 members to hold strong against it. The current minority has a “soft 17,” sometimes 16 depending on the issue. So losing just that one vote could substantially move the needle on what a motivated majority could pass next year on the most highly contentious issues, such as abortion, healthcare and LGBTQ rights, public vs. private education, and voting rights; and could jeopardize any number of existing policies that benefit marginalized Nebraskans.

Other News

  • Senator Slama confirmed late last week that she would not be seeking re-election for her seat in Southeast Nebraska.
  • The deadlines for committee and senator priority bill designations, and requests for speaker priorities, have now passed. Speaker Arch will announce his priority selections this Tuesday. A listing of priority bills can be found here. For bills that didn’t receive a priority designation, chances of debate and passage are now significantly slimmer unless the bill sponsor works to find a “vehicle” in another bill that it could be amended into.

After Monday’s holiday, Tuesday marks the halfway point of the 60-day session.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall