An Unprecedented Session
Are you sick of hearing the word “unprecedented” yet? Because last week the Legislature finished a truly unprecedented (sorry!) end to the 2020 legislative session. The 60-day session was supposed to adjourn by April but instead was put on hold for four months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Senators gathered to finish the 17 days left starting July 20th, finishing up in a month filled with contention and emotion, with a little bit of policy squeezed in by the end.
How will we look back on this session? Will it be remembered as the session senators came together to pass a compromise bill on property tax relief and business tax incentives? Maybe we’ll just remember it as the session where a senator told a fellow senator to shut up and gave her the middle finger. Worse, it could be remembered as the session Nebraskans struggled with the fallout of a global pandemic, a developing economic depression, and historic racial tension – SIMULTANEOUSLY – while senators ignored these needs and continued business as usual. As they say, time will tell.
Senators Pass the “Grand Compromise” and Other Major Issues
The issue that seemed to be at the forefront throughout session was passing property tax relief. But a few other issues took up several hours of precious debate time. Below are some of the more controversial issues and major bills passed this session. (Note: For most bill descriptions, I edited existing summaries published by the Unicameral Update, a wonderful resource when you are trying to figure out what a bill actually does!)
LB814 (Geist): Bans “dismemberment” abortion- known medically as dilation and evacuation- except in emergency situations.
LB1107 (Scheer): Contains several provisions, including a new tax credit based on the amount of property taxes paid to a taxpayer’s school district, a new business tax incentive program, and a requirement to provide matching funds for a potential project at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
LB1008 (Scheer): Makes mid-biennium adjustments to appropriations in the mainline budget, one of the main responsibilities of senators in even-numbered years (the two-year budget is set in odd-numbered years). Major changes include $10 million designated for rural workforce housing and a $3.7 million increase in developmental disability provider rates.
LB1144 (Health and Human Services Committee): Expands legislative oversight of the state’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers and creates the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center Special Oversight Committee of the Legislature.
But Don’t Forget the Small Steps…
Those who have hung around the Legislature for a while know that progress usually happens in small steps. Below are some of the bills passed this year that will do some good for Nebraskans, despite not always making splashy headlines:
LB266 (Lindstrom): Expands eligibility for a program that provides state income tax credits of up to $1,500 to self-employed childcare providers.
LB323 (Crawford): Updates eligibility standards for Nebraska’s Medicaid Insurance for Workers with Disabilities program to help individuals with disabilities maintain employment while retaining Medicaid coverage.
LB424 (Quick): Allows cities to create new land banks (or join an existing land bank). Land banks are tax-exempt political subdivisions that acquire, manage and develop vacant and tax-delinquent properties under the Nebraska Municipal Land Bank Act.
LB848 (Pansing Brooks): Adds Indigenous Peoples’ Day to the existing Columbus Day holiday, extends eligibility for the Bridge to Independence Program to Native American youth who have reached the age of majority under tribal law, and requires the display of flags of Nebraska’s four federally recognized Native American tribes in the Warner Chamber of the State Capitol.
LB866 (Wayne): Adopts the Municipal Density and Missing Middle Housing Act. The bill incentivizes affordable housing projects by establishing a workforce housing investment grant program for urban areas of the state and requiring cities create affordable housing action plans.
LB881 (Hansen): Contains several bills that aim to reform judicial procedures in the criminal justice system. These include requiring the court to appoint counsel when setting bond for an indigent defendant, providing that a person cannot be held in custody while awaiting trial on an offense for a period of time longer than the maximum sentence for that offense, and allowing a person sentenced to community service to apply to have their conviction set aside.
LB918 (Wayne): Creates a state Commission on African American Affairs, which will promote state and federal legislation beneficial to African Americans in Nebraska, work with similar commissions from other states and coordinate housing, education, welfare, medical and dental care, employment and other programs affecting African Americans in Nebraska.
LB924 (Chambers): Requires each law enforcement agency in Nebraska to implement an anti-bias and implicit bias training policy to combat apparent or actual racial profiling practices.
LB933 (Crawford): Prohibits a public or private utility company from charging a fee for the discontinuance or reconnection of service that exceeds the reasonable costs of providing such service and prohibits most public and private utilities from discontinuing service to clients for nonpayment unless it first notifies them. This bill was amended into LB632 (Hughes) before passing.
LB992 (Friesen): Among other provisions in the bill that will encourage the expansion of broadband internet service in underserved and unserved areas, it creates a new position of state broadband coordinator within the office of the state chief information officer.
LB997 (Morfeld): Reduces unexpected medical bills due to an emergency visit to a health care facility or provider that was not in a patient’s health insurance network.
LB1016 (Hansen): Prohibits an employer from retaliating or discriminating against an employee who files a suit or complaint under the Nebraska Wage Payment and Collection Act.
LB1052 (Wishart): Prohibits the state Department of Health and Human Services, a managed care organization or a contracted pharmacy benefit manager from denying coverage of antidepressant, antipsychotic or anticonvulsant medication if the patient’s health care provider deems the drug medically necessary.
LB1061 (Crawford): Extends and revamps the state’s alternative response procedures in child welfare cases. Alternative response is a practice that handles low-risk child welfare cases by empowering families to build on their strengths, rather than criminally investigating them or placing them on the Child Abuse and Neglect Registry.
LB1124 (Howard): Creates the Nebraska Opioid Recovery Fund as the repository of any money the state may receive from a federal Department of Justice lawsuit against opioid manufacturers accused of deceptive advertising.
Governor Ricketts Wields Veto Power
The Governor vetoed a total of six bills, all without a chance for senators to vote to override because they had already adjourned for the year. Some think this scheduling maneuver by Speaker Scheer was intentional. Unfortunately, being term-limited and unable to continue to serve as speaker, he did not seem too worried about the appearance of ceding this power over to the Governor. The following were the bills vetoed:
LB238 (Pansing Brooks): Requires the state Department of Correctional Services to allow all execution witnesses to view the process continually from the moment the inmate enters the execution chamber until the moment he or she is pronounced dead, without any impediment to their line of sight.
LB515 (Vargas): Requires that a student be given an opportunity to complete any classwork and homework missed during a suspension, requires school districts to reinstate a student when their expulsion has ended and accept certain credits earned by the student during the expulsion from certain accredited institutions, and changes several procedures for student discipline hearings.
LB607 (Kolterman): Changes state law regulating nail technology and tattoo artists.
LB1004 (Lathrop): Expanded parole by making prisoners eligible within two years of their mandatory discharge date, unless they are eligible for parole at an earlier date.
LB1060 (Cavanaugh): Extends employment discrimination protections by clarifying that existing protections against racially based employment discrimination include hair texture and protective hairstyles, including braids, locks, and twists.
LB1089 (Vargas): Requires Nebraska students to submit a federal college financial aid application (known as FAFSA) before they graduate from high school.
Bills that Stalled but Could be Back
The bills below were hotly debated on the legislative floor but failed to pass. They include efforts to respond to the public outcry over the summer surrounding police brutality and efforts to provide protections for meatpacking workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In spite of some successful procedural maneuvers, both bills ran out of time before session ended. Look for the main concepts of these bills to be included in newly introduced bills next legislative session.
LB58 (Morfeld): Adopts the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act (sometimes called a Red Flag law), which allows a court to intervene in extreme cases where an armed person has demonstrated they are a danger to themselves or others.
LB147 (Groene): Authorizes teachers and other school personnel to “use reasonable physical intervention to safely manage the behavior of a student” to protect the student or another person from physical injury or to secure property in the student’s possession if it poses a threat of physical injury to the student or another person.
LB305 (Crawford): Requires employers with four or more employees to provide paid sick and safe leave. Employees would accrue at least one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked and could earn up to 40 hours of paid leave per year, based on hours worked.
LB667 (Vargas): As amended, requires meatpacking plant employers to maintain six feet of space around and between each worker through a combination of increasing physical space between workstations, slowing production speeds, staggering shifts and breaks and adjusting shift size.
LB1222 (Wayne): Requires certain Nebraska cities to establish citizen police oversight boards.
Special Session on the Horizon?
Because senators failed to address several pressing issues Nebraskans are facing (including racial inequities and the health and economic consequences of the pandemic), some senators and advocates are pushing for an emergency special session. Special sessions are mini sessions that occur outside the regular 60 or 90-day session that starts each January. They must be called either by the Governor or by 33 of the 49 senators. The last time a special session took place was in 2011 when senators met to pass legislation regarding eminent domain and the Keystone XL pipeline project.
Supporters of a special session, however, may struggle to find 33 senators willing to stand up to the Governor. It’s also a common argument from senators and fiscal conservatives that calling a special session is not worth the added cost to the state’s budget.
A Final Note
Those new around here might be frustrated by the long, contentious session that failed to bring much relief to struggling Nebraskans. This fly has been buzzing around the Capitol a few years and has found that progress takes time. A bill might be introduced several years in a row before it somehow finds a way to pass. Meanwhile, staffers appreciate you and hope you continue to fight for your communities.
I’ll send you off with something Sen. Hunt said last week as the session closed and that I suspect resonates with many of you: “I think it’s very important for my morale that I never expect justice to happen, but you just continue to work toward it.”
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall