Inside the Rotunda: 2021 Week 1

Welcome back, dear readers! Your Capitol Fly on the Wall returns to report on the first session of the 107th Nebraska Unicameral Legislature. I look forward to continuing my weekly updates throughout session as I flit around the capitol. I may not have had quite the week my fly friends in D.C. had, but the first week of session is always filled with anticipation and excitement. 

Each January, the forty-nine senators convene in Lincoln for either a ninety or sixty-day session of a two-year biennium. 2021 – an odd-numbered year – brings a ninety-day first session, which means the ceremonial swearing in of new senators, votes for new committee chairs, and the crafting and passage of the biennial state budget.

On Wednesday, eight new senators were sworn into office. Some fun facts:

  • John Cavanaugh joined his sister Machaela Cavanaugh, the first time siblings have served together. Their father (also John) served in the Legislature and in Congress in the 1970’s.
  • Three former senators who were previously term-limited have returned: Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, Mike Flood of Norfolk, and Rich Pahls of Omaha. Due to a statewide vote in 2000, senators must sit out at least four years after serving two consecutive terms. 
  • Terrell McKinney took over for Sen. Ernie Chambers in District 11. The 30-year-old is now the youngest serving member, replacing the 83-year-old Chambers. 
  • While the number of women serving decreased from fourteen to thirteen members, the body became slightly more racially diverse, with the number of senators of color increasing from four to six. 

New Leadership Elected; Committee Membership Decided

One of the first agenda items at the start of each biennium is electing new leadership. Our unicameral has a unique system where the speaker of the legislature and most committee chairs are elected by secret ballot by the entire body. It is fun to see the senators break out an old-fashioned whiteboard and turn in paper ballots on scraps of paper to make such important decisions. 

As expected, senators elected Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln to be the next speaker. The speaker has a powerful role in setting the agenda, deciding the order of bills for floor debate (sometimes whether they get debated at all), and laying out informal rules for debate. One of these informal rules that has been controversial in recent years is how senators use the filibuster. The previous speaker chose to remove a bill from the agenda after only three hours of debate, forcing a bill’s introducer to show him that the bill had enough votes (33) to overcome the filibuster before being put back on the agenda. Speaker Hilgers announced that he plans to return to the more traditional eight hours of debate for filibusters. It will be interesting to see how this change influences floor debate this session.

A major shakeup in committee chairs occurred when Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont narrowly beat Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte to become the new chair of the education committee. The easy-going former teacher beat out the hot-tempered Groene, who made clear the last two years that his main goal for the committee was reducing school spending and cutting taxes rather than passing bills that improve our education system.

Senators then voted to approve the new list of committee membership. This is also a key indicator of how session will go because the makeup of each committee determines which bills are voted out to the entire body for debate and passage. Most senators stay on the same committees from year to year, but the new senators must be assigned committees and a few senators jockey for openings on more coveted spots on committees like revenue and appropriations. 

To determine committee assignments, senators caucus by the three congressional districts and choose senators to represent them on the aptly named committee on committees (unlike other states where party leadership determines committee assignments and chairs). The committee on committees is where the behind-closed-doors wheeling and dealing happens. For example, negotiations occurred over whether the government committee this year would change from four republicans and four democrats to five republicans and three democrats, making it far easier to vote out controversial bills on elections and voting. In the end, the committee on committees decided the committee will remain at 4-4, influencing the dynamics and strategy around these key issues. 

Getting Through the Pandemic

After some speculation that senators would pause the session after swearing in the new senators to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic, senators chose to continue on but with some safeguards in place. Senators and staff are highly encouraged to wear facemasks (although several have been seen maskless). Senators who have been exposed to the virus will again be asked to sit in the balcony and access to the legislative floor for staff, family, and the media will be limited. 

The rotunda outside the legislative floor is usually teeming with lobbyists during debate, with lobbyists able to pass notes to senators and request they come speak with them about upcoming bills. Lobbyists and the public are able to peer through the glass doors at the back of the chamber to watch debate. This week, however, the rotunda was eerily quiet, and the sergeants-at-arms have roped off the doors joining it to the legislative floor. It will be interesting to see how this change in particular affects debate as senators are largely cut off from the usual back-and-forth with staff, lobbyists, and the public (although they will still have their phones and laptops handy!). 

Tune in this week to watch as senators continue to introduce new bills and begin debate and adopt proposed rules changes. You can watch live on netnebraska.org or there is an app called Nebraska Capitol Live that you can download on most mobile devices. You can find the list of introduced bills and much more at nebraskalegislature.gov. Until next week!

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall

The Capitol Fly on the Wall

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