Inside the Rotunda 2021: Week 11

Virtual Meetings Bill Advances, First Filibuster, Speak Priority Bills Announced

On Thursday, senators completed their first week of all-day floor debate. Most of the week’s debate was taken up by a filibuster of a bill to protect student journalists’ freedom of speech. The rest of session began to take shape, as Speaker Hilgers chose his priority bills for the year. Any bill left in committee without a speaker or senator priority may have to wait until next year to get its time in the limelight.

Senators advance bill to allow for virtual meetings under the Open Meetings Act

Senators began the week debating a bill from Sen. Mike Flood to give political subdivisions more flexibility under the Open Meetings Act. During the pandemic, it became clear that public officials needed clarification on when they could meet virtually and still follow the Act.

LB83 would allow for expanded use of virtual conferencing for public meetings by allowing for more virtual meetings by those who currently use it and by adding natural resources districts and local public health districts to the list of public bodies that can use virtual conferencing. In addition, it would allow officials to discuss regular business during a virtual meeting held during a declared emergency (currently they can only discuss business related to the declared emergency).

During debate, senators adopted an amendment from the Government Committee to add metropolitan transit authorities and metropolitan utilities districts. They then voted 48-0 to advance the bill to the second round of debate.

Senators overcome first-round filibuster to protect student journalists

Debate on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mostly revolved around Sen. Adam Morfeld’s LB88, a bill to protect student journalists’ first amendment rights. More specifically, LB88 would designate student-produced media as part of a public forum and extend the freedom of speech and press that is provided to professional members of the media to public high school and postsecondary student journalists and their advisors.

Some senators balked at this idea and said it would give students free reign to publish content on controversial issues. Many senators spoke in favor of the bill, however, including rare support from Sen. Slama and from Sen. Flood, who both spoke of their experiences as student journalists themselves.

After a filibuster that covered eight hours of debate over three days, senators voted 33-12 to invoke cloture (a motion to end debate that requires 33 votes) and 28-15 to advance the bill. In spite of the razor-thin vote, the bill should have a clear path forward, since cloture is the highest vote threshold a bill must reach along the path to passage.

Add it to your list, however, of bills that could face a potential veto from the governor later in the session.

Speaker designates priority bills

Also, this week, Speaker Hilgers announced the bills that he chose to designate as speaker priority bills. Senators can request to the speaker that bills get this special designation, so they are guaranteed debate time. He said about 100 were requested; the rules allow the Speaker to select 25.

There were some good picks, all of which you can find on the legislative website, including:

  • LB247 (Pansing Brooks): Creates the Mental Health Crisis Hotline Task Force
  • LB398 (Brandt): Adopts the Nebraska Farm-to-School Program Act
  • LB497 (DeBoer): Provides for compensation under the Nebraska Crime Victim’s Reparations Act for health care providers examining or treating victims of sexual assault or domestic assault
  • LB527 (Walz): Changes the age schools are required to begin providing transition services to students with disabilities from 16 to 14.

If a bill you care about does not have a priority designation, there are still some ways it can move forward. Senators can try to amend their bills to bills on the agenda if they deal with similar topics or cover the same statutes (i.e., “germane” to the bill). Additionally, this upcoming week, Speaker Hilgers will announce bills that he will put on the consent calendar, where senators can request bills be put on the agenda that are noncontroversial and that can be advanced quickly.

Lastly, if a bill has advanced from committee but does not have a priority, it may pop up on the agenda early next session before debate on priority bills begin. At the legislature, especially, it’s important to remember that good things come to those who wait!

Until next week,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall