Inside the Rotunda 2021: Week 13

Child Welfare Investigative Committee, Debate on Governor Appointees and Budget Bills Headed to Floor

Senators continue to debate priority bills and are gearing up to debate the budget, one of their major tasks for this legislative session. That along with some fireworks over a governor’s appointment to the Board of Health made for a substantive week of debate (Oh, and there were fireworks on the floor in the more literal sense as senators passed Sen. Slama’s bill to expand the type of fireworks that can be sold in Nebraska).

Resolution passes to create a child welfare investigative committee

On Monday, senators debated and passed a legislative resolution that creates a special committee to investigate the troubled state child welfare contract with St. Francis Ministries. In 2019, the company massively underbid the existing provider and – not surprisingly- recently had to ask for an emergency bailout from the state to cover operating costs. What’s worse, case numbers remain over the state-mandated maximum and the quality of care has plummeted, according to recent legislative hearings on the subject.

The resolution, which was introduced and prioritized by Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, passed on a 40-6 vote and creates a committee made up of nine senators. They will submit a report by the end of this year and disband a year later.

Before passage, however, senators adopted an Executive Committee amendment that will have the committee focus solely on the broken state bid and procurement process rather than quality of care issues. Senators also had extended debate on the committee’s power to subpoena documents and public officials. In the end, they agreed to give the committee subpoena power but only with approval of the Executive Board.

Senators spar over gubernatorial appointments

On Wednesday, senators started the day with what is usually a simple task – voting to confirm gubernatorial appointments to the various state boards and commissions. On the agenda was confirming several appointments to the State Board of Health. However, some senators were troubled that one nominee in particular shouldn’t be approved. Bud Synhorst is a lobbyist for a conservative business group in Lincoln and a longtime Republican political operative.

Senators also pointed out that the State Board of Health and the boards and commissions in general severely lack diversity that reflects the geographic, racial, and gender makeup of the state. For example, of the seven appointees, all were white men, and none represented areas in the eastern part of Omaha.

After taking up the morning of debate, senators voted to confirm the appointment on a 37-7 vote. Sen. Hunt, however, vowed to look at the appointments process more closely over the interim and explore possible changes.

Here comes the budget

Next week, senators will begin debate on the biennial budget. Last Thursday, the Appropriations Committee, who is in charge of piecing together the initial drafts, voted a final version out of committee unanimously. Senators can still amend the budget on the floor, but the Appropriations Committee usually sticks together to defend their initial draft, which they always work to make amenable to all senators.

The main sticking point may be whether to include the big-ticket item of a new prison to relieve the longtime problem of overcrowding at the state’s correctional institutions. Watch for senators to fight it out on the floor (but they’ll have to wait to take off the gloves, since Sen. Wayne’s bill to regulate bare knuckle boxing only advanced from the first round of debate this week!)

Other happenings this week:

-Senators advanced Sen. Day’s priority bill LB639, which requires Nebraska schools to create health plans for students with seizure disorders.

-The Business and Labor Committee finally voted to advance LB298 out of committee. This is Sen. McDonnell’s priority bill and would allow immigrants authorized to work in the country to collect unemployment benefits.

-Senators voted to advance LB338 to the second round of debate, a bill introduced and prioritized by Sen. Bostelman which would give rural Nebraskans more input on broadband internet carriers. Sen. Wayne introduced but later withdrew an amendment to allow municipalities to offer broadband services to make the point that it should be considered a public utility.

-The Judiciary Committee voted out LB51 on a 7-0 vote. This is a committee priority bill that would improve police standards by various methods, including requiring de-escalation training, removing the ability of officers still in training to carry a firearm, and requiring the state to post a database of law enforcement officers who have had their license revoked or been convicted of a crime.

Until next week,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall