Inside the Rotunda 2021: Week 15

Budget Advances, Food Assistance Eligibility Expanded, and Student Journalist Protections Filibustered

Believe it or not, Legislature Watchers, we are officially over two thirds of the way through the ninety-day session!  With a recess day for Senators on Monday, we’ll reconvene on Tuesday for the 63rd day of session.  Before Senators left for the weekend, Speaker Hilgers announced that he anticipates these next three weeks to be the biggest push for the body to take care of business, leaving room for speculation that Session could wind down early – though, of course, there are always unforeseen bumps in the road that can stall debate.  The Speaker also advised that from here on out, he reserves the right to make the last working day of the week a full day of debate as needed; in contrast with the current practice of generally concluding the final day of each week around noon.  This week, Tuesday and Thursday are reserved as potential “late nights”, during which Senators should expect to stay until 7pm or later, depending on how quickly they move through the agenda.

Budget Amended, Advanced to Final Reading

Senators began the week by forging ahead with the next round of budget debate.  In keeping Speaker Hilgers’ goal, the budget passed on Select File by midweek so that it can be passed on Final Reading this week and sent to the Governor for approval.  Senator Machaela Cavanaugh continued to tie up budget debate to make arguments about perceived hypocrisy, misogyny and bad faith actors in the Legislature, with the support of a few of her friends in the body.  Others found her use of time inappropriate and were frustrated.  As I mentioned last week, Cavanaugh was retaliating against the decision which some saw as a personal slight to her, in which the Executive Board voted to leave her off the LR 29 Eastern Area Service Contract Special Oversight committee that she created.

Along the way, a couple of notable amendments were added to the budget package.  Senators Justin Wayne and Anna Wishart brought a set of amendments to create and fund a Prison Overcrowding Contingency Fund, in which funds will be sequestered until the Legislature approves their use to address overcrowding.  Wayne’s amendment created the fund, and Wishart’s amendment reallocated $15 million of the $115 million set aside for prison construction to be used instead to explore alternative solutions to prison overcrowding. Most senators, who voted to approve the amendments, saw this approach as a moderate compromise to the hotly contested debate over whether we should build a new facility or explore other criminal justice reforms, like increased programming and training.  This way, some members said, we’ll explore a little of both sides of the issue – improving the physical space where prisoners are housed and also looking at ways to reduce the overall incarcerated population.

Senator Groene drew attention by proposing an amendment that would strike funding for public health departments.  Groene said that the departments are sufficiently funded and that with the influx of federal CARES act dollars, they may not need the additional money set aside for them in the proposed budget.  After some debate, senators voted down that amendment. 

This week, Senators have a recess day on Monday before returning to presumably pass the budget package on Final Reading on Tuesday.  In the midst of advancing the budget, the Legislature has been steadily working through Senators’ priority bills.

SNAP “Cliff Effect” Bill Advanced

Senator McCollister won 29 votes to advance his personal priority bill, LB 108, to Select File, with an amendment.  LB 108 raises the limit on income families can earn and still qualify for SNAP benefits or food assistance.  The current household income eligibility limit is 130% of the federal poverty line.  With the amendment that was adopted by the body, this bill would move that line up to 165% of the federal poverty line.  This is designed to reduce the harmful “cliff effect’, in which a slight increase in wages due to a raise or promotion at work causes a family to lose SNAP benefits they rely on to eat. 

Proponents argue that the current limit and “cliff” causes families to have to choose between advancing at work and providing more income for their families versus keeping themselves and their children fed.  Opponents of the bill pointed to Nebraska’s relatively low unemployment rate and said we should encourage people to move into those good paying jobs and lessen their reliance on food assistance.  Senators generally disagreed about whether increasing the SNAP income eligibility limit disincentivizes people from seeking out better paying jobs. 

SNAP is federally funded, and the bill’s passage would cost nothing for the state.  The amended version of the bill also included an “emergency clause”, meaning it goes into effect immediately, rather than taking the standard effective date which is 3 months following the conclusion of session.   Notably, Governor Ricketts issued a column this week stating his opposition to LB 108, perhaps hinting at a potential veto if the bill passes.  The bill would need 30 votes to override a veto.

Free Speech for Student Journalists Killed by Filibuster

LB 88, Senator Adam Morfeld’s personal priority bill, is one that he has brought for several years.  Intended to protect the free speech rights of student journalists, it would prevent schools from disciplining faculty advisers to student newspapers if they refuse to censor a student’s writing, infringing on the student’s First Amendment rights. A handful of amendments were introduced and a full-scale filibuster was executed successfully by opponents, who disagreed with the introducer about who and to what extent should have the authority to censor student publications that may feature controversial content.  After opponents ran up the clock for four hours of debate, a cloture motion to cease debate and force a vote on the bill failed with only 30 votes.  It needed 33 to overcome the filibuster. 

Other Bills Advanced

LB 271, Morfeld: Creates an alternative diversion program for people cited for drunk driving

LB 338, Bostelman: Encourages rural broadband internet expansion

LB 320, J. Cavanaugh: Provides fairer protections for tenants in rented housing

LB 83, Flood: Flexibility for local political subdivisions to meet virtually

LB 487, Arch: Requires insurance to cover mental health services provided via telehealth at the same rate as other services

LB 390, Murman: Expands inter-state health care license reciprocity for many health care professions

The Speaker’s list of bills he plans to schedule for General File Debate this week include:

LB 2 (Briese) Change the valuation of agricultural land and horticultural land for certain school district taxes

LB 39 (Lindstrom) Change the Sports Arena Facility Financing Assistance Act

LB 51 (Lathrop) Change and provide qualifications for and duties relating to certification of law

enforcement officers, require accreditation of law enforcement agencies, prohibit chokeholds in

law enforcement, and require policies on excessive force

LB 408 (Briese) Adopt the Property Tax Request Act

LB 485 (DeBoer) Change provisions relating to childcare assistance

And Senator Halloran’s pull motion to place LR 14 on General File. 

We’ll discuss these bills – and what a pull motion means – in more detail once they come up next week. 

The Capitol Fly on the Wall

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