Inside the Rotunda 2021: Week 18

Week 18: Spending Bills Continue to Stir Controversy

In a second consecutive week of a series of late-night debates, tensions continue to run high and this Fly senses that some legislators are getting weary of burning the candle at both ends.  Some good news is on the horizon, though, for those hoping for an early adjournment.  (More on that at the end of this post).

Senators continued working through those priority bills that come with a price tag for the state, including hot-button measures that faced filibusters – a proposal designed to lower property taxes by funneling more aid to schools that rely the most heavily on property taxes (LB 454, Friesen); a proposal to replace our current “3 – legged” tax system of sales, property, and income taxes with one “consumption tax” (LR 11CA, Erdman); and a bill to create a commission to study in-depth our current school funding formula and make recommendations about how to improve or replace it (LB 132, DeBoer).  Of these three, only LB 132 advanced, after facing stiff opposition and eventually reaching a compromise in which the committee makeup that originally included education and tax experts was replaced by members of the legislature. 

LB 241: Meatpacking Protections (Vargas)

In a hard-fought victory for the introducer, the body narrowly advanced a pared-down version of his original proposal aimed at requiring COVID-related safety protections for workers in meatpacking and poultry processing plants.  Advocates who worked on the bill heard countless stories from frontline workers about dangerous working conditions like insufficient distancing and safety protocols, poor quality or no PPE, and workers being pressured or forced to work even when sick.  The bill comes after Sen. Vargas sponsored an amendment on the same topic last summer at the peak of the pandemic, which failed to advance.  Advocates say that the problems persist, even with COVID numbers leveling off, and that continued protections are vital for these workers who often work long hours in close, confined spaces.  LB 241 advanced with 27 votes.

LB 496: DNA Collection at Arrest (Hilkemann)

Perhaps one of the more unexpected big fights to come up yet this year, Sen. Hilkemann’s priority bill which received relatively little fanfare at the hearing caught the attention late last week of a portion of the body who warned of its implications.  LB 496, known nationally as “Katie’s Law” – a model bill that has been introduced and passed in several other states – would require that persons arrested for a violent crime get their DNA collected by law enforcement and entered into a database.  Sen. Hilkemann and advocates argued that this will help solve cold cases, link perpetrators to crimes and deter future violent crime.  Opponents raised concerns about its constitutionality and potential violations of due process, and that the state would be forcibly collecting and storing DNA from innocent people who have not yet been proven guilty or convicted. 

Sen. Hilkemann and supporters said that they worked to improve it by including some narrower provisions for its use, such as requiring a judicial finding of “probable cause” before the DNA could be entered in the database.  But a coalition of opponents filibustered the bill, saying even with changes meant to improve the bill, it had negative implications for people of color in particular and that it might lead to more charges being filed should someone refuse to submit when arrested.  LB 496 narrowly scraped by on a cloture vote after 8 hours of debate, with exactly the 33 votes required to cut off debate and bring the measure to a vote.  It then advanced to Select File with 30 votes – though I think we can expect to see some more squabbling about this one before it advances further.

A Battle of Partisan Resolutions

Another plotline that has been brewing on the sidelines of the usual legislative debate centers on the introduction of LR 107.  This resolution, which many have been interpreted as overtly partisan or even extremist, flew quietly under the radar until Sen. Megan Hunt called it to the body’s attention late last week with a Motion to Rerefer.  The LR, introduced by Sen. Mike Groene and signed by 30 cosponsors, addresses a slew of hyperpolitical topics, ranging from perceived federal overreach in the states, to voting rights, redistricting, environmental policy and climate change, COVID-19 vaccinations, reproductive healthcare, and 2nd Amendment rights.  The language concludes by requesting the cooperation of the Governor, the Attorney General, President Biden, the US Congress and its leaders, and other elected officials in “defending the Constitution of the United States, the states, and the people against federal overreach.

Sen. Hunt’s motion to re-refer came in response to its being referenced to the Executive Board of the Legislature, the membership of which made it more likely to get a favorable vote to reach the floor, as opposed to the Government, Veterans, and Military Affairs committee – where opponents argued it should have gone due to subject matter.  Those speaking in support of rereferencing said that the resolution’s backers and legislative leadership helped steer it away from the Government committee because it would likely get deadlocked in a tie vote.  After Sen. Hunt’s motion failed, a well-attended hearing on LR 107 was held Thursday, with both supporters and opponents of the resolution showing up to testify.  No word yet on when the Executive Board will hold a vote on the measure, but keep an eye on this as it’s a likely contributor to future votes and debates.  Sen. Hunt has introduced two retaliatory resolutions thus far, LR 118 addresses the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, and LR 121 addresses the government response to the COVID 19 pandemic and vaccines. 

What’s Next

Speaker Hilgers has announced that this week will be another long week, with Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday planned as late nights.  The general plan is to continue tackling priority bills remaining on Select and General File, with LB 474 slated for what’s sure to be a long debate on Wednesday. That’s Senator Wishart’s priority bill to adopt the Medicinal Cannabis Act.

Exciting news – or disappointing, depending on whether you’re still hoping to see your favorite bill passed – the Speaker has said that we will almost certainly adjourn “sine die” earlier than the scheduled 90th day.  A final day of the session year has not yet been set, but Sen. Hilgers said he wants to allow enough time for all priority bills to be debated while also giving Senators plenty of interim time to prepare to tackle big issues next January.  Since we were robbed of an interim last year, and with a special session around redistricting tentatively slated for September, preserving that interim time – when Senators and staff do research, hold meetings, study issues and try to work out compromises – is vital to getting good work done next year, he said. 

Until next week,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall