We made it through the first full week of the legislative session! The main focus of the week was the introduction of new bills, which continues over the first ten days of session and ends January 20th. Senators have introduced almost 500 bills so far. This number is similar to past years, notable because Speaker Hilgers had requested senators try to introduce fewer bills in order to get through session amidst the pandemic (a tough ask when the four years of a senator’s term seems to fly by).
Rules Changes Discussed
The other big agenda item of the week was a public hearing on senators’ proposed rules changes. At the start of every biennium, senators must decide whether to make any changes to the rules before formally voting on and adopting them. This may sound boring, but it has the potential to have a huge impact on legislation because rules like the filibuster, the committee process, and the public’s access and input to the legislative process all hinge on the wording of a few rules.
At the beginning of each long session, senators introduce proposed changes to the Rules Committee, which then holds a public hearing on them and decides which ones to vote out of committee for debate by the full legislature. As in past years, senators introduced several controversial rules, including changes to make it harder to filibuster and to stop the process of secret ballot voting for committee chairs.
Another hotly contested rule change was to close committee executive sessions (where senators debate and vote whether to advance legislation from committee) to the press. Opponents at the hearing pointed out that the media’s access to these “exec. sessions” is a unique outlier when compared to the behind-closed-doors negotiations done in other states.
After the hearing on Tuesday, the Rules Committee voted out just three mostly uncontroversial changes: clarifying the process senators use to elect members of Committee on Committees and the Executive Board, changing the process of roll call votes so that the introducer of a motion decides whether the roll is called in alphabetical order or reverse alphabetical order, and including the Pledge of Allegiance formally in each day’s agenda. Senators will debate and vote on these three changes this upcoming Thursday.
Governor’s State of the State Address
On Thursday, Governor Ricketts gave his annual State of the State address to senators. Similar to the State of the Union the president gives, senators formally invite the governor into the legislative chambers, where he sets out his priorities for the session. This year’s speech seemed shorter than past years and included the usual topics of property tax relief, expanding and attracting the state’s workforce, and supporting military members.
Although the speech itself was not that newsworthy, controversy did sneak in when the governor failed to mention Senator Terrell McKinney in his welcome to new senators. Sen. McKinney, who is Black, took over for Sen. Chambers and represents the diverse 11th legislative district. The governor apologized to Sen. McKinney after his speech, claiming the omission was unintentional, but the senator responded on Twitter, saying “Being black in America we’re always forgotten no surprise here, which is why I’m here to be a voice for those that our government conveniently forgets about apologies don’t erase actions!”
Adding to the controversy, Senator Megan Hunt tweeted a picture that showed Sen. McKinney’s name on the teleprompter (which you could see reflected from the panels installed because of COVID precautions). Not exactly the best start for the governor and the young senator, but it will take a while to match the contentious relationship of Sen. Chambers, who regularly called out the governor and called senators who bent to his will “Rickett’s Crickets.”
Upcoming Changes to Public Hearings
Speaker Hilgers announced that public hearings on introduced bills will begin January 25th and, unlike previous years when hearings are held in the afternoons after morning debate, will take place all day. He said this change is to prevent senators from all gathering on the legislative floor and give local COVID rates a chance to decrease. This, however, puts the onus on the committee chairs to enact precautions for those who want to come testify on bills in committee hearings. Public hearings that took place over the summer and fall showed that some chairs are better than others at putting these precautions in place.
The speaker did hint, however, that he is working with the Clerk of the Legislature on a potential process that would allow for public input on bills without the requirement of being at the hearing in person. Stay tuned this week for this change if you are worried about cramming into a cramped committee room with unmasked senators!
Until next week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall