This week, senators rushed to get their bills introduced amidst potential unrest surrounding the inauguration, a snowstorm, and an active COVID outbreak among some of their staff. In addition to the end of bill introduction, senators crammed several other agenda items into the third week of the legislative session, including debating and adopting the rules, finalizing committee assignments, and committee briefings Friday on a potential new prison and a botched child welfare contract.
It is about to get even more hectic. There are 684 new bills and 12 proposed constitutional amendments, all of which will have public hearings in the next couple of months. Senators introduced anywhere from two bills (Moser) to a whopping 48 (Wayne). You can peruse the list of bills and see which have had their hearing dates scheduled on the legislative website.
Speaker Announces Changes to Public Hearings and Ways to Give Input
Late in the week, Speaker Hilgers announced much-anticipated updates to ways individuals can provide input on bills if you are uncomfortable crowding into a hearing room in the midst of the pandemic. Go to this page to read in full, but the gist is that you can now, in addition to other options, submit written comments via the legislative website or submit written testimony in lieu of in-person testimony that will get you a coveted listing on the bill’s committee statement (as long as you hand it in personally to committee staff the morning of the hearing).
A bill’s committee statement is the document reported out with a bill that advances from committee. It includes how senators on the committee voted, a summary of the bill and any amendments and – perhaps most important – a listing of proponents and opponents who testified at the hearing. You can access a committee statement on the landing page of each bill and senators and staff often refer to it during floor debate. Speaker Hilgers is trying to strike a delicate balance between preventing the spread of COVID in the hearings rooms while still safeguarding the importance of the traditional in-person testimony listed on the committee statement.
The decision for him became what “counts” as input that will get you listed as a supporter or opponent on this document? I think this is what led him to decide that you still have to submit written testimony in person to get on the committee statement.
If you plan to support or oppose a bill using one of these (new) options, make sure to read the requirements closely. Failure to follow any of the steps will prevent your comments from being included. The new option to submit written comments is similar to how people can email senators with thoughts on bills now, but all senators and staff have access to it. It will be exciting to see how people use this new expanded option and how senators choose to use that feedback.
Senators Fend Off Attempt to Make Committee Chair Votes Public
Also, this week, senators debated various rules changes before adopting the full set of rules they will follow for the session. Most proposed rules changes first go through the Rules Committee, which vets and then advances rules to the floor. The committee takes the unofficial stance to only advance rules that have unanimous support from committee members, so only mostly uncontroversial changes move forward.
However, senators can circumvent the committee and propose rules changes on the floor. Sen. Halloran did this when he proposed to make committee chair votes public rather than the current process of electing by a secret ballot. This is an ongoing fight among those who think this would invite partisan pressure versus those who think it would provide more transparency.
Sen. Flood (former speaker who just won a new term after being term-limited in 2013) used his first time “on the mic” this session to give an impassioned speech for the secret ballot and how it preserves our unique nonpartisan legislature. He convinced 12 other Republicans to join him and the 17 Democrats to defeat the proposed change. The vote and the debate could be a sign of pushback on how partisan the legislature has become in recent years.
Senators ultimately adopted three small changes: including the pledge of allegiance as part of the official daily agenda, giving a bill’s introducer more control over whether a vote is done alphabetically or in reverse order, and clarifying existing norms of how the executive board and committee on committees are formed.
Committees Hold Briefings, All-Day Hearings Set to Begin
On Friday, senators held briefings where they were able to confront officials on two urgent topics. The Health and Human Services Committee held a briefing on the state’s contract with St. Francis Ministries, a private Kansas-based agency the state tasked with overseeing the Omaha metro’s child welfare cases. Long story short, the agency won the bid by lowballing their projected costs (Nebraska child welfare advocates said throughout the process that it would be impossible to provide services for the quoted amount). Now, unsurprisingly, the agency is out of money and the state has to cover the gap. Senators used the briefing Friday to confront DHHS on this mismanagement.
A joint briefing by the Appropriations and Judiciary Committees was also held Friday afternoon, where Scott Frakes, the director of the Department of Corrections, made a rare appearance to defend his proposed plan to build a new state prison. Several senators expressed skepticism that a costly new prison is the right solution to our ongoing overcrowding problem. The briefing was one of the first steps the executive branch will take to get the prison into this year’s state budget.
Senators and staff are busy preparing for hearings that will begin Monday. Normally, floor debate takes up the morning while committees hold hearings in the afternoon. Speaker Hilgers, however, has scheduled hearings to take place all day after a quick morning check-in on the floor. He argued this change will keep session going more smoothly if several senators are forced to quarantine (senators can more easily be absent from hearings than important votes on the floor). It will be interesting to see how this change affects the dynamics of what is shaping up to be a strange legislative session.
Until next week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall