Inside the Rotunda 2021: Week 7

Countdown to End of Hearings, Controversial Election Bills, Special Session for Census Data

With Friday marking Day 30, we are officially one-third of the way through the legislative session. The four-day week started out with senators debating and advancing the first batch of substantive bills, followed by more committee hearings the rest of the week. Staff are counting down the days to March 4th when most public hearings have wrapped, and they can pivot their efforts to ushering bills to passage on the floor.

Government Committee hears controversial election bills

Sen. Slama kept the Government Committee busy on Wednesday, where she introduced two perennial bills that always reveal hints of partisanship in the officially nonpartisan legislature. In the morning, she introduced LB76, which would revert Nebraska’s presidential electoral votes to the winner-take-all system rather than the current system where they can be split. That afternoon, she introduced LR3CA, a proposed constitutional amendment to require a photo ID to vote. Several people testified in opposition to both, saying the policy changes would decrease turnout among people of color and other underrepresented communities.

Forms of both bills have been introduced almost every year and both have been very close to passing in recent attempts, sometimes falling by as little as one vote short to stop a filibuster. With the Government Committee made up of four republicans and four democrats, both bills will likely take a motion by Sen. Slama and a majority vote by the entire body to “pull” the bill from committee to allow them to advance to the floor without a committee vote. Because republicans gained a couple seats in last fall’s election, the votes for either may again be very close if they are able to reach the floor for a vote.

Health and Human Services Committee hears bills to improve SNAP

Also, on Wednesday, the Health and Human Services Committee heard three bills that would make changes to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps):

  • Sen. McCollister’s LB108 would address the sudden decrease in benefits that can occur with a small increase in earnings (called the “cliff effect”) by increasing the income eligibility limits for SNAP from 130 percent of the federal poverty level to 185 percent.
  • Sen. Hunt’s LB121 would remove the lifetime ban on SNAP eligibility for individuals with certain drug-related convictions.
  • Sen. Hunt’s LB356 would eliminate the penalty that allows Nebraska to disqualify a person from receiving SNAP benefits if they are noncompliant in another program.

Several CSN members testified in support of these bills, clearly laying out policy arguments such as decreased hunger for working families and added revenue to struggling grocery stores. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, however, claimed in the fiscal note for LB108 that they would need an additional 36 full-time staff to complete an estimated 60,000 additional administrative hours per year if the bill passed. They estimated these added staff and administrative burdens would cost them around $4 million over the next two years. This inflated fiscal estimate is a common tactic by department agencies when they oppose a bill. All three bills are still in the HHS committee waiting to be advanced.

Senators debate merit of building a new prison

The Appropriations Committee has been busy preparing the preliminary budget report and holding hearings where various departments can come make their case for added state funding. On Thursday, the State Corrections Director testified on plans to build a new $230 prison to ease the state’s overcrowded prison population. The prison would be the most expensive complex ever funded by state tax dollars and require over $30 million each year just in operating costs.

In questioning the director, several senators revealed their skepticism of the benefits of building a brand-new prison. Aside from the huge cost, opponents testified that it would be difficult to find workers to staff the prison and that the money would be better spent on preventative or rehabilitation efforts. The hesitancy from state senators coupled with the governor including it in his budget is evidence this could be cause for a big fight later in session as the budget is pieced together.

Special session almost certain as Census confirms delayed data

This week, the Census Bureau confirmed what many were fearing when they officially announced they won’t be releasing data needed for redrawing congressional and state legislative boundaries until September 30th. That means a fall special session will almost certainly be needed for senators to complete this once-every-ten-years task.

This delay will cause an interesting dilemma for those wanting to run for seats in the legislature in 2022. How do you announce a run for legislature when you won’t know for sure what district you’ll be living in until just six months before the primary?

We already know that big changes are in store for district lines because of more people moving to urban areas in the state the last ten years. An entire district will need to be shifted from western Nebraska to the east. Fun fact: this is the reason District 45 (Bellevue), District 46 (Lincoln), and District 49 (Gretna) are found in eastern parts of the state. Legislative districts otherwise increase in number as they move west.

That’s all for this week. After another recess day on Monday, committees will continue all-day hearings the rest of the week.

Until then!

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