Senators Unanimously Pass Covid-19 Emergency Funding
Senators were back in session briefly last week to pass a bill that immediately appropriates $83.6 million in emergency funding to combat the spread of the coronavirus. With little debate, senators voted quickly to pass the funds that will go to the Department of Health and Human Services and the University of Nebraska Medical Center to purchase more medical equipment, staffing, and testing. Included is a $25 million addition to the Governor’s emergency fund to address any urgent needs that may arise. During the vote, several senators wore masks and were seen keeping their distance, with a few exceptions for elbow bumps in place of the usual handshake.
After the vote, Speaker Scheer stood to address his colleagues and say how proud he was that they were able to come together in the state’s time of need. With emotion in his voice, he noted how difficult it was to make the decision to halt session, then to have to make the decision to come back to pass the emergency funding. Several senators had expressed a desire to pass other emergency legislation that would help people through the crisis (on things like housing, health care, and tax deadlines). But there seemed to be an unspoken agreement to stick to the appropriations bill so that debate did not stray and devolve into fighting amongst the various priorities related to the pandemic.
No one knows when the Legislature will be able to reconvene to finish the last 17 days of this session. After talking to various staff, the consensus seems to be sometime in mid to late summer. Speaker Scheer said to be prepared to work Monday to Saturday for two weeks, then Monday to Friday for the final third week and that many of these days would be late nights.
There will be a bit of a time crunch when they return and – with decreased tax revenue and increased spending towards the pandemic – likely little funding available they were planning to spend. Speaker Scheer said that senators will need to be ready to justify to him why he should put a bill on the agenda, which alludes to the possibility that not all priority bills will be debated.
Although disappointing to senators and staff that the bills they have worked on for several months could be dead for the year, it seems everyone’s perspective has changed as a result of the pandemic. Senators know the importance of being flexible to address urgent issues and of putting aside partisan differences in the face of a crisis.
We’ll have to see if this spirit of working together lasts when they reconvene later in the year. Your Fly on the Wall doubts it, but we’ll have to wait and see!
Senators Work to Halt Evictions, Protect Elections During the Pandemic
Senators may not be in session or even be physically in their Capitol offices, but many have been hard at work to help constituents affected by the pandemic. The last couple of weeks, a group of senators worked closely with housing advocates to find a way to put a pause on eviction proceedings. While several other court proceedings were postponed, county courts continued with eviction proceedings, with several scheduled per day even as local and state officials encouraged everyone to stay home. It was unclear, however, who had the authority to actually stop evictions. The courts claimed they did not have the authority under current law, but the Legislature would not be able to change the law in time, especially since they put a pause on session.
That left the decision to the Governor. Advocates and senators were working on pressuring the Governor to act when, on Wednesday, he issued an executive order to halt evictions for the nonpayment of rent related to the coronavirus. While not perfect (the order is narrow in scope and leaves the burden on renters to prove to landlords that nonpayment is because of the coronavirus), it will give some families the relief they desperately need.
Senators are also working closely with voting rights advocates and election officials to ensure our upcoming elections take place in a safe and democratic manner. Incidentally, advocates have been pushing the ability to vote by mail long before this pandemic began. The method remains limited here compared to other states, however.
Thankfully, on Thursday, Secretary of State Bob Evnen announced that his office will send vote by mail request forms to all registered voters, regardless of the county they live in. He emphasized, however, that plans still remain to keep polling sites open for the May primaries and November general election in addition to the option to vote by mail.
It may seem odd that in a time of crisis, the strategy many senators have taken has been to simply put pressure on the executive branch to take action on these issues. It’s a reminder that the legislative branch – both at the state and federal level – was set up intentionally to be slow and bureaucratic. This is why during a declared emergency; the Governor is given more power to act in order to more quickly address immediate concerns related to the disaster at hand.
That’s it for this week’s update. Remember, most senators and staff are working remotely but are still available if you need to communicate with them. I suggest using email, but staff is also checking voicemails daily.
Stay safe everyone!
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall