Inside the Rotunda: Week 14

Two weeks down, two to go in this strange month-long close to a session put on pause for four months due to the pandemic. Tension remained high among the senators, and when tension is high, progress in the chamber tends to grind to a halt as senators who feel “wronged” take up precious time on the floor. Senators still have several senator priority bills left to debate, and some fear a COVID-19 outbreak- as seen in other state capitols among senators and staff- could abruptly end session until January. Other senators have even threatened to move to adjourn early for the year, though they probably would not have enough votes (although anything is possible in these crazy times!).

Because progress has been so slow, I think there is a fear among senators that the Governor will be able to veto several bills with no time left for the Speaker to schedule time for senators to override them. Bills would need to pass by Thursday of next week to escape that fate. This tactic of a veto with no chance of an override is also appealing to those wishing to block legislation because a bill needs 33 votes to overcome a filibuster but only 30 to override a Governor’s veto.

Adjusting to Changes at the Capitol

Following protocol laid out by Speaker Scheer and the chairperson of the Executive Board Sen. Hilgers, Sen. Slama and Sen. Morfeld took part in floor debate from one of the balconies in the chamber because they had a known exposure to COVID-19. Both later tested negative, but it definitely made it seem more urgent to try to get bills passed before a possible outbreak among senators and staff.

In what would normally be a building bustling with activity when senators are in session, the halls are eerily quiet. The rotunda outside the chamber is usually full of lobbyists, advocates, and visitors but now is almost completely empty. In normal times, lobbyists basically camp out in the building and can pass notes through the Sergeants at Arms requesting senators come meet with them. Now, because they are gone and there are few other meetings or events happening, it seems more senators are on the floor for debate (which may also be adding to the lack of progress as more senators take part in debate).

Most offices have at least one staff person present at the Capitol, but many have their doors shut and are not taking in-person meetings unless an appointment is made in advance. The best way to reach your senators is most likely by calling their office or emailing them directly. After all, many have more time to respond to constituents as their schedules are not filled with the usual meetings and events.

Senators Try to Introduce and Amend Bills to Address Pandemic

Some senators made attempts this week to try to help Nebraskans as they face threats to their physical and economic well-being during the pandemic. There is a sense of frustration among some senators as most seem content with “business as usual” and prioritize property tax cuts and tax incentives for corporations. Because session was already two-thirds over by the time they returned this month, one of the only ways to pass legislation to address the pandemic is to amend existing bills.

On Monday, Sen. Morfeld introduced an amendment to a bill on affordable housing (LB866) that would have allowed cities to put a moratorium on evictions during a public health crisis. Not long into debate, Sen. Clements challenged the germaneness of the amendment. By the legislative rules, amendments must relate to the subject matter of the underlying bill (or must be “germane”). The chair ruled that the amendment was not germane. Sen. Morfeld moved to overrule the chair but lost on a 30-19 vote.

Then on Tuesday during debate of the main budget bill, Sen. Cavanaugh tried to amend the budget in order to spend federal CARES Act money on provisions such as increased childcare subsidies and grants, food assistance, and rental assistance. Unfortunately, senators voted against the amendment on a 28-16 vote and went on to advance both budget bills to the Governor on Friday.

Also, on Tuesday, Sen. Vargas moved to suspend the rules so he could introduce legislation to enact safety provisions for workers in meatpacking facilities, including requiring six feet of distancing between workers (under the rules, senators can only introduce new bills the first ten days of session). After heartfelt debate from Sen. Vargas and other senators, the motion failed to advance by two votes (28-10). Sen. Vargas then decided to amend an existing bill he has in the Business and Labor Committee with the same language that would have been his new bill and requested the committee hold a public hearing on that amendment. That hearing will be held Thursday, August 6th at 1:30. However, because of the little time left, it is unlikely to advance through debate and pass before session ends.

Senators Vote to Pass Sen. Chambers’ Last Bill

In a rare moment of solidarity, senators broke out in applause and stood to congratulate Sen. Chambers as what will most likely be his last bill passed after a 46-year career as a state senator. Immediately after the 49-0 vote, Speaker Scheer interrupted debate to recognize the milestone, and even conservative members of the body were seen applauding. The bill will require law enforcement across the state to undergo anti-bias training to try to minimize racial profiling.

Sen. Chambers, although known for his good health and mental sharpness, just celebrated his 83rd birthday, meaning it is unlikely he will return in four years at 87 after a forced hiatus due to term limits. Ironically, one of his lasting legacies will probably be the existence of term limits themselves because Nebraskans voted them in place in 2000 in what some see as an effort to force him out of office in 2008.

It seems fitting that Sen. Chambers teamed up with Sen. Wayne to slow down progress on the floor throughout the week. Sen. Wayne has said he has learned a lot from Sen. Chambers about how to advocate for his community even though he is one of only four people of color in the legislature. Part of Sen. Wayne’s reasoning for taking up valuable debate time is he is protesting $10 million in the budget earmarked for rural workforce housing when his attempts to get funding in his North Omaha district have failed.

That’s it for this week! Stay tuned as we get through the next two weeks and finally come to the end of the 2020 legislative session.

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