Inside the Rotunda: Week 15

With only three legislative days left, we’re finally nearing the end of this year’s drawn-out session. Time is running out, and the pressure is on to see which bills left will pass and which will die. With this added urgency, senators turned to some rules shenanigans to try to get their priorities across the finish line. Senators also accomplished their biggest task for the year, passing the almost $5 billion budget that sets state spending for the next two years.

Anti-discrimination bill advances, but still at risk

On Monday, senators amended and advanced Sen. Cavanaugh’s LB1060, a bill that bans employment discrimination based on an employee’s hairstyle or texture. Several senators, however, spoke against the bill, denying that this type of discrimination exists (despite the number of testifiers who told their personal stories of discrimination at the bill’s hearing in February). Conservative senators even compared the issue to times they felt discriminated against for being asked to shave their beards by former bosses.

Trouble could be brewing. Speaker Scheer had previously requested an opinion from the attorney general on a legal question. The attorney general declined to give a formal opinion, but the request itself could have been an effort to slow the bill’s progress or give senators enough doubt about its merits to vote against it. Then, Speaker Scheer failed to put the bill on the agenda again this week, meaning senators will not have time to override a potential veto from the Governor if they finally pass it on to him next week.

The fighting continues

Drama among senators continued throughout the week, highlighted by an impassioned speech on the floor from Sen. Lathrop, a veteran senator from Omaha who previously served from 2007-2015. Senators were attempting to filibuster one of his bills (LB1004), which increases parole eligibility so fewer inmates are “jammed out” (released with no services or supervision). Gretna senator Andrew La Grone filed several amendments at once and began reading children’s books in an obvious filibuster attempt, saying they should instead be focusing on property tax relief.

In his speech, Sen. Lathrop pointed out how partisan the Legislature has become in recent years and that he sees senators take their marching orders from party leaders and the Governor rather than use their own brains to decide how to vote on bills. Fellow senators broke out in applause as he finished. Sen. La Grone withdrew his amendments and the bill advanced on a 29-2 vote. However, because it still needs to be voted on two more times before it is presented to the Governor, it also is at risk of being vetoed with no chance of an override attempt before session adjourns for the year.

Passage of abortion ban looks likely

After saying she didn’t have the votes needed to get it back on the agenda, LB814 showed up back on the schedule this week after senators previously voted to “pull” it out of committee, circumventing the committee process to get it to the floor. LB814 prohibits a type of abortion used in the second trimester of pregnancy.

With only 30 senators voting to pull it from committee, she had to show the Speaker she gained enough votes to have a chance to get to the 33 votes needed for cloture (to end debate and advance the bill). The Speaker has a practice of not scheduling a bill for additional first-round debate that isn’t likely to advance. She managed to get 34 senators to vote for cloture, one more than the 33 needed. Senators are likely next week to advance it through two more rounds on to the Governor to sign.

Property tax relief back from the dead

After multiple attempts to provide property tax relief stalled, a group of seven senators met to try to decide on a last-minute compromise to pass property tax relief, business tax incentives to corporations, and money for a large project at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. This week, the group unveiled their “grand compromise” that claims to provide some property tax relief without defunding public schools, a concern of several of the senators previously against property tax relief bills.

This late in session, however, senators had to get creative to find a vehicle for the compromise. They decided to amend it into an existing inconsequential bill introduced by Speaker Scheer that he had prioritized using one of his 25 speaker priority designations (the speaker, unlike other senators who get only one priority bill, gets to choose 25 additional priority bills). Speaker Scheer then designated the bill and compromise amendment as a speaker major proposal, a provision of the Legislature’s rules that allows him to put it on the agenda right away and force a vote.

Several senators spoke against this procedural move, arguing that a speaker priority bill is not eligible to be a speaker major proposal under the rules. Other senators argued that a bill this large and comprehensive should get more debate time or at least have had a public hearing. Senators who serve on the Executive Board, two-thirds of whom have to vote to approve a speaker major proposal, said they weren’t even given the 150-page amendment before being asked to vote on it.

Eventually, however, these procedural arguments failed and the bill advanced on a 43-2 vote. It is likely to pass the final two rounds and be signed by the governor this session. I’m not a fiscal expert (obviously, I’m a fly), so if you want to learn more about the specifics of this bill, I recommend reading OpenSky Policy Institute’s policy brief.

Sen. Vargas introduces amendment on meatpacking worker safety

 The Business and Labor Committee held a hearing Thursday on an amendment to an existing bill from Sen. Vargas to require meatpacking facilities to implement safety precautions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. It is rare for a committee to hold a hearing this late in session, but Sen. Vargas was unable to find another way for the amendment to advance on the floor before session ends.

Former meatpacking workers, family members, teachers, union representatives, and others testified on the egregious safety violations at the plants and what should be done to prevent future outbreaks. With only three days left in session, it is unlikely the amendment will pass, but hopefully, the hearing will be a first step in reform going forward.

That’s it for this week! Tune in next week for the final days of the 2020 legislative session. It’s sure to be exciting as senators fight to get their bills across the finish line.

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