Inside the Rotunda: Week 16

Finally, seven strange months after this unprecedented session began, the legislature adjourned “sine die” Thursday after completing its 60th day of business. “Sine Die” is a Latin phrase meaning “without day” and is used when a legislative body adjourns without a specific day to return. It’s also used to reference the annual Sine Die party, a get together of senators and staff to celebrate the end of the session. Sadly, this party and most other social events have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of the usual rush of activities has created an ominous quiet throughout the building that has dampened the usual sense of celebration.

Senators pass legislation to address the lack of affordable housing

In just three days this week, senators debated and eventually passed several big pieces of legislation. On Tuesday, Sen. Vargas successfully amended his bill LB1155 into Sen. Wayne’s LB866, a bill that requires cities to address the lack of affordable housing. LB1155 provides funding for grants to nonprofit development organizations to increase affordable housing in urban and underserved areas. Senators established a similar fund for rural housing in 2017, and Sen. Wayne and Sen. Vargas have argued that urban districts should not be left out in the push to provide more housing for low and middle-income workers.

To decide to spend $10 million on urban development in the eleventh hour with little debate when money is tight is somewhat unusual. When a vote like that happens, it suggests that there were some negotiations behind the scenes, perhaps relating to senators’ other bills that needed votes from senators from urban districts. These are the things even this fly on the wall will never know! On Thursday, the bill passed but without enough votes to pass it with an “e-clause” or an emergency provision that allows a bill to take effect right away.

Senators also passed Sen. Quick’s LB424, which allows cities to establish land banks outside of Omaha (which has had a land bank since 2014). A land bank is a governmental nonprofit organization that acquires vacant, abandoned, or dilapidated properties and then improves them through development or redevelopment. For years, cities across the state have lobbied senators to pass this legislation so they can improve these properties and get them back on the tax rolls.

Abortion method ban passes by one vote

After debating Sen. Geist’s LB814 throughout the week (and using questionable legislative procedures), senators passed a ban on what some call “dismemberment abortions” by one vote. When the new law takes effect in three months, doctors could be held criminally and civilly liable for providing this procedure. Some senators opposed to the bill accused the bill’s supporters of pushing it through in an attempt to force a difficult vote for senators who are up for reelection. Opponents also predict the law will be challenged in court because other state supreme courts have ruled similar bans unconstitutional. But for now, the bill will become law, passing with dramatic flair as Sen. Groene arrived to the legislative floor as the clerk was reading the roll to cast the deciding vote.

Governor vetoes anti-discrimination bill

On Saturday, word got out that the governor vetoed Sen. Cavanaugh’s LB1060, a bill that bans racial discrimination based on protective hairstyles and natural hair textures in the workplace. This action was not surprising, considering Speaker Scheer (probably intentionally) scheduled the bill late enough in session so that senators were unable to attempt to override the veto because they had already adjourned for the year.

The governor has five days (excluding Sundays) to veto any bills senators pass on to him. Therefore, any bills passed within five days of the end of session risk this outcome. The governor has vetoed several bills using this (pocket veto) strategy the last few years, probably in response to senators successfully voting to override three of his vetoes early in his first term.

Term-limited senators bid farewell

On Wednesday, senators gave speeches to honor their six colleagues who have served two four-year terms and must leave due to term limits. Following tradition, the speaker chooses one senator to speak for each departing senator. Through funny stories, praise of their accomplishments, and emotional tears, it is through these moments that you can clearly see how close the senators all become in their short time here.

On Thursday, the departing senators were able to give their own farewell speeches. Senators Bolz, Crawford, Howard, Kolowski, and Scheer took time to thank their friends, family, and staff and give advice to their colleagues. Sen. Chambers decided not to participate (he seems to not take part in events where he talks about himself). Seeing these senators, full of experience and institutional knowledge, forced to leave makes this fly really hate term limits. Eight years is not enough time to grasp complex public policy issues and get things done in time to address them. After all, 2013 seems like just yesterday.

But, if not for term limits, it’s possible some of these senators would not have gotten the chance to serve. As a compromise, many support the idea of allowing senators to serve three four-year terms rather than two. In the meantime, we’ll just grab our box of tissues and look forward to welcoming the new senators who will arrive in January to take their places.

And with that, I will leave you until next week, when I return one last time this year to provide a quick summary of what will be remembered as a strange, contentious 2020 legislative session.

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