Legislative Roundup, Week 6

Filibuster Rights Jeopardized

Last week, the Nebraska Legislature inched closer to the adoption of amended rules that would squeeze filibuster rights.  The Legislature voted 25-19 in favor of adopting a rule change proposed by Senator Tyson Larson that would allow 30 Senators to invoke cloture (end a filibuster), unless 17 votes were cast in opposition to ending debate. The current rule requires 33 votes to end a filibuster. So 17 Senators can currently sustain a filibuster by simply not voting for cloture. Because Senators are sometimes absent, this shift in burden could have enormous consequences for successfully stopping bad legislation from passing.

Senators are engaged in persistent efforts on the floor to prevent the adoption of permanent rules with the Larson amendment. As of Friday, no solution was in sight. Debate was heated at times. Tension filled the Chamber.

Staff who have been around for years have not seen anything like this, and feel both bewildered and demoralized, as if Washington-style politics have finally come to Nebraska.

Senator Paul Schumacher asked “What demon has descended on this body?” And Senator Patty Pansing Brooks talked of the feeling of constant attack by partisans in the body who are “wandering around with machetes.” Fred Knapp at NET Radio has more on the filibuster fight in his wrap up, including a back and forth exchange on “big boy pants” that a certain female Senator took exception to.

The motion to adopt permanent rules is back on today’s agenda.

The Second House

In last week’s hearings on LB337 and LB338, the Governor’s tax bills, Senator Jim Smith, Chair of the Revenue Committee, limited opposition debate and did not allow all testifiers to be heard, an unprecedented move that those following the Legislature say they have not seen. As the Unicameral moves in a partisan direction, this kind of infringement on the “people’s house” sets a bad precedent. Read this history of the Unicameral to better understand why the checks and balances provided by the people are so important to Nebraska’s unique Unicameral system.

Those who were not able to testify on these bills should take every opportunity to post testimony on their websites and continue to get their message out. As the Lincoln Journal Star points out in a recent editorial, debate should have continued, particularly since “Nebraskans may have to live with the effect of the misguided (tax) plan for years.”

Hearings Watch

Today: The Education Committee will hear testimony on LB608 (Linehan), which would divert state tax dollars away from public schools and toward private schools through a vouchers program. This is not a good bill for advocates of public education. Studies show voucher programs have negative effects on low-income children.

Wednesday: The Revenue Committee will hear testimony on LB452 (Lindstrom), which looks to be like the Governor’s income tax plan on steroids. Open Sky Policy Institute is working on an analysis of this plan prior to the hearing. A fact sheet from Open Sky on the Governor’s tax plan can be found here.

Thursday: The Health and Human Services Committee will hear testimony on LB311 (Morfeld), which would allow Nebraska to opt out of the federal ban on eligibility for food assistance for those with past drug felonies. Eighteen other states have opted out. Bills like this are important to help people transition successfully out of prison and not recidivate, goals that should be important to everyone considering Nebraska’s problem with prison overcrowding.

Also Thursday, the Health and Human Services Committee will hear testimony on LB358 (McCollister), which addresses the problem with the “cliff effect” in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The cliff effect refers to a challenge with the structure of our public assistance programs where families who receive a small increase in their income then lose eligibility for benefits that the income increase does not compensate for. Specifically, this bill allows more families to remain eligible for SNAP if they successfully demonstrate that expenses like childcare and health care premiums prevent them from being able to afford food.

Click here for a link to the NET live stream of the hearings.

On the horizon: The following week will see hearings covering payday lending, LGBT employment discrimination, human trafficking and other important issues. So, enjoy your President’s Day weekend, but please come back ready to work!

Priority Bill Designations

As hearing season moves on, Senators will start making decisions about priority bill designations. According to the key dates page for the 2017 session, March 8th and 9th are the deadlines for determining individual and committee priority designations and making Speaker priority requests. Each Senator gets a personal priority bill. Bills that have not been heard in committee by those dates do not have a good chance of becoming a priority bill and thus have less chance of making it to the floor. Senators usually choose priority bills that have already made it through committee, as they are averse to giving priority designation to something that may not make it through committee. Because we are in the first year of the biennium, bills not Indefinitely Postponed in Committee will remain alive for next session.

“Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.”
-Coretta Scott King