Legislative Roundup, Wrap Up

That’s a Wrap

The 105th Legislature, 1st session came to an end much as it started, with plenty of crossed arms and entrenched feet. A lengthy rules debate over the number of votes needed for a filibuster occupied much of the first two months of session before a compromise was finally reached.  A “gang of 27” that held up the rules in the early part of session joined back up again at the end to force budget cuts that progressives considered draconian because of their impact on vulnerable people. However, nestled between the periods of deep political polarization, Coalition members had much to cheer and much to breathe sighs of relief over in a session that may be remembered as much for what didn’t happen as what did. Following are just some of the most significant highlights of the session.

Budget and Taxes

Based on ever-worsening revenue shortfalls, budget cuts were inevitable this session. Coalition members worked throughout the session to protect funding for our state’s children and families. In the end, the Governor line-item vetoed an additional $56.5 million out of the budget, aimed at low-income Nebraskans with developmental disabilities and mental health problems, child welfare and probation services. The Legislature couldn’t find the 30 votes needed for an override.

The Omaha World Herald has a piece about how the Governor’s heavy spending in legislative races in 2016 paid off for him in the veto override votes. Keep a watch on continued budget battles as the Governor may call a special session later this year if revenue continues to fall below projections.

On the tax front, the Nebraska Legislature defeated LB461 (Smith), a package of income and property tax cuts that, as amended, would have cost the state $458 million a year when fully implemented. The bill included elements of LB337 (Smith) and LB338 (Brasch), the Governor’s tax plan proposals, as well as elements of LB452 (Lindstrom). Amended together in LB461, this created a mega tax cut plan geared primarily toward wealthy Nebraskans. The Open-Sky Policy Institute provided important research that showed the negative effects of the tax proposals. Watch for a proposal to put property tax relief on the ballot next year.

Help for Parenting Students

The Nebraska Legislature passed LB427 (Vargas) this session, which extends breastfeeding protections to a mother attending a public, private, denominational or parochial school and requires the school to provide a private or appropriate facility of accommodation for milk expression and storage. LB428 (Vargas) was amended onto LB427, which requires each school district to adopt a written policy which provides for standards and guidelines to accommodate pregnant and parenting students. This was a recommendation of the Intergenerational Poverty Task Force, which included many CSN members and was supported by CSN through facilitation assistance. The bills are designed to help parenting and pregnant students finish school.

Family Planning Funds Protected

In dramatic fashion, with no votes to spare, the Nebraska Legislature restored funding that had previously been removed in the budget for family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood. A measure was snuck into LB327 (Scheer), that would have restructured Title X family planning grants to keep funding away from these clinics. ACLU of Nebraska, Women’s Fund of Omaha, and Planned Parenthood of the Heartland worked hard to get this provision out of the budget.

The Central Health Center in Grand Island, People’s Family Health in North Platte, Planned Parenthood in Lincoln and Omaha and Family Health Services in Tecumseh, Lincoln and Crete would all have lost Title X funding, impacting more than 14,000 patients. The initial vote to pass the amendment to restore funding failed, but a motion was made to reconsider, whereby Senator Groene, who has one of the clinics in his district, changed his vote.

Human Trafficking Penalties Increased

In one of the most impactful decisions this session, the Legislature moved forward to significantly increase penalties on human trafficking in the state with final passage of LB289 (Pansing Brooks). The Women’s Fund was a leading advocate for this bill.

Education

Public education advocates had nerve-wracking moments this session due to threats to public education, but breathed a sigh of relief in the end. The Legislature defeated LB640 (Groene), which would have taken $224 million out of the Property Tax Credit Fund and send it as state aid to school districts with the heaviest reliance on property taxes. This would have had the effect of dramatically siphoning off state aid in urban areas. Stand for Schools was among those organizations fighting against this bill. The Nebraska Legislature did pass LB409 (Groene), which appropriates funding for state aid to education. LB409 slows the growth of state aid to schools to 2.1% per year during the next biennium.

Reading was also a big issue this session. The Legislature spent three hours of debate on LB651 (Linehan), but did not advance the bill. LB651, which would have required a student be held back if they do not demonstrate reading proficiency by the third grade, was opposed by Stand for Schools and other major education groups. Studies show holding kids back is counterproductive. Senator Pansing Brooks argued on the floor against the bill and said the path forward is to improve interventions and teacher training to help students who fall behind. She introduced LR222, a study that will look at identifying reading gaps and how to improve interventions.

Voting Rights

The Legislature failed to override a veto of LB75 (Wayne), a bill that would have eliminated the two-year waiting period for felons to have their voting rights restored upon completion of their sentence. Nebraskans for Civic Reform worked for passage of LB75. On the other side of the spectrum, the Legislature did not advance LR1CA (Murante), which would have put voter ID on the ballot. Senator Murante has vowed to resurrect the bill. Nebraskans for Civic Reform fought the advancement of this proposal.

Speaker’s Rules and Impacts on Next Session

Filibusters worked differently this year under a new approach by Speaker Scheer. As highlighted in the Omaha World Herald, here is how it worked:

“After three hours of debate on a controversial bill, the Legislature moves to the next bill on the agenda. During what amounts to a timeout — which can last days or weeks — supporters and opponents can talk to their colleagues before eventually providing the speaker with their vote counts. If a bill’s sponsor can show at least 33 votes to win cloture, the speaker will reschedule the bill on another day for up to three additional hours of debate. If not, the bill receives no more discussion.”

The new rule had a profound effect as several bills went into what some referred to as “La-La Land.” This means bills previously debated for three hours could come back if an introducer thought they rounded up enough support for the bill. A bill that did not get voted on and went to “La-La Land” remains alive and will be a carryover bill into the next session since the Legislature hasn’t taken official action on it. Coalition members oppose some of these bills, but support others, so it can be a mixed bag. For instance, LB622 (Wishart), which adopts the Medical Cannabis Act, could come back next session Senator Wishart were to round up the necessary votes.

Final Words

Want to know what happened on bill not covered in this blog? The Unicameral Update provides a good resource for information.

Until next session, keep fighting!

The Capitol Fly on the Wall

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