Legislative Roundup, Week 3

Hearings Watch, Budgets and Taxes, and Rules

While the period for bill introductions has ended and hearings are in full swing, partisan rumblings still hang in the balance over legislative rules. Although the Rules Committee previously rejected a change that would have required at least 17 senators to vote no to sustain a filibuster, there is still a possibility that the Legislature could make a change on the floor as early as today. As noted by Don Walton in his Journal Star column over the weekend, if the majority goes that direction, it “would be viewed by the legislative minority as piling on after an opening day in which they were steamrolled on a series of leadership votes.”

Medicaid Expansion

Senator Adam Morfeld has taken up the mantle on Medicaid Expansion, introducing LB441 last week to expand coverage to 90,000 more Nebraskans.

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Legislative Round Up, Week 2

Nonpartisan Legislature

After a tense first week in the Legislature over chairmanships and committee assignments, the second week saw battles over rules and referencing.

The Rules Committee defeated controversial measures that would have increased the bar for filibusters by requiring 17 votes on the floor to sustain a filibuster, rather than 33 to invoke cloture. The Rules Committee also defeated a measure to end the secret ballot for chairmanship votes. Don Walton highlights the events in the Journal Star.

There has also been tension on the floor as Senators debate motions to move (re-reference) bills relating to guns and abortion to different committees. A motion by Senator Ernie Chambers would move LB 68, (a measure that would strip local authority to regulate guns) from the Government Committee to the Judiciary Committee. Similar bills have been referenced to the Judiciary Committee in the past. Also on the agenda is a motion to reassign a bill dealing with abortion (LB 59) from the Judiciary Committee to the Health and Human Services Committee. These battles may seem mundane, but they carry significance because the Government and Military Affairs and Health and Human Services Committees are widely considered more conservative than the Judiciary Committee. Joanne Young details the battles in this Journal Star story.

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The 2017 Legislative Race Begins!

Welcome back to the blog. The Race Begins!

Race for Chairs

Tension, drama and surprises were in full effect last week as the 105th Legislature kicked off its first session. Family smiles and picture-posing were abound as the Legislature convened with the ceremonial swearing in of new and re-elected members. Those ceremonial activities quickly gave way to the serious business at hand, including the election of a Speaker and Committee Chairs. Senator Jim Scheer, District 19, was elected Speaker of the Legislature.

Controversy followed when Committee Chairmanships went in unison to conservative Republicans, as more moderate candidates in both parties were defeated. There were further tensions as the Committee on Committees made their report on Committees assignments for members. The full Legislature accepted the Committee assignments, but not before some conservative members expressed their displeasure with the makeup of committees. Senator Bob Krist, District 10, who was defeated earlier in the week by Senator Dan Watermeier, District 1, said Nebraska’s nonpartisan Legislature was “dead.”

These stories from the Lincoln Journal Star and the Omaha World Herald highlight some of the first-week tensions:

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All About the Veto

The veto – the elusive decision – is as an important element of our national and state lawmaking framework. In light of the one house Nebraska Legislature, gubernatorial veto power serves as an important check in the system.

I apologize in advance for how many times you are about to read the “v” word. There is truly no appropriate alternative.

The Legislature passes a bill, the Governor can then veto. The end? Certainly not. Last session, the Legislature overrode three vetoes by then newly elected Governor Ricketts – a bill to allow DACA recipients to obtain drivers licenses, a gas tax increase, and a bill to eliminate the death penalty. Notably, the Governor did not use line item veto power to make any changes to the state budget. This year, the Governor also signed the budget bills without any [official] objection in the form of line item vetoes.

In fact, as of now, the Governor has yet to veto any legislation for 2016. With three working days left in this session, there is one piece of legislation rumored (with justification) to be under a threat of veto. That is LB 947 – a bill to allow work authorized DACA recipients or DREAMers to obtain professional or commercial licenses. LB 947 is on final reading, the last stage of debate.

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Nearing the Finish Line

Yes, there is still a little over two weeks left this session – or 6 working days. A few big issues have yet to see the stage. However, there is another cloud looming over the Capitol – term limits. Ahead of the impassioned farewell speeches set for Day 60, I politely ask that you set aside preconceived opinions about term limits as a concept so we can take a moment to assess the landscape.

Here are the Senators that are leaving after this session:

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Saying Thanks

Thank You and Good Night.

During session, senators’ inboxes are flooded with emails pleading them to vote a certain way. But, the emails that shine through – the emails that just might trigger a smile or reinforce a decision – are the “thank you” emails. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare – quite the contrary.

Gratitude may be shown in all caps with a big, bold, THANK YOU in the subject line or a professional, factual, paragraph of recognition.

Looking for a Senator’s email addresses? They are listed on the Legislature’s website.

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Rules, Budgets, and Bills

The Rules of the Nebraska Legislature are similar to the rules we have in this place we call “society”. There is the black and white, written rule and then there is the gray – the room for interpretation, the discretion of “the chair”, and the masterful way each individual rule can be used for one’s advantage or tapped as a hammer when needed.

The Rules of the Nebraska Legislature are so critical to the process that each session, senators must adopt the rules before any other action can take place. Of course, you have to have the black and white before you can even get started. There is a Rules Committee of the Legislature and a Rules Chair. We can go down that road another time, but for now let’s start with the basics. Here are the rules for the 2016 Legislative Session. If you are following floor debate on a specific bill, the answers you seek may be buried in the rules…example:

Germaneness – Is the amendment “germane” to the bill? What is the requirement? Who decides? When can this even come up?

Translation: Germaneness is as much of a rule as a tactic. It is the ultimate “gray”.

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Getting Noticed!

Ever heard of “Sarpy County Sundays” or “Bellevue Cupcakes”?

“Bellevue Cupcakes” happened last week in the Unicameral and it was a big deal. Kidding aside – just like no two days on the Legislative floor are alike, each business day is filled with different posters, people, and prepared food.

First, let’s talk posters. Any group can reserve the first floor rotunda for informational displays. So, if an organization is looking to offload some informational swag – the location next to the information desk is a prime spot. Educational posters and displays about everything from heart disease, human trafficking, and atheism can be found on display in a given week. Some displays are more advanced and some are just your variety science project poster board quality.

For more direct advocacy – lobby days are often connected to specific bills. A lot goes into the organizing of T-shirts, buttons, and ensuring turn-out. Whether the group is “pulling senators off of the floor” or sitting in the balcony in force watching floor debate, the goal is visibility. Sometimes it doesn’t work out as planned. Alas, a lobby day isn’t the only way…

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Halfway There!

The Legislative Session hit the half way point last week – halfway through the scheduled 60 working days. So what are the benchmarks and what is next? For senators, staff, advocates, and journalists – 60 days of session may feel like a race, but don’t be quick to compare 60 days of working to 60 minutes on the treadmill.

Unlike marathons, session isn’t about “setting a pace”. It’s more of a Warrior Dash – or a triathlon for the extreme among the group. The first ten days, that is the real push – it’s exciting – everyone is hopeful and fresh from pre-race rituals like family time and checking in with allies. Then it hits you, the hearings. Hearings can be like crawling through the mud pit or maybe a better analogy would be running through a tunnel with people hitting you with those big foam bats…

A bill you support has a hearing today and you plan on testifying. Perfect. How about a snow storm to clog the interstate? Feeling all warm and fuzzy about how great a bill will be for Nebraskans? Well, let’s just throw a giant fiscal note on it and see how that goes. Luckily, there are at least one or two people running through that same tunnel in front and behind you all aiming toward the same goal and you get to hand off the baton and share in the hearing victory or defeat. Now that we have overextended that metaphor…let’s get back to the technical.

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It’s All About Priorities

Simply put, priority designation is a big deal in the Nebraska Legislature. There are personal priorities, committee priorities, and Speaker priorities. The list of priority bills is public and can be found here, with one category noticeably missing. Speaker priorities are the highly anticipated, last chance to dance list to be announced.

In the short (60 day) session, priority designations are critical. The likelihood of debate on a bill by the full legislature is directly tied to its priority status or lack thereof. In the Unicameral, priority designation can be quite literally a noun, a verb, and an adjective:

Priorities are up online.
Does the bill have a priority?
He/she prioritized that bill.
It’s a priority bill.

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