Friends, this will be my last post of the year. As someone who has been a Capitol insider for years now, this session has been far and away the most unprecedented, difficult, and contentious one I’ve ever experienced — and I know many of you feel the same way. As the legislature spent a disproportionate amount of its time debating divisive “culture war” issues, long-standing procedural norms were abandoned, typical processes were subverted, and many relationships between senators were damaged in what devolved into the most hyperpartisan session in years.
Many legislative observers regard this as a turning point for the institution and Nebraska politics more broadly, which could have ripple effects for years to come. With so much controversy and negativity emanating from the legislature this year, it’s easy to forget that some really good things happened, too; so let’s take a moment to lift up some successes that will improve the lives of everyday Nebraskans:
The Good: 2023 Legislative Wins
- Aid to parents, families, and the elderly: LB 227, the massive Health and Human Services committee package, includes extensions to the increased childcare subsidy (LB 35) and SNAP (LB 84) eligibility limits as well as lengthening Medicaid postpartum coverage from 60 days to at least 6 months (LB 419).
- Out-of-pocket costs for insulin were capped at $35 for a 30-day supply (LB 779, passed in LB 92)
- A total phaseout of Social Security income tax by tax year 2024 (LB 641, passed in LB 754)
- School funding & fairness: Education committee package LB 705 includes a prohibition on the suspension of young students in Pre-K through 2nd grade (LB 632) and school discipline reforms (LB 774) — both aimed at reducing the school-to-prison pipeline; teacher recruitment and retention incentives (LBs 385, 603, 762, and 724); a removal of criminal history questions from state college applications; (LB 222); and funding for increased behavioral and mental health education in public schools (LB 585). LB 298 includes antidiscrimination dress code protections for public school students who wear tribal attire or natural hairstyles (LB 630); and LB 583 requires the state to reimburse public schools for 80% of special education costs.
- Protecting democracy: The body opted for passing the least restrictive of the proposed Voter ID implementation plans that will preserve voting by mail and allow voters to use a wide variety of IDs to fulfill requirements, including expired IDs (LB 514). Notably, the legislature chose not to advance many other bills that would have further restricted voting access.
- Criminal justice reform: The Judiciary package, LB 50, includes some steps toward smart justice reforms designed to relieve prison overcrowding, such as lower penalties for habitual criminals convicted of nonviolent crimes, increased use of problem solving courts and supervised release, and expanded parole eligibility. LB 14, which will provide supports for youth aging out of the juvenile justice system through the Bridge to Independence program currently available to foster system-involved youth, was also amended into this package.
- Property tax reform: With LBs 243 and 683, many Nebraskans should see relief on their property tax bills, though several senators and advocates are still concerned about the long-term effects of tax cuts on the state’s budget.
- Historic citizen engagement: I’ve never seen anything like the sheer numbers of everyday citizens who have begun to pay closer attention to their legislature this year. Many testified, showed up to the Capitol, called, or met with their senators for the first time this session. This is one bright spot of the year, and I hope that the events of this session continue to energize and motivate Nebraskans to participate in the lawmaking process; and that perhaps some will even be inspired to throw their hats into the ring to become legislative candidates or to volunteer on campaigns of candidates that reflect their values. And with the forthcoming new legislative video archive created by LB 254, Nebraskans will have greater-than-ever access to the proceedings of their legislature.
And now, here are some observations and predictions about what we could see in the coming year and next January’s session:
- Pillen’s influence: In his first session at the helm of our state’s Executive Branch, the new Governor demonstrated his ability to wield substantial influence over the Unicameral. The body was only able to override one of his many vetoes, and some members ended up voting against measures they’d previously supported in response to pressure from Pillen. Many expressed a desire not to rock the boat or cross the Governor as members debated veto overrides. From where I sit, it appears that Pillen has already earned more loyalty among the legislature’s majority than Governor Ricketts had, a new dynamic which has caused some members to caution their colleagues about the erosion of separation between powers of the two co-equal branches of our state’s government.
- Culture Wars rage on: With Gov. Pillen and legislative leaders declaring their successful attempts at restricting abortion and trans rights “only the beginning,” I think we can expect to see more measures brought in 2024 to further restrict or ban abortion, gender-affirming care, and other LGBTQ rights like participation in sports, public spaces, and drag performances. While other culture war bills like bans on books, censorship of education topics, and permitting discrimination in healthcare failed to advance, there’s a good chance that supporters will take a stab at some or all of these issues again in the coming session.
- More rules fights could take center stage in short session: The secret ballot process that proponents fought to keep intact this year may be on the chopping block again next year, as could the filibuster. Rules Chair Erdman has pledged to change the rules next year to try and prevent a repeat of this year, floating possible limits to priority motions, changes to cloture requirements, or setting a new limit on the number of bills each senator can introduce. Since next year is a short session, those divisive proposals — if debated — could take up a good chunk of the body’s limited debate time.
- Fractured relationships could remain fraught: Speaker Arch has spoken about his intention to try and rebuild relationships over the interim and to take the lessons of this year to better guide the body next year. Many a bridge has been burned, at least temporarily, and those interpersonal bonds between senators that previously enabled legislation to pass with bipartisan support are fewer and weaker. Of course, a lot can happen over the interim as senators go back to their districts and decompress, attend conferences, hear new ideas, and meet with stakeholders and each other. Here’s hoping that the summer brings some much needed perspective, rest, and restoration of goodwill for our legislators before they return to the Capitol in January. I’ll be back next year when the new session convenes. Until then, keep in touch with your friends at CSN with any questions.
Until Next Year,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall