Session Phase 2: Priorities Set, Committees Wrap Up

We’re in the final stretch of morning debate/afternoon hearing days, as you might have noticed some committees already began wrapping up their hearings early last week. Hearings will officially conclude this week, which is a short one; both Monday and Friday are recess days, so only Tuesday-Thursday committees will meet. Per usual, the heavily-loaded Judiciary Committee, which is typically referenced the highest number of bills, looks like it’ll be the last committee standing (or sitting?) Thursday afternoon. When we come back on Monday March 4, it’s on to full-day floor debate.

Speaker Arch has continued to display solid leadership thus far in working to prevent any major blowups the likes of what we saw last year. There’s a sense that this balance could be fragile, though: with recent events in the news like the tragedy of the nonbinary teen Nex Benedict that died after being attacked in a school bathroom in Oklahoma, a state that had recently implemented an anti-LGBTQ bathroom bill similar to the one that would be up for discussion in Sen. Kauth’s priority bill; national news around the fight for abortion rights and discussion of what the Alabama Supreme Court Ruling could mean for other states; and the hearing for Sen. Riepe’s priority bill (LB 1109) which would add an exception for fetal anomalies and remove criminal penalties from the 12-week abortion ban he helped pass last year; anger and tensions that have been tamped down around these sensitive issues since last session could be simmering just below the surface.

I think many of us have been enjoying the relative peace and productivity that’s been the tone of the session thus far, so I’d like to be optimistic, but there’s a possibility that any of these more contentious issues could open up a powder keg that shifts the energy of the session for the worse. This is not a prediction per se, but I’ve heard several things indicating that Arch and other influential figures in the body are somewhat concerned and working hard behind the scenes to prevent such a scenario. This can involve making sure that each member “gets” something out of this session like a fair opportunity to see a bill they care about advance, or facilitating negotiations between members on opposing sides of an issue. Sometimes a senator can be talked down from going nuclear on a given bill if assured they’ll get the chance to have some other piece of the session chess game go their way.

Priority bills are all designated for the year, giving us a picture of what will be taken up for debate in the remaining session days. It has been the Speaker’s strategy to sprinkle in some “easier” bills between bills he knows will face tense debate or lengthy filibusters. This can be useful for a few reasons: Stacking the difficult debates back-to-back could really derail the session by burning days in a row on filibusters in which relationships and collective will to collaborate get bogged down. Mixing it up allows for progress to be made on less sticky measures in the meantime, for any necessary compromise discussions to be had or amendments to be drafted. Introducers of bills that are less controversial may also feel slighted if too many legislative days are lost to unpopular bills and their own don’t get time to advance.

Arch has also announced we’ll see a return of Consent Calendar this year, and he plans to schedule two or three of these. This is a way for non-prioritized but uncontroversial, simpler bills to be quickly voted on and advanced in a block. Members have to request their bill be placed on Consent Calendar, and only those with no “no” votes out of committee and no opponent testifiers are eligible. Each receives a maximum of 15 minutes debate time before a guaranteed vote. Bills can be removed from the Consent Calendar agenda with the written request of 5 or more senators.

In general, I think of Consent Calendar bills as differing from Speaker Priority bill candidates in that Consent Calendar bills are supposed to be so straightforward that they should not stir up more than the maximum allotted 15 minutes of debate; so it’s really reserved for statutory updates and policy changes that are not complex. Speaker Priority bills are generally expected to see broad support but can be more substantive in nature because they have the opportunity for the standard amount of debate time. These might merit more in-depth discussion and fine tuning even if they are minimally opposed.

Stage Set for Rehash of Private School Voucher Battle

Senator Linehan’s priority bill LB 1402, meant to pre-empt the ballot initiative which would overturn her LB 753 from last year, was advanced from committee and has potential to be one of the major fights of the latter half of the session. Like the law that will be put to voters this fall, LB 1402 would send state funds to help children attend private schools. The difference lies in mechanisms: LB 753 provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donors to private school scholarship granting organizations (SGOs), while the new proposal in LB 1402 would funnel state money directly to these SGOs in the form of grants.

The funding for this proposal isn’t currently built into the budget, so it could encounter a challenge in getting approval for the necessary appropriation bill. Speaker Arch may also have a vested interest in ensuring the budget debate does not become bogged down in a single-issue filibuster, so that could be a hurdle for the bill’s proponents. It’s also likely to face serious questions with regard to constitutionality, as well as heavy criticism on the principle that this is a question for the voters to decide in the fall. 117,000 Nebraskans signed a petition making it clear they want to have a say in this issue, and the legislature’s advancement of this bill would deny the voters that opportunity. Interestingly, the bill would also take up to $100 million a year in state revenues that could be used to boost public schools, potentially driving down property tax rates — a goal which continues to be a pet cause of Linehan’s.

The Appropriations Committee should be wrapping up its budget proposal this week, with the budget debate likely being taken up the following week.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall