Summer EBT Bill Hits Committee Roadblock

Editor’s note: Gov. Pillen announced this morning that he is accepting Summer EBT for this summer. Read more here. The following blog post was written before his announcement. CSN is sharing it for advocates’ awareness on the legislative process that place before Gov. Pillen made his announcement.  

After an excellent hearing earlier this month, LB 952, which would opt Nebraska in to the federal Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Program to provide meals for low-income children during the summer break from school, became a pawn in a larger political game late last week. As I mentioned in the last post, the bill received overwhelming supportive testimony, no opposition testimony, and only a handful of written comments submitted in opposition relative to over a hundred in support.

As bill sponsor Sen. Day and other supporters looked forward to the bill’s scheduled Health and Human Services Committee executive session on Thursday at which it was expected to be voted out, other forces were apparently at work. Committee Chair Ben Hansen shocked and angered Day and cosponsors when he unexpectedly declared that he would not be holding a vote on LB 952 as a standalone measure, but that he would be willing to attach it as an amendment to his bill LB 1381, which would add strict, ineffective, and administratively burdensome work requirements for SNAP recipients.  The bill also sends a harmful and incorrect message that people who may need a little extra help making ends meet are somehow unmotivated or unwilling to work, furthering stigmatization of people who use public benefits.

This particular move, using one’s authority as a committee chair to effectively hold a bill hostage in order to force members to attach it to a less popular policy or “poison pill” that could tank its future chances of passage, is not something I’ve seen in my time as a Capitol Fly, and seems fairly unprecedented. I’m not a legislative historian so it could’ve happened at some point, but this is certainly a new level of authoritarianism for Hansen, who was previously known to just refuse to hold votes on certain bills in his time as chair of Business and Labor. 

Chair Hansen dropped a bomb with that tactic, and pending what might come of the upcoming days and weeks, it’s fair to surmise he’ll catch a lot of heat for it; but one can also feasibly make some guesses about what he’s angling for here. One scenario is that he sees LB 952 as his much less popular food assistance-related bill’s ticket across the finish line and hopes the packaging of the two will buy him the votes of all of LB 952’s supporters (who might otherwise filibuster LB 1381 should it come to the floor as a standalone measure). Another is that he hopes to smooth talk Senators Day and Aguilar into LB 952 hitching a ride in an amendment on his bill knowing there’d be an opportunity for the body to “kill it” or strike the amendment containing the Summer EBT provisions on the floor down the line. 

I’m told that bill sponsor and committee member Senator Day, when presented with the “offer” from Chair Hansen, emphasized to him that to attach her bill–which is prioritized by the influential Executive Board Chair and registered Republican, Senator Aguilar; which has already had a very successful hearing; which has a slew of bipartisan cosponsors; and a groundswell of public interest and support– to his bill, which has not yet had a hearing; which could have a much less positive public reception; that doesn’t have a priority designation or bipartisan cosponsors; which creates unnecessary and burdensome requirements on people who receive SNAP; and which could actually reduce the number of families that get nutrition assistance in Nebraska; would be, to put it lightly, unfair. There’s been buzz among my Unicameral circles that Hansen’s proposal is a nonstarter because the end result of passing LB 1381 with LB 952 amended in it could be worse for nutrition assistance for Nebraskans with kids than not passing LB 952 at all. So, no matter what his motivations are here, it’s pretty roundly accepted that Hansen’s being underhanded here and attempting to skirt the system to achieve his own ends. 

NOTE: LB 1381 has its hearing this Wednesday. It will be important for advocates and the public to submit comments, testify, and make it well known that Nebraska does not want unnecessary work requirements for people trying to feed their families – most of whom are already working if they are able – and to emphasize that federal food aid intended for low-income kids (LB 952) should not be tied up in the fate of this unpopular, unnecessary and stigmatizing bill. 

That all said, all hope is not lost for LB 952. It’s a blow, to be sure, but I believe efforts have been underway over the weekend, senators have been strategizing, and things could very well change not long after you read this post. This could involve pressure from the influential Sen. Aguilar, who prioritized the bill, and who may not take kindly to Sen. Hansen using his priority bill as a bargaining chip. Another lever could be if Day and allies are able to call in reinforcements by way of Speaker Arch. It’s been floating around that Senator Machaela Cavanaugh, who led last year’s filibuster, is furious about the obstruction of the bill and could be gearing up to “blow up” yet another session over this. Speaker Arch seems to be heavily motivated to not have a repeat of last year and enjoying the progress and collegiality of the session thus far. If there’s threat of a filibuster-causing conflict all over this refusal to let the bill be voted out, he may opt to exert some pressure. If none of those avenues yield the desired results, we could be looking at an eventual pull motion, which would require 25 members voting in favor to pull the bill out of committee and onto the floor. It’s plausible that it’d handily reach that number, given the 19 senators that have already signed on. This could be shaping up to be one of the central issues of the session.

Some positive news on the food security policy front: LB 285 (Walz), the School Community Eligibility Provision Maximization Act, smoothly passed General File with 33 votes. It would require schools and districts that serve a greater number of students from lower-income families to automatically opt into the federal School Community Eligibility Provision. This program allows schools in higher poverty areas to provide free school meals to all of their students without any registration requirements. If signed into law, it is expected to provide about 12,500 additional students with free school meals at 40 school meal sites across Nebraska. 

Until Next Week,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall