The Final Stretch: Long Days, Late Nights

Lawmakers began the week with debate on Sen. Hunt’s motion to override Governor Pillen’s veto of her priority bill (LB 307), which the body passed on Final Reading with 30 votes less than a couple of weeks prior. The bill would have permitted governing bodies of Nebraska cities and counties to authorize Syringe Service Programs (SSPs), a tool to combat infectious disease spread and provide people struggling with substance use with resources and a doorway to accessing treatment.

Hunt and proponents shared data about rising HIV infection rates in some Nebraska counties, increasing overdose incidents and availability of fentanyl and other opioids, and a large volume of research backed by the CDC and a wide variety of experts in medical, public, and behavioral health who overwhelmingly conclude that SSPs are effective at reducing disease spread in a community and helping people overcome addiction.

Despite the broad consensus from experts, Governor Pillen’s scare tactics and misinformation campaign apparently had the desired effect, as the nail-biter of a vote came down to only 27 members supporting the override. Thirty were needed for the motion to be successful.

Tensions ran high throughout the day as LB 307’s supporters decried what they felt was Executive Branch overreach and intimidation of senators, which had the effect of what some called cowardice on the part of seven senators who had previously supported the bill but flipped their votes on override. None of the seven got up to explain for their constituents and the public what their reasoning was for their change of mind. Several of these had previously given Hunt their word that they’d support the bill to the end, and she and other allies spoke about the importance of keeping one’s word in the body.

Many used the sudden shift in the body’s support for the bill as a moment of reckoning and called for the legislature to stand up and realize that it operates independently as a coequal branch to the Executive Branch.

Several senators from both sides of the aisle noted that as senators it is their job to cast votes on the basis of sound policy, and asked why for some the bill was sound policy for three rounds until the Governor called them and told them not to vote for it. As Hunt noted, her bill was first on the chopping block, but any of theirs could be next, and there could be a time when they each might need one another.

The ramifications of this debate and vote bled into debate over other measures throughout the week. More broadly, the fight over this bill has become something of a rallying cry for members of the Legislature that are becoming fed up with what they perceive as overreach of the Governor and subsequent kowtowing by members who feel beholden to him, not just on this measure but others, including the budget proposals. I’ve heard that ripples of this override failure could resurface again this week, and it’s possible that a bill from Sen. Bosn (LB 137) that was previously touted as a “hand-in-hand” approach along with LB 307 to addressing the opioid crisis in Nebraska might see a challenge.

Budget Clears General File

Senators advanced LB 1412, the mainline budget adjustment bill, and LB 1413, the bill containing cash reserve transfers, to Select File after some debate this week. A few major pain points stood out, and senators who want to see changes to the budget package said that negotiations are well underway and that we should expect some amendments with substantive changes to materialize on Select File. Here’s some points of note:

  • Frustration around proposed cuts to behavioral health and public assistance aid administered by DHHS, $30 million to each across the biennium.
  • In total, $244 million proposed to be swept from state agency cash funds to pay for property tax relief. These funds are made up of fees paid by consumers and businesses and are intended to be used for specific agency-related purposes. Fiscal and economic analysts, as well as some senators, have cautioned against dipping into these funds except as a last resort in times of major budgetary crisis, and said that if state agencies are accruing excess funds in fees, lawmakers should look at how those funds can better be put to their intended uses and/or cut the fees that are driving them.
  • $70 million of that cash fund sweep would come from the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, comprised of fees collected from employers to ensure unemployment benefits are available to Nebraskans during economic downturns. Some questioned the fairness of taking business owners’ money paid into this fund to help fund property tax relief.

Details on the Revenue Committee’s tax relief package are beginning to emerge, though we’re relying on word of mouth and journalists to provide info at this point since neither vehicle bill we’re aware of so far (LB 937 or 1023) has yet been reported out of committee. Based on reporting, the package looks so far to be mostly made up of tax credits for specific groups of consumers and industries — without providing any new revenue source. Perhaps that’s because the committee still hasn’t come to majority agreement on how exactly we’ll generate the $1 billion in new revenue necessary to achieve Gov. Pillen’s yet-unchanging goal of 40% property tax relief this year.

Late Nights to Begin

Lawmakers are to hold their availability open for late night debate starting this week. There’s three more “full” session weeks, which will be four days; late nights will be the first three days of the session week followed by an early-mid afternoon adjournment on the final day of the week. Speaker Arch has said a “late night” will typically mean debate until about 9 pm, but may extend until 11:59 pm if it becomes necessary. We’ll end this week on day 48 of the 60-day session, and budget bills must be passed by Day 50. Many priorities have not yet been taken up for debate.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall