After what seemed like a brief interim for those of us that were engaged in the special session this fall, the Legislature reconvened this week. It’s a short 60-day session with a lot on the table. Here’s my picks for what will receive the most attention:
1. COVID Relief & ARPA Funds – All eyes are on the one billion-plus in COVID relief funds coming our way from the federal government. Half ($520 million) has been received, and the other half of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars is expected later this year. The Appropriations committee took suggestions for how the money should be used at an October hearing. Since then, Governor Ricketts’ team has been working on a proposal for how to spend the funds, which will be introduced to the Legislature this week. The Appropriations committee will then take the Governor’s proposal and shape it into something that can hopefully be approved by the full body.
We staffers know that the allocation of ARPA funds is probably the foremost concern on most nonprofit readers’ minds. We frankly have not received much detailed information about this yet, but a briefing scheduled this week for Senators and Staff should provide us with more details we can share with you soon.
The body will also need to determine what becomes of an unexpected surplus in state General Fund revenues of $412 million. Conflicting perspectives have begun to emerge about whether and how that money should all be used. It’s possible some ideas for new programs that have lacked a funding mechanism in the past may stand a chance this year, though fiscal conservatives are cautioning – as ever – that we should keep most of it in reserves and funnel the rest toward tax relief.
2. Prison Funding (and Criminal Justice Reform?) – Last year, money was set aside for a possible new prison, and overcrowding has only continued to soar since then: Nebraska recently earned the #1 title for worst prison overcrowding in the nation, now ahead of Alabama. Many are considering it writing on the wall that the new facility is a done deal, but there’s a solid contingent who are committed to pushing for criminal justice reform to occur in tandem with the building of the new facility. The Judiciary committee has been working with the nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute to deep dive into the data and to develop a package of recommendations to inform bill proposals this session. That report is expected soon.
3. Expanding or Restricting Abortion – Senators Julie Slama and Megan Hunt came out swinging early in session on the issue, with Slama bringing LB 781, nicknamed the Heartbeat Bill and largely similar to the controversial Texas law, and Hunt introducing a package of measures aimed at increasing access to abortion. Both Senators held early press conferences on their respective bills and have garnered a lot of media attention. Expect heated debate on both sides of this issue this year – though I’ve heard that some in legislative leadership are frustrated with the prospect of this hot-button topic sucking up too much time in an already short session in which a billion dollars in funding needs to be squared away.
The Week Ahead
Full day debate begins, continuing until hearings begin on January 18. The last day for bill introduction is January 20th. Then, the schedule will consist of the typical morning debate with hearings in the afternoon. Those who were involved with the session last year are relieved that we’re not returning to the temporary practice of all-day committee hearings that was put in place in an effort to expedite that session during COVID.
2022 priority bills will be taken up first, followed by any outstanding 2021 priorities, before bills remaining on the worksheet. This includes any remaining carryover legislation left over from last year. Typically in a short session like this year, time remains for Senators to work through the top of the worksheet, but it’s unlikely that all of those bills will see debate by the time session concludes.
On the docket this week are a handful of priority bills, the Governor’s State of the State address and budget adjustment briefing, and a recess day on Friday. Notable bills expected include: LR 14 – Senator Halloran’s priority proposal to call a Convention of the States; LB 364, Senator Linehan’s priority bill which would create a tax credit for individuals and businesses who donate to nonprofits that grant scholarships to lower income students to attend private schools; and LB 376, Senator Machaela Cavanaugh’s Family Support Waiver bill that would funnel funding and supports to more families of children with disabilities in an effort to mitigate the notoriously long Developmental Disability Services waitlist. You may remember that both Linehan’s and Cavanaugh’s bills were killed by filibusters last year. Per Speaker policy, a measure can be revived if it receives a new priority designation, as both of these have by their respective introducers, in the new session.
Changes to Public Input Options
Options for public input have changed from last year. The option for delivering written testimony on the morning of the hearing has been discontinued, and letters for the record will now be submitted via a new online system instead of emailed to committees. In short, to get your name listed on the committee statement for a bill, you must once again appear in-person at the hearing to deliver oral testimony, as it was before temporary changes were put in place due to the pandemic. The online comment system will continue to be available as a means of submitting comments on a bill at any stage. Here’s a link to a description of the updated options: https://nebraskalegislature.gov/committees/public-input.php
Until next week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall