Week 15 of the Nebraska Legislature

This past week was one of the more eventful in recent memory. With new senator Bosn reporting for duty to replace former Sen. Geist, the legislature got to work in tackling what are probably the two most contentious priority bills of the year. Both LB 626, Sen. Albrecht’s near-total abortion ban, and LB 574, Sen. Kauth’s ban on gender-affirming care for youth, advanced after heated debate. For both bills, there was an increased law enforcement presence in and around the Capitol, with extra State Patrol members brought in temporarily to provide enhanced security as activist groups and members of the public showed up to express their strong views on opposing sides of these divisive issues.

LB 626

Wednesday saw the long-awaited first round debate of Sen. Albrecht’s “Heartbeat Act”. The bill would severely tighten Nebraska’s existing restriction on legal abortions, which are currently banned at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later. Under LB 626, abortion would be banned at 6 weeks, before many people know they are pregnant; effectively banning most abortions in the state. While Albrecht and supporters have defended the bill by pointing to language that provides some exceptions to the ban, opponents described example scenarios illustrating how the language may not, in practice, actually provide any protection for survivors of sexual assault or those facing medical emergencies or fetal anomalies. Under the bill, doctors who provide abortion care would be subject to loss of their medical license, a penalty which opponents said will have a chilling effect on the practice, recruitment and retention of medical professionals in Nebraska. They further argued that the bill’s interaction with existing statutes that relate to criminal penalties for abortion providers means it would potentially criminalize doctors, contrary to what the bill’s supporters have said.

Opponents filibustered the bill for the requisite 8 hours before 33 senators voted in favor of cloture, and the same 33 held on their votes to advance the bill. While two more stages of debate remain, it is looking unlikely that any of those 33 are “moveable” on the issue. Of course, we won’t know for sure until the bill reaches the Governor’s desk, but abortion providers and advocates have long been preparing for the bill to become law. If this happens, it’s plausible that we could expect legal challenges from outside the legislature, such as a lawsuit challenging the bill’s constitutionality and/or a ballot measure as a referendum on the bill that could be put to voters.

LB 574

Sen. Kauth’s “Let Them Grow” Act, which would ban gender-affirming care for trans youth, saw four hours of second-round debate before another successful cloture motion to advance it to final reading. The emotional temperature in the lead up to and during this one was extremely high. Early in the week, we learned that the Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group known for protesting at the funerals of fallen members of the military and law enforcement, would be coming to Lincoln to express their support for LB 574 on Thursday. Soon after, word began to spread that this would coincide with the planned scheduling of LB 574 that same morning. The kicker was that the news came before Senators and legislative staff had been informed about the bill’s pending scheduling on that day, sparking rumors about someone having inside information and tipping off the Church about the timing of this debate.

Several senators then decried the actions of the hate group and the decision of the Speaker to proceed with the scheduling of LB 574 debate for Thursday, despite knowing that the Westboro Baptist Church would be present that day. The Church, based in Kansas, is known for holding signs and spreading messages such as “God Hates F*gs”, and believes that the deaths of military servicepeople and terrorist events are linked to God’s disapproval of homosexuality. Fortunately, the Church’s brief picket outside the Capitol and the counterprotest across the street from them went off without incident.

Some procedural shenanigans were afoot as the debate clock neared the four hour mark. As opponents of LB 574 learned that the bill had 33 votes for cloture even without a so-called compromise amendment from Kauth that would limit the ban to surgeries only, filibuster leaders M. Cavanaugh and Hunt decided to throw a last-minute curveball: withdrawing Hunt’s motions on the bill in an attempt to force a vote on Kauth’s amendment. This clearly befuddled LB 574 supporters, who presumably did not expect to get to the amendment. Earlier in the bill’s lifecycle, it was understood that a handful of moderate Republicans might only support it with the Kauth amendment to make it less extreme- and that’s why until this point, opponents had attempted to prevent its adoption. But once it became clear that the bill was advancing with or without the amendment, opponents decided to try and force Kauth’s hand to adopt the more middle-of-the-road approach which could have still allowed for trans youth to access hormone therapy and puberty blockers.

In a stunning moment, a clearly panicked Kauth had words with Speaker Arch during her time on the mic, who appeared to be urging her not to withdraw her amendment. Arch then put the body into a 45-minute recess, which was apparently used by the two to strategize and whip votes against the amendment. This is a big deal: most of us have never seen it done, and it gave a clear advantage to the bill’s supporters that would never be given to minority members. It’s essentially saying that if a bill is in jeopardy at the end of debate and the Speaker likes it, he can choose to give a time-out to the majority, allowing them crucial time to put their heads together and strategize rather than suffering the natural consequences of whatever might have played out on the floor. Arch drew a lot of heat for this choice.

Kauth concluded debate on the bill by assuring opponents that she would take their offer to work on a compromise before the final stage of debate, and that if a compromise amendment is worked out, that she would allow the bill to be returned to select file to adopt said amendment. But opponents say there’s slim to no chance that this actually happens, because Kauth and other leading supporters have made clear their support for advancing the bill as-is. The handful of moderates who have publicly and privately expressed concerns about the measure ultimately kowtowed to pressure from their party’s leaders and what I’m also hearing was fear of negative attention from fringe groups like the Nebraska Freedom Coalition and Nebraskans Against Government Overreach. Both groups are known for following Senators and staff around the Capitol, filming and photographing them without consent, and encouraging their supporters to harass and heckle them online.

What’s Next

Amid the noise of this week around these two major proposals, the legislature also started its work on budgetary measures, which will be a major focus of the coming several weeks. Appropriations wrapped up its executive sessions late Friday, but the mainline budget bills are still in the drafting stages. Another outstanding “must-do” for the legislature, the passage of Voter ID implementation, will take a step forward on Monday, when the Government committee is expected to hold a vote to send the bill with potential amendment(s) to the floor. The Speaker didn’t specify much about his plans for the week in Friday’s announcement other than that we will continue having late nights.

Remarkably, at the time of this writing, day 63 of the 90 day legislature is upon us, and zero bills have yet been signed into law.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall