Week 17 of the Nebraska Legislature

Friends, I retract any former statements about any other weeks being the most eventful yet. This one will go down in the legislative history books, with the shocking last-minute upset that led to the death of LB 626, the 6-week abortion ban. But before that debate began, a few other notable things happened.

The Governor signed into law the controversial permitless carry bill, LB 77. As an update on that front, late last week I heard that the gun control advocate who had been abruptly and unfairly banned for life from Capitol grounds has been cleared to return to the Capitol, as the State Patrol apparently reversed its previous decision. It’s unclear what exactly unfolded there, but I do know of several Senator offices and government watchdog groups who were pressuring the State Patrol to provide more information that would justify their authority to make that call. This development is a win for citizens’ rights to participate in our democratic system of government.

LB 84 SNAP Cliff Effect Advances in LB 227

On Tuesday, we saw an increasingly rare instance of all sides of the body agreeing to work together on a compromise of sorts over LB 84 (Day), the bill to prevent the SNAP cliff effect. What began as a filibuster-as-usual morning took a turn when opposition leaders M. Cavanaugh and Hunt suddenly stepped back and allowed the agenda to move forward. This, we learned, was the result of an agreement they made to cease filibustering in order to allow LB 84 to be amended into LB 227, the Health and Human Services committee priority bill. The amendment was adopted without a fuss, and LB 84 is now expected to pass as part of LB 227. This will help preserve SNAP benefits for many families in need by extending the expiration date on the current 165% Federal Poverty Level income threshold, which was temporarily raised during the pandemic. Without its passage, the threshold would have reverted to 130% FPL in September, causing approximately 4,500 hardworking families to lose out on crucial food assistance.

LB 227 as amended also includes LB 35 (DeBoer), which extends the sunset date on the current Child Care Subsidy increase, which had also been raised temporarily.

LB 626 Fails in Shocking Twist

And now what you’re probably most eager to hear about: the fall of LB 626, the abortion ban. As a refresher, recall that several weeks ago, Sen. Riepe raised eyebrows when he unexpectedly introduced an amendment to the original version of Albrecht’s “Heartbeat Act” that proposed a shift from a 6-week to a 12-week ban. That was our first indicator that not every abortion opponent in the body was on the same page about what form proposed restrictions should take. As Select File debate on the measure began on Thursday, abortion rights advocates were largely gearing up for a loss, as it seemed likely that LB 626 could get the 33 votes it needed to advance to Final Reading, where it’d be nearly set in stone.

Tensions were high as senators on both sides of the issue were furiously working, strategizing, and scrambling to firm up votes on their side. 33 senators had supported the measure on the first-round cloture vote, so each of those needed to hold firm in order for LB 626 to advance to the final round.

Sen. Riepe filed a new amendment that differed from his previous effort: In addition to shifting to 12 weeks, this one would remove any criminal penalties for doctors and provide exceptions to the ban. As a flurry of negotiations were taking place, the rumblings on the floor were that Albrecht and her bill’s staunchest supporters were not happy with the amendment, and favored passing the 6-week ban as-is. It became apparent that the strategy of LB 626 supporters was to filibuster their own bill in order to prevent the Riepe amendment from coming up for a vote before a cloture motion; and that their plan was to get their 33 votes for cloture and subsequently vote to kill the Riepe amendment that would come up after it.

Sen. Riepe, who has expressed concerns with the restrictiveness of the 6-week ban after conferring with many doctors, apparently got wise to this plan and in a last-minute shocker, he withheld his vote on cloture, leaving it one vote short of the 33 needed to advance. Senator Wayne, who has also expressed nuanced views on abortion, kept us in suspense when he held a long pause before joining Riepe in abstaining with a “present not voting”. He could have voted for cloture to make up for Riepe’s abstention, giving it 33. That was another nail-biter because Wayne has said he may be open to further restrictions on abortion, but he apparently found the six-week ban too restrictive.

In conferring with many capitol staffers of varying tenure, the sentiment is roundly that this was one of the most shocking and monumental surprises of many of our careers. Looking back to the beginning of the session when LB 626 was introduced, I don’t think any of us would have predicted that Riepe, an 80-year old Republican and the oldest member of the body, would have been the wrench thrown in the mix that ultimately led to LB 626’s defeat.

Shortly after that result came in, questions began swirling as to whether the bill could somehow come back up again this year. Media statements from Sen. Riepe, Speaker Arch, and Clerk Metzler all point to the short answer being no. Sen. Riepe has affirmed that he will not change his vote, and Speaker Arch has stated he will not reschedule the bill. It is possible that some member could attempt to bring it as an amendment on some other bill, but without Riepe changing his vote, the support for such a move is just incredibly unlikely to be there.

One scenario that interested parties could prepare for is that LB 626 gets re-prioritized and debated early next year. I’m fairly comfortable saying the fight is over for this year, but we can expect it to be back again next session.

LB 574 Negotiations Conclude

Finally, a quick update on LB 574. Late last week, bill sponsor Kauth told media that “listening sessions” intended to be negotiations over a potential amendment were complete, and that she has an amendment in the works that will essentially grandfather in any patients who have already been receiving gender-affirming treatment as of earlier this year. I would expect opponents to continue fighting this as it sounds like it would still deny all access to care for youth who need it after an arbitrary point in time. Remember that when the bill is next scheduled it will be on Final Reading and will need a majority of members to agree to return it to Select File to be amended with this proposed change. That seems unlikely, as most LB 574 supporters demonstrated with their “no” votes on an amendment last round that they’d rather see the bill pass as-is.

What’s Next

Tuesday through Thursday will be late nights this week after a Monday recess. On Wednesday, the body will begin debate over the mainline budget bills, and that should take us at least through the following week, if not longer. With the final meeting of the Economic Forecasting Board completed last week, I’m hearing that the picture we’re looking at is basically some $700 million to be allocated with proposals on the floor – about $600 million when accounting for proposed tax relief measures. How much time remains for senators to scramble for their piece of that pie will depend on whether and how much extended debate we see on budget bills and other measures scheduled this week. Still no word on when the Voter ID bill (LB 535) will be up, but that’s still on the list of “must-dos” before session adjourns Sine Die.

Tuesday brings Day 70 of the 90-day session.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall