Week 19 of the Nebraska Legislature

Budget and Tax Measures Debated, Advanced

Last week was all about the numbers, as senators advanced the state’s biennial budget and “The Package”, a set of Governor-backed proposals intended to shore up public school funding and lower taxes. The budget bills (LBs 818, 814, and 813) saw many attempts to add or change things from what the Appropriations committee recommended; far too much to cover here, but if you’re interested in a more detailed breakdown of what was included, our friends at OpenSky are a great resource, as is the Unicameral Update.

One notable inclusion was an amendment from Sen. McKinney to LB 814, which will require an inmate classification study ordered by the legislature two years ago to be finished and submitted by the end of this year. A similarly required study of staffing of correctional facilities will be due in 2025 with the adoption of the amendment. If we’re going to build a new prison facility, he said, it’s imperative for the legislature to hold the Department of Corrections accountable by ensuring that they complete the studies that the legislature has assigned them and provide this information.

“The Package” includes 3 pieces: LB 243 (Briese), the property tax component; LB 583 (Sanders), the school funding component; and LB 754 (Linehan), the income tax component. Each was advanced to Final Reading and are poised to pass. Executive Board Chair Sen. Briese said the intention is to provide both income and property tax relief to Nebraskans in roughly equal measure. Some of this is driven by the funneling of more state resources to K-12 schools (LB 583), and some of it is provided by the generous amount of cash the state has to work with this biennium. Concerns persist about the bills’ combined effects- that most relief will benefit the highest-earning Nebraskans, that many school districts’ bottom lines will be harmed by the revenue cap in LB 243, and that the legislature may be weakening the state’s rainy day fund to a degree that could hurt us in the long term.

Abortion Ban Amendment Filed on LB 574

As it often happens around here, things changed significantly between the writing of my last post- in which I felt fairly confident about the abortion ban not coming back up this session- and the first session day of the week. By mid-Monday, things became frantic when we learned that Senator Hansen was filing an amendment to LB 574, the ban on gender affirming care for trans youth, containing a 12-week abortion ban.

The amendment (AM 1658) is being called a 12 week ban by supporters because it bans abortions at 12 weeks’ gestation. Previous proposed bans have defined that timeline differently, tying it to the time of fertilization rather than gestation. In medicine, practitioners calculate the age of a pregnancy beginning at fertilization, and gestational age counting starts two weeks after the woman’s first day of her last menstrual period. So effectively, this is a 10 week ban. Hansen and supporters faced harsh criticism from their colleagues on the other side of this issue for trying to resurrect a bill that they said was killed fair and square, and that abortion opponents are trying to circumvent the process by tacking this onto an unrelated bill late in the game rather than coming back next year with a new bill that can earn the votes to pass.

With regard to the original content of LB 574, the amendment also modifies the gender-affirming care ban: It would only explicitly ban surgical interventions for minors, while leaving it up to the state’s Chief Medical Officer to regulate the use of puberty blockers and hormones. It also contains a grandfather clause, which would allow youth already undergoing treatment to continue to do so should the bill become law.

I will note, however, that concerns persist about the amendment language being cleverly designed in such a way that if passed, it could end up being as restrictive as the original LB 574. The Chief Medical Officer is appointed by the Governor, so that person will have a lot of latitude to set parameters around gender-affirming care in a way that reflects their personal or political beliefs. Further, there’s a clause stating that hormones and puberty blockers may only be prescribed for youth who “have a long-lasting and intense pattern of gender nonconformity or gender dysphoria which began or worsened at the start of puberty.” This narrow definition likely exempts many potential candidates for treatment, especially the many who experience persistent gender dysphoria at a young age.

The Speaker has confirmed that LB 574 will be scheduled for debate as the second and last bill on Tuesday, which is probably a smart choice. Much like we saw in the debate and defeat of LB 626 a couple of weeks ago, tensions will be very high following the vote on this, and it’s probably best for all involved to call it a day afterward and get senators out of the building. Whichever way it goes, we know that emotions will be running very high for senators, advocates, and members of the public who will be watching at the Capitol. Given the way that both of these issues can become very inflammatory, we can expect a heightened security presence at the Capitol that day.

It’s impossible to say how this will play out. I know many eyes will be on Sen. Riepe, as well as Sens. Hughes and Brandt, who have previously signaled they’d like to see changes to LB 574. If the amendment is adopted and the bill passed, it’s highly likely that the law would face a single subject challenge, and opponents have promised to “blow up” the rest of the session if this happens. It is possible that some moderates who have been on the fence about either issue will find the amendment combining the two too extreme and abstain from voting; but it’s equally possible that the amendment is designed to bring one or more of them on board with something they like in the language. If it is defeated, opponents say they will let the rest of the session sail along without further filibuster.

What’s Next

Monday is a recess day. Per the speaker, following the debate of LB 727 and LB 574 on Tuesday, the body will have final round debate on the budget package on Wednesday and Thursday. Thursday will mark that “Day 80” Deadline by which the body is supposed to pass the biennial budget, and it’s looking like we will meet that deadline. That leaves Friday open with no indication as of yet to what the Speaker might schedule. It could be any of the remaining high-profile issues, or it could be time used to advance less controversial measures.

Finally, I am hearing that Governor Pillen has pledged to return any vetoes immediately, rather than waiting up to five days to return them to the body as is permitted. If this is true, I have heard that there is some will among legislative leadership to have us conclude on Day 89, a Friday, rather than waiting a calendar week and then coming back the following Friday to adjourn on Day 90 – a waiting period which Speakers have traditionally built into the schedule to allow for veto overrides. As with any rumor, don’t take this as gospel, but it seems plausible enough, and would put us at a June 2nd rather than a June 9 Sine Die.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall