Week 4 of the Nebraska Legislature

Governor Pillen delivered his State of the State address this week, during which he unveiled his tax reduction and school funding package that critics have estimated will quickly eat up all of the state’s $1.2 billion budget surplus. If passed, fiscal analysts say these measures will have the state overcommitted to tax slashing measures that could come back to bite us in the long term when there’s no longer a surplus to draw from. Pillen’s budget package includes investments in additional property tax credits, limits on the taxation of agricultural land, and a gradual shift to a “flat” individual and corporate tax rate of 3.99%.

When it comes to education, he did not, as originally expected, push for a total per-pupil funding system, instead proposing a $1500 credit that would follow each student, calling it a compromise. He also touted his support for Senator Linehan’s bill that would give income tax credits to donors to private schools, which public education advocates have warned is part of a growing effort to defund public schools and move to a private, “pay-to-play” education system. His budget package also includes millions for the Perkins County Canal project and a new prison.

Thursday and Friday saw debate over three motions from Senator Megan Hunt to rereference three measures to what she argued is the more appropriate committee. Senator Justin Wayne, who chairs the Judiciary committee, had also filed the same motions on the same pieces of legislation, so it seems those two had the same idea. Since each motion could only be taken up once, it was Senator Hunt’s three which were scheduled since hers were filed before Wayne’s. The measures in question were LB 626, Senator Albrecht’s 6 week abortion ban; and LR 18CA and LR 19CA, both brought by Hunt and both of which would place a question on the ballot for voters to approve enshrining reproductive freedom in our state constitution.

All three were referenced to the Health and Human Services Committee instead of the Judiciary committee, which is where bills about abortion are typically referenced. These bills being referenced to HHS is indicative of further subversion of institutional norms and procedures we’ve been seeing as a trend this year. As a matter of strategy, senators can try to include certain statutory references in a bill to try and encourage the Executive Board to reference it to a committee that will be more “friendly” to it — e.g. a committee where it is more likely to advance. Conversely, the Executive Board which makes decisions about which committee a bill will be heard in, can vote to send a bill they personally don’t like to an “unfriendly” committee in hopes of preventing it from getting to the floor. We can reasonably assume that this is what has happened in these cases — the Health and Human Services committee, based on its current membership, is one that’s expected to be much more hostile to abortion rights; while the Judiciary committee would be more moderate and less likely to advance LB 626 or more likely to advance the constitutional amendments.

Supporters of the motions argued that the referencing guide used by the Executive Board advises that all abortion bills should go to the Judiciary committee, and that is what has historically happened. LB 626 in particular is tied to statutory references that would ultimately lead to criminal penalties for doctors who violate the act — and matters of criminal law, they argued, must be heard in the Judiciary committee. After two mornings of debate over whether the bills should be rereferenced, the motions ultimately failed.

Hearings Begin

The Legislature’s standing committees have varying numbers of members and political makeup. In a notable shift from recent bienniums, while the legislature and its committees are officially nonpartisan, there is now only one committee that is under majority Democrat control: The Urban Affairs committee. Judiciary is moderately balanced, with 4 members of each party. The rest of the committees, where many hot-button issues will be heard, have a comfortable Republican advantage. So that’ll certainly factor into which bills stand a chance of making it to the floor.

Notable hearings this week:

  • LB 57 (M. Cavanaugh): Creates a Paid Family and Medical Leave insurance program
  • LB 626 (Albrecht): 6 Week Abortion Ban
  • LB 419 (Wishart): Extends postpartum Medicaid coverage to 12 months
  • LB 56 (McKinney): Require diaper changing accommodations for all restrooms
  • LB 15 (Briese): Reduces the minimum wage for youth
  • LB 374 (Murman) & 71 (Sanders): “Parents Rights” bills aimed at censoring sex education, banning books and materials related to “critical race theory” or LGBTQ topics
  • LB 753 (Linehan): Distribute taxpayer dollars to donors to private schools as a tax credit
  • LB 535 (Slama): Voter ID Initiative implementation bill
  • LB 278 (Walz): Grants to state agencies to build affordable housing for persons with disabilities
  • LB 558 (Day): Require school personnel be paid at least 70% of the statewide average hourly wage
  • LB 12 (Blood): Creates a public Breast Milk Bank
  • LB 556 (Brandt): Grants for nonprofits that provide weatherization assistance through LIHEAP
  • LB 390 (Clements): Restrictions on early voting
  • LB 641 (Kauth): Accelerates phaseout of social security tax passed last year
  • LB 574 (Linehan at the Request of the Governor): 3.99% corporate and individual flat income tax, which benefits the wealthy over middle-to- low income Nebraskans

What’s Next

We’ve yet to see much of any public fallout resulting from a bombshell Nebraska Examiner piece that was published this week that called into question whether Sen. Tom Brewer has been truthful about actually living in the district he represents. There’s a lot at stake when it comes to how members of the body choose to handle this information, potentially carrying implications for how votes on key measures could play out, and who would be appointed to replace Brewer should he resign or be asked to step down. My sense is that there will be more to come and that no one wants to act rashly, perhaps until more details emerge. But I don’t think this is the last we’ve heard of this.

This week and next, through February 10, committees will hold all-day hearings, with very little time spent on the floor. Given the wide variation in the number of bills assigned to each committee, it is unclear how the schedule will be set following these two weeks. I expect we’ll hear more about this later next week.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall