All-day hearings began in full force last week, with committees digging right in to some of the most controversial issues of the session. Hearings on a proposed abortion ban (LB 626, Albrecht), an implementation framework for the Voter ID initiative passed by voters last fall (LB 535, Slama), a subminimum wage for young workers (Briese, LB 15), a “Parents Bill of Rights” aimed at increasing parental oversight of controversial topics in schools (Murman, LB 374), and another crack at tax credits for donors to private schools (LB 753, Linehan) garnered some of the most testifiers, with several of these hearings lasting well into the evening.
Tension Brewing in Committees
This all-day hearing schedule implemented by Speaker Arch has some concerned about it hampering accessibility and fairness of the public hearing process. Holding all-day hearings is atypical, though past speaker Hilgers did implement a similar schedule during the peak of the pandemic. At that time, the decision to hold all-day hearings was made in the name of expediency based upon concerns about the pandemic possibly grinding the session to a halt. But circumstances are different now, and this looks to some like an intentional effort to wear down opponents of majority-sponsored controversial measures. Intentional or not, it does have some practical implications. When hearings are crammed in on such a tight schedule, it’s more difficult for members of the public to take the time to prepare for and attend all the hearings they might be interested in. Voter ID and the abortion ban bills, for instance, were scheduled on the same day at the same time, potentially causing some to have to choose between testifying on one or the other.
Many committee chairs have been setting time limits for testimony on measures that draw a large volume of testifiers in order to prevent hearings from running too long. In several cases this week, testifiers were told they would have a certain amount of time per person, which was then shortened midway through the hearing after testimony had taken longer than chairpersons anticipated. Some senators also expressed frustration at how some chairpersons have ordered the scheduling of bill hearings — for example, some this week spread out some highly controversial measures among more straightforward measures that could be expected to take very little time, causing many testifiers to have to stay much later than might have been necessary. I’ve also learned that the Health and Human Services committee, chaired by Sen. Hansen, has been holding meetings over the lunch hour but without calling them Executive Sessions, so as to keep the press away from their private discussions about which bills they might advance.
A few sparks have also flown among committee chairs, members, and bill introducers. After hearing six hours of testimony on her abortion ban, Sen. Albrecht raised some eyebrows when, while taking questions from committee members during the closing on her bill, eventually declined to answer more questions, saying she was tired from the day. In another somewhat charged exchange, Sen. Albrecht told Senator Conrad, who had been asking a series of questions about a bill before their committee, to cease her line of questioning so that the hearing could move forward. I’m told that there was later a conversation held with these two, the Speaker, and The Clerk, who told Albrecht that it was out of line to tell another Senator to stop asking questions about a bill. Senator Kauth also received some backlash late this week after her exchange with Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan, who was testifying on Friday. Observers have said Kauth was unnecessarily rude and called for her to apologize.
All in all, committee chairs and their members seem to be on pretty rocky footing to start off the year, and I think if these issues continue, we can expect pushback from some members behind the scenes and perhaps during floor debate.
This week brings another week of all-day hearings, with a recess day for Senators on Monday. Hearings of note this week:
- LB 142 (Briese) and LB 779 (Bostar): Would cap the out-of-pocket an insured individual pays for insulin at $100 or $35 for a thirty day supply, respectively
- LB 70 (M. Cavanaugh): Would eliminate fees for state IDs and birth certificate copies for voting purposes
- LB 13 (Blood): Would require Medicaid to cover breast milk
- LB 574 (Kauth): “Let them Grow Act”, or a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth
- LB 318 (Bostar): Would adopt a Child Care Tax Credit for parents, dependent on income
- LB 294 (Conrad): Would create a State Child Tax Credit for parents of up to $1000 per child dependent on income
- LB 295 (Conrad): Would increase the Earned Income Tax Credit
- LB 590 (Holdcroft): Would increase the monthly allowance for Aged, Blind and Disabled
- LB 326 (Raybould): Extend continuous youth eligibility for Medicaid from six to 12 months
- LB 588 (Wishart): Adopt the Medicinal Cannabis Act
- LB 22 (Wayne): Decriminalize use and possession of marijuana
- LB 634 (McKinney): Allow for commercial sale of recreational cannabis and provide a mechanism for removing cannabis offenses from one’s criminal record
- LB 254 (Brewer): Create a digital video archive of legislative proceedings
- LB 810 (Murman): Medical Ethics and Diversity Act, or allow healthcare providers to refuse to provide a service based on personal beliefs
- LB 482 (Raybould): Suicide Risk Protection Order Act, or allow a court to intervene when a person in possession of a firearm is believed to be in danger to themselves or others
As of this writing, it’s expected that we will return to a “normal” schedule next week of floor debate in the mornings and hearings only in the afternoons.
Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall