A Buzz-Worthy Week
Well, the week ended much differently than it began. Slowly throughout the week, the many events that senators and staff usually attend started to get canceled as a result of the COVID-19 virus. On Tuesday, several senators, staff, and other people who work in the building attended a briefing hosted by local health officials and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. It focused on the importance of social distancing, a term many of you have probably heard of by now, as well as the number of Nebraskans who could get sick if we fail to practice social distancing. Senators began to wonder if they should do their part by limiting the number of staff they have in the building or even postponing the session altogether.
On Thursday, Speaker Scheer and Sen. Hilgers, Chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board, decided to recess the body with the option of postponing session, if needed. The Legislature is on a four-day recess, giving them a little time to assess the situation before they are supposed to reconvene on Tuesday morning.
Many senators are allowing their staff to work from home or have a limited number of staff in the office. If you want to reach a senator’s office, email might work best. If you call, expect to leave a voicemail and someone will return your call as soon as they can (staff are able to check voicemail remotely). Much of what staffers do can be done online, on the phone, or through email, so don’t expect much of a disruption unless senators decide not to reconvene at some point. With this and the recent incident of people openly carrying guns in the building, it has definitely been a strange session for staff.
By Thursday, senators realized the possibility they might have to postpone session. Speaker Scheer decided to put the budget bills on the agenda so they could vote on them before they recessed. However, some senators saw this rush as possible leverage to take time to discuss problems they saw in the budget.
Senators are in the second year of a biennium, meaning the main budget was passed last year. In even years, however, the Appropriations Committee puts together bills that adjust the budget based on the past year’s revenue and gaps that various agencies and departments might have. If the budget bills fail to pass, important needs of the state would go unmet for over a year.
Sen. Wayne took time to tell senators he was upset that some things in the budget would help rural Nebraska even when he continues to run into barriers when trying to pass things for his district, such as affordable housing initiatives. Sen. Cavanaugh and Sen. Pansing Brooks thought they should add provisions in the budget to address the COVID-19 virus, such as paid sick time for workers and healthcare funding. Sen Linehan, Chairperson of the Revenue Committee, yet again tried to pass property tax relief by introducing an amendment similar to her previous bill that has stalled.
Despite all of these delays, senators passed the budget on the first round of debate late in the day. Sen. Stinner, Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, filed an amendment that will be debated next week that will add $10 million to the budget in emergency response funds to address the coronavirus. Expect similar attempts by senators next week to change the budget to add things they think are still missing.
Senators Debate Bills on Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers
On Tuesday, senators passed a package of bills on the first round of debate to address problems at the state’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers. The YRTC’s are facilities where young people go when ordered there because they have committed criminal offenses. They focus on rehabilitation and, therefore, are under the Department of Health and Human Services, rather than the corrections system.
There have been multiple problems at the YRTC’s the last couple of years, including youth running away, being violent, and experiencing dilapidated and damaged facilities with little programming and treatment options available. Some senators have made it a priority to address these issues, touring the facilities multiple times over the last interim and introducing several bills this year.
Of the fourteen bills introduced on the issue, senators debated and passed five on Tuesday. Measures included: A requirement to keep boys and girls separated at different facilities, the establishment of a superintendent to administer education programming and a requirement that facilities report instances of violence to the inspector general for child welfare.
Hair Discrimination Bill Narrowly Passes First Round of Debate
On Monday, senators narrowly passed a bill introduced by Sen. Cavanaugh that would ban workplace discrimination based on a worker’s hairstyle or hair texture. The Business and Labor Committee had previously advanced the bill on a unanimous vote, but three committee members (Sens. Slama, Ben Hansen, and Halloran) then spoke against the bill and did not vote to advance it. For senators to flip their vote from the committee to the floor is usually rare, but seems to be a common occurrence this session.
The bill passed the first round on a 26-9 vote with an additional ten senators present but not voting. Because the bill was not filibustered, it only needed 25 votes to advance. However, this vote shows Sen. Cavanaugh may face an uphill battle to pass the bill in the next two rounds and get it forwarded to the Governor to sign.
That’s it for this week. Stay tuned to see whether session continues or is postponed due to the coronavirus. In the meantime, I’ll continue to wash my little fly hands and give elbow bumps instead of handshakes!
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall