Senators Prepare to Pass Emergency Aid Package to Fund Pandemic Response
Like many people, this fly on the wall is now home, but don’t fret, I still have plenty of news to share. As you all know, the coronavirus pandemic has affected most aspects of daily life around the world, including the Capitol right smack in the middle of the legislative session!
Senators adjourned last week not knowing when they would be back. Last Monday, Speaker Scheer announced he was calling off session until further notice. On Friday, he decided senators will reconvene at the beginning of the week to pass an emergency aid package totaling over $58 million that includes $38 million for personal protective equipment for health care workers and $13 million for staffing at veterans’ hospitals and the Department of Health and Human Services. The aid package is being amended into an existing appropriations bill and will go to the governor’s emergency fund for him to distribute if it passes.
Senators must be physically present to hold session, unlike other political bodies in the state, who have been allowed to meet and vote remotely. Several senators are older or have underlying health conditions that put them at risk if they get sick, so they are discussing which of them should be there to vote (33 are needed to pass the aid package). Even though senators may be worried about meeting, they have said they understand the importance of passing the aid package so that health care workers have the equipment they desperately need.
A few senators have expressed hesitation at the funding provisions saying they don’t go far enough, but I predict senators will come together and pass it quickly with no changes. This would both allow them to return home sooner as well as show solidarity with the governor in this crisis.
Meanwhile, the Capitol has become a ghost town, with most staff and senators working from home. I asked some longtime staffers and found that stopping session is largely unprecedented. According to the Assistant Clerk, the last time he remembers this happening was briefly in 1985 because of a budget crisis (but he added not to quote him on that). For the building to be nearly empty at what is usually the busiest time of year is strange, to put it mildly.
So, What Happens to all the Existing Bills?
In his announcement, Speaker Scheer said the Legislature will reconvene later in the year in what would usually be the interim to resume regular session. That is the point where they will take up bills that have been put on hold.
However, many bills will have to be changed or dropped altogether because – once again – we’re back to a lack of funding. For a brief period before the pandemic, revenue projections showed increased funds that senators had grand plans for. Now, however, revenue will probably decrease, and any remaining funds will be used to address a potential economic downturn.
Most bills that used money from the state’s General Fund (the “checking account” of the state), will now be in jeopardy. Property tax relief, business incentives, and corrections reform all may need to be put on hold. We’ll know more in the coming months.
If there is a bill that is of interest to you, I suggest waiting at least until senators pass the emergency aid package then reaching out after a few weeks to ask what the plan will be. Be prepared for bills to be amended so they don’t use any money. Like the last couple of sessions, senators will need to once again be creative in addressing important issues when revenue is down.
Senators and Staff Help Spread the Word
So, what are senators doing now that session is on hold? Many are working with their staff to address constituent concerns around the pandemic. They are busy responding to email and phone calls to their offices (staff can easily check voicemails from home). They are also busy coordinating with other state and local officials, often holding multiple virtual meetings a day. They’re all getting very good at videoconferencing!
Some of the top issues senators have been working on this week include making sure DHHS continues operations, getting the Department of Labor ready to process a potential increase in unemployment claims, and finding ways to help those who are at risk of losing their housing. This includes working closely with Governor Ricketts and the heads of various state agencies. I encourage you to check out senators’ social media to get up to date information on what they are working on and links to various resources.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned next week for an update on what happens as senators reconvene briefly to pass the emergency aid package. You can stream the session live Monday at 1:30pm at netnebraska.org (click on the “Live and on Demand” button). Speaker Scheer and the Clerk of the Legislature announced a unique protocol so that senators maintain distance from each other. It may be an interesting watch if you’re stuck at home!
Stay safe and healthy,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall