Inside the Rotunda: Week 4

It’s the Time of Year for...Public Hearings!

We’ve already reached Day 16 of our 60-day legislative session! The Capitol has been abuzz with committee hearings since each of the almost 500 new bills has to have a hearing before the end of session in April. The Unicameral is unique in this way; every bill that senators introduce gets a public hearing. This is unlike most other statehouses that have to depend on committee chairs or party leaders to schedule a hearing, with many not getting one at all.

The goal then becomes trying to get certain bills early hearings so that committees are able to amend (if needed) and vote a bill out of committee to the full legislature. Due to the large number of bills and the short session, bills often need a priority designation in order to be scheduled for debate on the floor. Each senator can choose one bill as their priority, which means it will likely be scheduled for debate by the end of session. The deadline to announce your priority bill is by February 21st, so senators try to get bills they are considering to be their priority scheduled for a hearing and voted out of committee by then (you don’t want to waste a priority designation on something that might not be voted out of committee!) Because of that upcoming deadline and the subsequent start of debate on priority bills, committee hearings are packed to the brim with important legislation at this point of the session.

On Monday, the Business and Labor Committee heard several bills regarding workers’ compensation, including Sen. Quick’s LB846. This bill would decrease the wait times to qualify and start receiving worker’s compensation benefits when a worker suffers a workplace injury. This wait time is key because currently, even if a worker qualifies, they lose the first week of pay after an injury and don’t get reimbursed for six weeks, which can often deter them from applying in the first place. Several workers’ rights advocates testified in support, but any changes to the current workers’ compensation system are difficult to pass because the business lobby sees a chance to make other changes that would benefit them and hurt workers. The bill likely has enough votes to get out of committee but would have trouble passing once on the floor.

On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee heard Sen. Vargas’s LB1020, which would prohibit housing discrimination based on a person’s source of income. This means landlords could no longer refuse tenants based on whether they use government assistance (usually Section 8) to pay their rent. During the hearing, Sen. Vargas noted that many people who receive housing vouchers are unable to find an apartment that accepts them and end up losing them altogether. Several affordable housing advocates testified in support, including CSN members Together Omaha and Nebraska Appleseed. Of course, several landlords testified against, saying they shouldn’t be forced to participate in an inefficient and burdensome government program. While the bill had a great hearing and likely has enough votes to get out of committee, it likely needs a priority designation to move forward.

On Wednesday, the Health and Human Services Committee heard several bills that would help low-income families who receive Medicaid:

  • LB851, introduced by Sen. McCollister of Omaha, would allow those receiving Medicaid to stay on the program for twelve continuous months, regardless of changes in income and without having to reapply within those twelve months.
  • LB955, introduced by Sen. Walz of Fremont, would require the Department of Health and Human Services to provide additional support and reasoning when eligibility is discontinued or modified and would require an improved appeals process for those decisions.
  • LB932, introduced by Sen. Wishart of Lincoln, would put an October 1st deadline on the Department of Health and Human Services to begin implementing Medicaid expansion.

Don’t Forget about Referencing and the Power of the Executive Board

While committee hearings took up most of the afternoons, senators continued to debate as a full body on the legislative floor each morning. One interesting floor fight this week involved the referencing of a bill (LB1046 from Sen. Friesen). Sen. Wayne thought the bill (which has to do with taxes on antenna TV service) should have been referenced to the committee he chairs (Urban Affairs) and not the Revenue Committee. Once a bill is introduced, it goes to the Executive Board, who then meet and decide which committee it should go to. Sounds simple, right? Well, usually it is, but with a few bills each session, senators file a motion to rereference a bill because they disagree with the committee the Executive Board initially chose. Senators and the Executive Board then both accuse each other of playing politics, because which committee a bill goes to can often decide whether it has the votes to be voted out of committee. Some committees skew more progressive and some more conservative (and some are split right down the middle, which makes it even more interesting!)

Ultimately, senators are rarely successful in getting a bill rereferenced, and the motion is filed in order to accuse the Executive Board that they are intentionally sending bills to the wrong committees so they can get a more favorable vote. That’s what happened with LB1046 when Sen. Wayne’s motion failed on a 12-29 vote.

You can also see this dynamic at play as bills are drafted. Senators will often draft bills a certain way so that they are more likely to be referenced to a certain committee.

Coming up this Week...

On Monday, the Education Committee will hear LB1168, introduced by Sen. Kolowski of Omaha, which would allocate lottery funds towards several programs that aim to increase availability of career and college prep programs, especially for low-income students. One provision would allow school districts to waive the testing fee for college credit courses for students who can’t afford them.

Also on Monday, the Business and Labor Committee will hear LB915, introduced by Sen. Hunt of Omaha. This bill would increase the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 per hour to $4.50 per hour by January 2022.

On Tuesday, the Urban Affairs Committee will hear several bills that would address the lack of affordable housing in the state, including LB794 from Sen. Hansen, LB866 from Sen. Wayne, and LB1155 from Sen. Vargas.

As always, reach out to Laurie or Jo if you or someone at your organization is interested in testifying or submitting a letter of support for any of these bills. The deadline to submit a letter is 5:00pm the day before the hearing. You can also stream any of these hearings online by going to the NET website and clicking the “On Demand” button.

That’s it for this week! I’ll have much to report next week as the deadline looms for senators to designate their priority bills for the session.

Until Next Week,

Your Capitol Fly on the Wall