Spring Awakening The weather isn’t the only thing warming up. So is the George Norris Legislative Chamber. With all-day floor…
Tension in the Chamber As the Nebraska Legislature adjourned Friday, an extraordinary scene ensued in the Legislative Chamber. The dispute…
What’s Recess? On scheduled recess days, like today, the business of the Nebraska Legislature continues. Legislative staffers take the opportunity…
That’s a Wrap
The 105th Legislature, 1st session came to an end much as it started, with plenty of crossed arms and entrenched feet. A lengthy rules debate over the number of votes needed for a filibuster occupied much of the first two months of session before a compromise was finally reached. A “gang of 27” that held up the rules in the early part of session joined back up again at the end to force budget cuts that progressives considered draconian because of their impact on vulnerable people. However, nestled between the periods of deep political polarization, Coalition members had much to cheer and much to breathe sighs of relief over in a session that may be remembered as much for what didn’t happen as what did. Following are just some of the most significant highlights of the session.
Budget and Taxes
Based on ever-worsening revenue shortfalls, budget cuts were inevitable this session. Coalition members worked throughout the session to protect funding for our state’s children and families. In the end, the Governor line-item vetoed an additional $56.5 million out of the budget, aimed at low-income Nebraskans with developmental disabilities and mental health problems, child welfare and probation services. The Legislature couldn’t find the 30 votes needed for an override.
The Omaha World Herald has a piece about how the Governor’s heavy spending in legislative races in 2016 paid off for him in the veto override votes. Keep a watch on continued budget battles as the Governor may call a special session later this year if revenue continues to fall below projections.
The battle over taxes became a lot clearer last week as the Revenue Committee advanced LB461 (Smith), a package of income and property tax cuts that, as amended, would cost the state $458 million a year when fully implemented. The bill includes elements of LB337 (Smith) and LB338 (Brasch), the Governor’s tax plan proposals, as well as elements of LB452 (Lindstrom). Amended together in LB461, this creates a mega tax cut plan geared primarily toward wealthy Nebraskans.
The Open Sky Policy Institute says as much as 74% of the cuts would go to the state’s top 20 percent of income earners. Open-Sky Policy Institute Executive Director Renee Fry told the Lincoln Journal Star:
“This tax package is irresponsible policy. It does little to help the middle class but will force year over year cuts to higher education, K-12 schools, public safety and other vital services.”
Last week was the first week of all-day floor debate and it was a flurry of activity with nearly 40 bills advancing. During this phase of the legislative session, things can move quickly. Keep up to date by following the Unicameral Update.
Voting Rights Victory
The Nebraska Legislature gave first-round approval Friday on LB75 (Wayne), which allows those completing prison sentences, parole or probation to have their voting rights immediately restored. Current law provides for a two-year waiting period for restoration of voting rights. Nebraskans for Civic Reform has worked hard to get this bill passed, resulting in a quick and surprising 28-5 vote Friday. For more information, read the news coverage in the Omaha World Herald and Lincoln Journal Star.
Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence Protections Move Forward
Legislators also gave first-round approval last week to LB289 (Pansing Brooks), which increases penalties on human traffickers. After several hours of debate in which some senators expressed reservations about raising mandatory minimums and questioned other aspects of the bill, LB289 advanced on a 42-0 vote. Senator Pansing Brooks committed to working with senators between General File and Select File to address their concerns.
The Clock Ticks
Speaker Scheer has asked senators who have priority bills that are likely to generate extended debate to get advance vote counts. His email states in part:
“To facilitate being able to hear as many priority bills as possible, I intend to rely on the vote counts provided to me for bills that will likely require a cloture vote. If the sponsor of a bill can show me that they have 33 votes, or are within reach of 33, I have no problem spending 6 hours on any bill. However, if a bill is going to go to cloture and is not near the 33 vote threshold it will be scheduled for a specific period of time and then not scheduled on the agenda again until the sponsor can show me that he or she has the votes.”
The specific period for debate is likely to be three hours or less. This puts pressure on senators, staff, lobbyists, and advocates to work vote counts now. With limited time for floor debate, it reduces the ability to run the clock, cut deals and increase vote counts on the floor.
It took 49 days, but on Friday the Nebraska Legislature finally adopted its permanent rules for the session, leaving existing filibuster rules intact.
As noted in the Omaha World Herald:
“At the center of the rules fight was an effort by conservative senators to make it easier to end a filibuster. Under the rules adopted Friday, the filibuster rule remains unchanged. After a specified number of hours, a bill’s sponsor can seek to cut off debate by invoking cloture. It takes the votes of 33 senators, or two-thirds of the Legislature’s 49 senators, for a cloture motion to succeed. If cloture is reached, senators vote immediately on the bill’s advancement. If not, the bill effectively dies. Lawmakers had considered numerous proposals to change the rules, including some that would lower the threshold for invoking cloture and others that would put the burden on those maintaining the filibuster to find votes.”
The Lincoln Journal Star and NET Radio have additional coverage of the adoption of rules.
Final Week of Hearings
Hearings are winding down this week. Next week the Nebraska Legislature will move to all day floor debate. Because debate on the rules occupied so much time during the early part of the session and there is much work to be done, rumor has it that the Speaker intends to make May an entire month of late nights to help ensure priority bills are heard this session. Expect tired Senators, which can lead to crankiness on the floor.
Three bills of note this week:
Wednesday: The Health and Human Services Committee will hear testimony on LB128 (Groene), which would allow for drug tests of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applicants who have a prior drug conviction.
The Revenue Committee will hear testimony on LB373 (Schumacher), which undoes bills that reduced revenue by over $5 million over the past decade.
Thursday: The Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on LR27 (Bolz), which is a resolution stating that “the members of the Legislature believe in protecting refugees regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, age or sex and appreciate their contributions to this state.”
Every week is important during the legislative session, but this week may be the most determinative one as senators and committees are hitting crunch time to make important decisions about what bills get priority status.
Some of you may have seen the classic “Schoolhouse Rocks” video on how a bill becomes a law in the U.S. In Nebraska, the fundamental process is the same, but there are several procedural determinations that dictate a bill’s chances of even making it to the full body for consideration on the floor. Following are a few of the potential “process hurdles.”
The Power of the Purse
Last week served as a preview of the future budget battle for the biennium budget as the state grapples with a $900 million revenue shortfall.
State Senators expressed their grievances last week over the Governor’s deficit budget cuts (cuts he wants to make to the current year budget that was already approved), before ultimately advancing them to Select File (the second round of debate before Final Reading). Senator Bob Krist and others criticized the Governor for withholding appropriations to state agencies. Others also criticized the Governor for not calling the Legislature into a special session to address the deficit cuts.
The Nebraska Constitution gives the Legislature the “power of the purse.” The Legislature was able to make significant changes to the Governor’s proposals, including protection of funds to support people with developmental disabilities and funds to reduce prison overcrowding.