2017 Legislature: accomplishments, controversy, unfinished business


May 25th, 2017

The 2017 Nebraska Legislature debates legislation. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

In the just-ended legislative session, Nebraska lawmakers balanced a budget at one point projected to have a nearly $1 billion shortfall. But they also left behind a lot of unfinished business, and in some people’s view undermined the Unicameral’s nonpartisanship.

Lincoln, NE – Controversy started the first day, as a coalition of mostly conservative Republican lawmakers ousted more moderate Republicans and Democrats from leadership positions. Last year, registered Democrats chaired four of fourteen standing committees in the officially nonpartisan Legislature; this year, they wound up with only one.

Controversy continued as members of the majority coalition tried to change the rules to make it harder for a minority to block legislation by filibustering. Sen. Burke Harr, a Democrat ousted from his chairmanship by freshman Republican Sen. Joni Albrecht, led opposition to the change.

“I think the first day defined the session for the first half of the session,” Harr said, adding however that by the end, he thinks senators came to an agreement that they wanted to work together.

Lawmakers didn’t finally agree to leave the filibuster rule alone until the 49th business day of the 90-day session. Meanwhile, they dealt with another controversy. Sen. Bill Kintner was fined $1,000 last year for having cybersex on his state laptop. But Kintner refused calls for him to resign. In January, he reignited controversy by retweeting a tweet suggesting participants in that month’s Women’s March were too unattractive to be sexually assaulted. That set off an uproar, and with the Legislature scheduled to consider expelling him, Kintner did resign.

Eventually, legislation did move. Senators cut the budget for the current fiscal year and increased it by about one percent each of the next two years, with even that scaled back by Gov. Pete Ricketts’ vetoes. The Legislature strengthened penalties for sex trafficking, and consolidated agencies dealing with transportation and veterans. Senators voted to ease occupational licensing and streamline roads project approvals. They required schools to accommodate pregnant and breastfeeding students and made it easier for people who can’t pay fines to stay out of jail.

But they didn’t act on what many said was their top priority: providing additional property or income tax relief. Sen. Jim Smith, chairman of the Revenue Committee, said that reflected the fiscal climate.

“There appears to me to be a lot of fear and that takes sights off of what Nebraska can be and the opportunities that exist out there for our state. And so I think our focus was internal on costs, and trying to just get through this year with the budget rather than looking forward to what the state can be,” Smith said.

Rural critics said Smith’s bill was too heavily weighted towards income tax cuts, and later declared they would pursue a constitutional amendment in the Legislature next year, and failing that, via an initiative petition drive, for property tax relief. Meanwhile many urban senators said it made no sense to schedule future tax cuts when the state was cutting spending to balance the budget.

With so much delayed by the fight over rules changes, Speaker Jim Scheer announced a new way to save time: He would schedule bills for three hours of debate. But after that, if the sponsor couldn’t show he had a path to overcome a filibuster, the bill wouldn’t be scheduled again. Sen. Dan Watermeier found that a mixed blessing.

“That was pretty I think harmful to the whole discussion process. It was a good idea in the intention of it, because every priority bill did get debated…but in essence that did limit the amount of exposure to put people on the record,” Watermeier said.

Speaker Scheer defended his three hour limit.

“What we had this year was I think much higher quality discussion and debate on the bills, regardless if it was only three hours. And from the other vantage point, simply talking for six or eight hours straight doesn’t make a bill better,” Scheer said.

Good or bad, the process leaves some big issues hanging. Among them are proposals to legalize medical marijuana and keep secret the suppliers of lethal injection drugs. A ban on employment discrimination against LGBT people, and a call for a convention of the states to propose constitutional amendments also remain in limbo until next year, as well as requiring lawyers for juvenile defendants and allowing teachers to use physical force on disruptive students in the classroom.

As the session ended, some said they were concerned the partisanship of the first day was continuing. Sen. Bob Krist, a moderate Republican ousted from his chairmanship, faulted Gov. Ricketts’ support for more conservative party members.

“I believe what we’ve seen is that the governor has bought a legislature. And that at this point, if he doesn’t want it to happen, it’s not going to happen, which is sad,” Krist said.

Ricketts’ spokesman Taylor Gage dismissed those comments from Krist, who’s talked about challenging Ricketts next year, as “empty political rhetoric from someone planning to run for higher office.” And Watermeier, who defeated Krist for a chairmanship, also downplayed partisanship.

“I think the leadership elections reflected what happened in our state and country. And I defend that, that elections matter,” he said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a registered Democrat, said that after a rough start, the session showed hope people could work together.

“We have good relationships forming. We are not going to agree on numerous things. But we can work together and find common ground for Nebraska,” Pansing Brooks said.

But Sen. Laura Ebke, the only Libertarian in the Legislature, offered some blunt advice to her colleagues.

“Maybe it’s time to realize that none of us have all the answers. Maybe it’s time to start talking more and pontificating less. Maybe next year we can come together as a politically diverse body and actually achieve something,” Ebke said.

Whether or not that turns out to be the case awaits the next meeting of the Legislature, scheduled for January.

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