With a shorter than normal football season – sorry Huskers, a four-win season won’t get you a bowl game – that awkward time between football and the Nebraska Legislature convening is a lot longer this year.
But, while the distractions are few, the state’s 49 senators have already met officially to get a glimpse of what lies ahead when the 105th Legislature second session convenes on Jan. 3, 2018. That retreat is even more important before the “short” session because lawmakers have only 60 days to get things done.
There is always the possibility that the gang of 27 Republicans who got together before the start of the last session to unofficially decide how things were going to run, will pull the same stunt again before year’s end. I will once again remind all of you that while it’s not illegal to do so, it’s pretty darned disgusting in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan legislative body. Remember, there are 32 Republicans, 14 Democrats, two Independents and one Libertarian on record as senators.
There is also the possibility that the acrimony, which delayed permanent rules adoption, could once again rear its ugly head. The big sticking point last session was open voting on leadership positions and proposed changes to filibusters. The voting is a moot point during a second session but a matter of pride for those lawmakers wishing to do the bidding of the Republican governor.
To his credit, Speaker of the Legislature, Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, has served notice that his colleagues can suggest rule changes until the first day of the session and the Rules Committee will have a hearing on those proposals on the second day. Debate on the committee's recommendations will begin on day four.
With all that said, what’s on the senators' plates is a pretty familiar meal of tax cuts, education funding, corrections reform, Medicaid expansion and whatever new bills they can come up with during the first 10 days of the session.
Outside the legislative chambers is the drama of the governor and attorney general pushing for the state’s first execution of a death row inmate since 1997. You’ll remember that a kinder and gentler Nebraska Legislature repealed the death penalty in 2016 and overrode a gubernatorial veto. But, with a petition drive largely funded by the governor’s personal funds, the matter went on the ballot and was voted back into law.
Don’t expect a full-on legislative debate over the death penalty, but the topic will likely come up during discussions on other corrections issues as lawmakers look at reports from a troubled prison system that deals with staff shortages, contraband, unsolved inmate deaths and an escalating number of inmate-on-staff and inmate-on-inmate assaults. A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on overcrowding issues – Nebraska has the second most overcrowded system in the country – will also factor into those discussions.
The perennial issue of school funding will face more scrutiny. Education Committee Chairman, Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, addressed the issue with colleagues during the afore-mentioned retreat. He cited 2015 figures, which show what the state spent on more than 315,000 public school students with an average of nearly $13,000 per student. He said the resultant $973 million in direct school aid that year, combined with property tax relief, adult basic education, special education and other requirements and funding to the state Department of Education, actually brought that figure to $1.7 billion.
Health and Human Services issues will include child welfare, managed care for Medicaid recipients and children and efforts to combat opioid abuse and prescription drug monitoring. Some of this discussion will be driven by issues from the Legislature’s Planning Committee, which has discovered that the state’s population is: becoming more concentrated in a few counties (Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy have 55 percent); getting older; becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.
With continuing revisions downward by the state Economic Forecasting Advisory Board, it’s highly probable that budget adjustments will be in order as well.
So, be patient Nebraska friends. The legislative session is less than a month away.