Fear of retaliation and distrust broke the 2019 Legislature.
As lawmakers approached the end of a session shortened by four days at the Speaker of the Legislature’s prerogative, passage of an upgraded economic development incentive bill was tied to the approval of a property tax relief bill. Both failed after threats of retaliation.
Distrust of one another as individuals became almost as strong as Democrats not trusting Republicans and vice versa, in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Unicameral. Speaker Jim Scheer and several of his colleagues mentioned the situation in remarks on the final day of the session. All of this played out against a well-established (four years) record of retaliation by a Governor who has been known to make large personal cash contributions to defeat candidates he opposes – even members of his own party.
So, it was a bit of a surprise on the last day of their shortened session that lawmakers overrode a gubernatorial veto which had been characterized as a property tax increase. Omaha Senator Justin Wayne and others called bull on the Governor’s assessment of a bill (LB492) creating a Regional Metropolitan Transit Authority as a $17 million property tax increase.
“The bill allows the Omaha Transit Authority to convert itself into a new political subdivision that will have broader taxing authority,” Governor Pete Ricketts said in his veto message. “LB 492 amounts to an incredible $17 million property tax increase for all residents of Omaha and Douglas County because it moves the transit authority’s property tax levy authority outside of the city and county tax lids and authorizes the new authority to double its existing property tax levy amount.”
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The measure is permissive and simply allows participating entities to solve a transportation problem, Scheer said. The override vote was 33-16.
A second override of a bill (LB533) from Omaha Senator Michaela Cavanaugh was scrapped after the sponsor warned her colleagues that the bill, dealing with wording on marriage license paperwork, advanced unanimously from committee and cleared three rounds of debate before passage with no objections. The Governor vetoed the bill saying he would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to make the changes administratively.
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Currently, the state marriage license applications refer to Groom/Party 1 and Bride/Party 2. Cavanaugh proposed to reference all couples on the marriage license application, the marriage license, and the certificate of marriage as Applicant 1 and Applicant 2.
“The term selected in the bill is workable for the marriage license application at which time the couple are applying for a license; however, both the marriage license and the formal certificate of marriage are issued after the parties are married,” Ricketts veto message said. “They are no longer ‘applicants.’ The mandated use of this term would be factually inaccurate on both the marriage license and the marriage certificate.”
Cavanaugh said “every single person in this Legislature should be put on notice by the Governor’s action on this bill” which had no opposition and had not generated comment from the Executive Branch before the veto. At least one lobbyist and one colleague tried to urge her to push for an override vote, but she declined.
Veteran Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha warned his colleagues that he may derail the next session – his last after 44 years before he is again term-limited. “You can set the rules, but I set the pace,” he said. Scheer, noting the divisiveness that caused tax reform and a renewed business incentive package to fall by the wayside, urged his colleagues to take the summer to reflect and get to know one another better.
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In closing the session, Ricketts said the example of “Nebraska Strong” in response to the Spring storms and state-wide flooding, is a picture of what can happen when we work together.
Lawmakers introduced 739 bills in the opening 10 days of the session. Of that number, 294 passed. They did fulfill their constitutional obligation to pass a balanced budget. But, beyond that, it wasn’t a very pleasant or productive time.
Lincoln Senator Patty Pansing Brooks sadly noted that some of her colleagues did not attend the annual Sine Die party on May 30. The event features skits and an opportunity to unwind and put the session in perspective.
Apparently, some wounds will take more time to heal.
J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 20 years.