They’re back: 107th Legislature convenes in Lincoln
They’re back. The 107th Legislature First Session – that’s the long 90-day session in which a budget must be drafted and ideas (some new, some warmed-over) presented to the nation’s only nonpartisan one-house lawmaking body.
Business for the 32 Republicans and 17 Democrats will be conducted in a Plexiglas-partitioned, socially distanced George W. Norris Legislative Chamber that looks nothing like what the Nebraska statesman envisioned in the 30s.
In fact, perhaps the first order of business for the 36 men and 13 women will be to decide if they are going to hit go or pause because of the pandemic. They’ll likely want to select a Speaker and committee chairs, as usual, first.
The thing that complicates all of this is the traditional transparency of the Nebraska Legislature. Public hearings are held on every bill before committees vote to kill them or advance them to three rounds of debate by the full legislature.
The public shows up for those hearings, often in droves. How can that be safely accomplished during a pandemic?
Mark my word, things will be different for 2021. There is plenty of work to be done to accommodate financial changes caused by pandemic-driven federal assistance, especially the recently proposed version.
The OpenSky Policy Institute notes that a measure clarifying businesses can deduct expenses paid with forgiven Paycheck Protection Program loans will cause a decrease in state income tax revenues relative to current projections, which were made with an expectation that such expenses could not be deducted from taxable income.
The Department of Corrections recently announced a push to fund a new 1,500-bed prison, which will cost an estimated $230 million. The six-year project will face opposition from those senators who want to see less-expensive reform in sentencing and programming. Corrections hopes to use a new prison to ease overcrowding in the nation’s second most overcrowded system ranking only behind Alabama.
Operating the prison, if staff can be recruited, would cost $34 million annually. That’s going to be a tough sell to the Legislature and an obligation to the next administration since the current Governor only has two years left in office.
It would likely be built in the Lincoln or Omaha area and could house 400 maximum security, 512 medium security and 600 minimum-security inmates in a complex on about 100 to 160 acres.
Expect a number of proposals stemming from the summer of unrest following the police shooting of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the shooting death of James Spurlock in Omaha’s Old Market during demonstrations. Spurlock was allegedly shot by a bar owner who later committed suicide, casting new light on mental health issues which are also prime for discussion.
Lawmakers must enact measures that will accommodate ballot issues passed by voters in November. That includes removing slavery as a criminal punishment; increasing the length of time for the payback of Tax Increment Financing projects; and three relating to casino gaming at licensed horse-racing tracks.
The casino bills involve implementation, regulation and disbursement of taxes. Debate on each of those topics promises to be complicated and lengthy. Given that the Governor actively campaigned against the gambling measures, implementation could also be a slow process.
Remember how long it took to implement voter-approved Medicaid expansion, which he also opposed?
There will be five new faces this year and three previously term-limited returning veterans. What that does to the learning curve remains to be seen.
Oh, lest I forget. There may be a need to make adjustments to the hastily approved property tax relief measure lawmakers passed near the end of their pandemic-delayed acrimonious session last year.
Buckle up; this could be a rough ride.