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Senators discuss COVID-19 protocols and bills for upcoming session

Senators discuss COVID-19 protocols and bills for upcoming session

With the summer session less than three weeks away, the Nebraska Legislature’s leaders say there are important tax and revenue topics to be debated and hope to keep everyone safe inside the Capitol.

When the 17-day session reconvenes on July 20, the changes most notable to the public will be how the George W. Norris Legislative Chamber is set up and how it will function. Due to COVID-19, the Legislature is taking safety precautions for senators’ return.

“The speaker has provided a memo which explains how we will control and regulate movement on the legislative floor,” Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board, said during a webinar hosted by the Platte Institute on July 1.

Hilgers said they are working on new protocols to help senators maintain public access to their offices. He also praised Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk for his hard work in ensuring the safety of people in the Capitol.

“Scheer has done all the right things to help ensure we are fulfilling our constitutional obligation. We have a responsibility and duty to the people of Nebraska to get our jobs done but doing it in a safe and effective manner,” Hilgers said.

Scheer wants to move all prioritized bills out of committee to guarantee that the bills have a chance to be debated. With only 17 days left in the legislative session, Scheer said bills will need to move quickly to get a chance at passage.

Scheer said that the last day a senator probably could pass their bill from select file to final reading would be day 15.

Some prioritized bills have fiscal notes attached to them. In the current economic climate, some senators have considered applying amendments to their bills to minimize or eliminate some costs. Nebraska’s financial position will be better understood on July 23, when the state’s forecasting board meets.

“I don’t see that it makes sense to spend money that we don’t have,” Scheer said.

Scheer will require that amendments that are introduced go through a hearing before they can move forward to allow the public an opportunity to voice their opinions. According to Hilgers, there will be a hearing room available with safety protocols to discuss potential amendments.

Hilgers and Scheer are among two of 10 senators involved in a group working to move business incentives, the NExT project and property tax legislation forward. The NExT project would significantly expand the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan’s property tax relief bill LB1106 would increase state funding to K-12 schools while indirectly lowering property taxes.

“In order for these bills to move forward it probably has to be somewhat of a combination that everyone will get something out of,” Scheer said.

Scheer said that the reason the property tax, NeXT project and business incentives bills wouldn’t get the required 33 votes is because of opposition from third parties, lack of time and revenue concerns.

Business tax incentives are one of the three big issues planned to be debated in the upcoming session. Scheer doesn’t favor the idea of having business incentives, but he understands other states have incentive packages, and Nebraska needs to compete.

Hilgers said the incentive packages are tools that will help Nebraska grow, but the state also needs an energetic and coordinated recruiting effort to attract businesses across the country.

“We should be forward thinking about the opportunities that this might present for Nebraska to grow our population base and the businesses here,” Hilgers said.

With lots of topics to cover in the Legislature, Scheer said the session may run late some days, but 10 p.m. is his cut-off since the chamber will need to be cleaned and functional the next day at 9 a.m.

Looking ahead to the 2021 legislative session, there is uncertainty if debate will take place if the pandemic gets worse. It is constitutionally mandated when state leaders start debate, but there is no mandate when they end. Since Scheer is term-limited, there will need to be an election for a new speaker in the 2021 session.

“As we proceed through this pandemic every week, every day it’s changed,” Hilgers said.

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