Let the legislative wrangling begin

January 16, 2019

Thirty of the state’s 49 senators have served two years or less in the Legislature. That’s why leadership is so important and why the selection of a new Speaker of the Legislature and committee heads is so important. That’s what term limits gets you.

The youngest senator is 22. The oldest is 81-year-old Ernie Chambers of Omaha, the only Independent in the place. He served his four-year term limit hiatus and is now in year six of the eight he can serve before being term-limited again. Fellow Omahan Steve Lathrop, 61, is coming back with eight years of experience after his four-year term limit time out. The other 17 “veterans” are working on fewer than eight years of experience compared to the 30 who have two years or less.

So, newly re-elected Speaker Jim Scheer has his work cut out for him, as do the chairs of the 14 standing committees from Agriculture to Urban Affairs.

Of course, there’s also the Governor. He has invested financially in a number of senators’ campaigns, in some cases using his personal contributions to help challengers defeat incumbents who didn’t vote his way. Yes, that’s a blatant conflict of interest. No, it’s not illegal. He can use his own money however he sees fit. But, is it ethical? Well, he seems to be getting away with it. Strings attached and all.

Aside from that disgusting meddling by the Executive Branch, there’s the broken record of property tax relief, school aid funding and demands for more cuts to government spending. Expect the Governor to offer some proposals for property tax relief, perhaps in concert with the newly elected chair of the Revenue Committee. The resultant compromise may or may not materialize, although there will be five new members on the committee.

If things stall, as they did last year, look for a new ballot initiative to give voters the option of imposing a modest statewide sales tax increase to fund property tax relief. Given the Governor’s deep pockets, such a move could face opposition from the guy who paid for most of a ballot measure that reinstated the death penalty after lawmakers overrode his veto of a repeal they passed.

While two Lincoln senators are proposing measures to legalize medical marijuana, that issue might also head for a future ballot. Sens. Adam Morfeld and Anna Wishart have registered a campaign committee to that end for a 2020 vote as a hedge against anticipated inaction or veto of a measure that might pass muster. Wishart introduced a medical cannabis law two years ago that never made it to a vote.

One can expect similar slow play on the voter-mandated expansion of Medicaid coverage for as many as 90,000 of the state’s working poor who have fallen through the cracks. Lawmakers must now devise an implementation plan. The Governor – a staunch opponent of the measure despite the obvious will of the people – has said he will fund the state’s cost of the expansion out of the current budget. That means cuts to other programs and services.

A special legislative committee has recommended that funds from the U.S. Supreme Court’s recently approved collection of internet sales taxes be used to replenish the state’s cash reserve fund, which has been depleted by almost 50 percent during the past four years. The Governor wants to divert the funds – estimated at $30 million to $40 million a year – to property tax relief.

Notice that we haven’t even mentioned prison overcrowding, staffing shortages, lack of programming to prepare incarcerated people for a return to society and on-going issues with a lack of transparency in the corrections system. With Lathrop at the helm of the Judiciary Committee, expect an emphasis again on oversight, which just might succeed this time if the governor and the attorney general stop trying to cover things up.

There’s more than one reason they call this the long (90 days) session. Let the games begin.

J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 20 years.

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