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Interim Nebraska legislative group mulls changes to committee structure

November 14, 2018

Before a law that can affect your way of life, health or safety — even how much you pay in taxes — becomes effective, it gets public input and then is vetted by a committee of the Nebraska Legislature.

A legislative study committee is looking at making changes to some of the 14 standing committees that receive the hundreds of bills introduced each year by the 49 senators that make up the state’s unicameral Legislature. Getting the most serious attention are the Agriculture, Natural Resources, General Affairs and Judiciary committees.

The study committee created by resolution (LR437) met Tuesday, chaired by Rules Committee Chairman Mike Hilgers, to continue talking about any potential changes.

The committees sort out bills on agriculture; banking, commerce and insurance; business and labor; education; general affairs such as regulating alcohol, gambling and plumbing and electrical codes; government, military and veterans affairs; health and human services; judiciary, such as court, crime, immigration and guns; natural resources; retirement systems; revenue and taxes; transportation and telecommunications; urban affairs; and appropriations of budget dollars.

A change could not be made in one committee that wouldn’t affect others, including the number and makeup of members and the number of days they meet during the session. The Judiciary Committee, for example, has eight members and meets three days a week during the session. The Health and Human Services Committee has seven members and meets three days. But the Appropriations Committee has nine members and can meet five days a week or fewer until the budget is prepared.

The committee system operates with lots of moving parts.

“It’s really difficult to make one change; any one change will create a subsequent change that needs to be made,” Hilgers told the committee.

Senators generally serve on one to three standing committees, and some of them on additional special committees, such as a justice system oversight committee, the Executive Board or Performance Audit Committee.

The longest discussions Tuesday had to do with whether to combine the Agriculture and Natural Resources committees, which would create a new three-day committee, eliminate a one-day committee and create additional committee days for senators.

Another big discussion concerned whether to eliminate the General Affairs Committee and divide up its bills and issues among other committees. Would gambling be better handled by the Revenue Committee? What about liquor regulation?

Senators also discussed whether to divide the types of bills addressed by the Judiciary Committee, creating a new committee or subcommittees. The Judiciary Committee regularly has the largest number of bills to sort through.

Hilgers said he wanted to get an idea from committee members on which proposals should move forward. Senators agreed to continue discussions on combining the Agriculture and Natural Resources committees.

The Agriculture Committee dealt with only 18 bills in the past two sessions. Half of them were killed, two were withdrawn, six passed and one was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

The Natural Resources Committee received 38 bills. Thirty died in committee, six passed, and two were withdrawn.

The Judiciary Committee, by comparison, had 218 bills to hear and act on. The study committee did not express interest in continuing to talk about a division of the Judiciary Committee.

The idea of creating new standing committees to deal with technology, economic development and long-range planning also did not draw much discussion.

Committee members also talked about making two committees — Education and Revenue — larger.

The study committee is expected to take a formal vote at its next meeting in December on moving the proposals forward to hearings, a Rules Committee vote and then on to the full Legislature in the session that begins in January.

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