Capitol Digest: State senators introduce a total of 739 bills this year, the most since 2005

January 24, 2019

The World-Herald’s statehouse reporters round up news highlights from the Legislature and state government into the Capitol Digest — a daily briefing for the political newshound with a busy schedule.

» That’s all, folks. Nebraska lawmakers this year proved more prolific than any state senators dating back to 2005. In total, they introduced 739 bills and seven constitutional amendments through Wednesday, the last day to introduce bills for this session. During the last long session two years ago, lawmakers introduced 667 bills and four constitutional amendments.

» Milk and meat. Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood introduced a new proposal aimed at ensuring that food products are not labeled as meat if they do not come from livestock or poultry. Legislative Bill 594 would add such misrepresentation to the existing state law banning deceptive trade practices. Blood withdrew LB 14, which took a different approach to the issue.

Meanwhile, Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil, a former dairy farmer, introduced a resolution urging the federal government to reserve terms such as milk, cheese, yogurt and butter for products derived from cow’s milk. LR 13 seeks to distinguish dairy products from similar plant-based products.

» LGBT discrimination. Job discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity would be banned under LB 627, introduced by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln. Pansing Brooks, who has a gay son, described the measure as a way to recruit and retain workers in the state.

Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh would ban housing discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or citizenship status in her LB 689. The measure would address rental situations as well as housing sales and purchases.

» Roadside memorials. LB 612 would allow the Nebraska Department of Transportation to erect blue triangular signs at sites of fatal crashes along Nebraska highways. The signs would list the names of victims and a photo, and include warnings like “Seat Belts Save Lives.” Drunken drivers who die would not be eligible for the signs under the bill introduced by Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard. Several states use such memorials to emphasize highway safety and as an alternative to the informal memorials created by family and friends.

» Medicaid expansion. Tobacco taxes would more than triple to pay for the voter-approved expansion of Medicaid under LB 710, introduced by Cavanaugh. Her proposal would increase the taxes to $2.14 per pack of cigarettes, up from the current 64 cents. A quarter of the increase would go toward Medicaid expansion, with the rest going toward a variety of health-related programs.

LB 631, introduced by Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, would create a special task force to oversee the state’s implementation of Medicaid expansion. Morfeld led the petition drive to get the expansion question on the ballot. Medicaid expansion will provide health coverage for an estimated 90,000 more low-income Nebraskans.

» Hemp farming. The new federal farm bill opened the way for farmers to grow hemp legally, and LB 657, from Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, would allow it in Nebraska. Some farmers say Nebraska is an ideal state to grow hemp, a cannabis plant variety that is low in tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that produces the marijuana high. Hemp can be used in production of fabric, food and medicines. Growers would have to register yearly. A second Wayne bill, LB 659, would legalize cannabidiol, or CBD, one product of hemp.

» T-shirts for everyone. Folks across the country might soon be able to buy coffee mugs or T-shirts emblazoned with Nebraska’s new tourism slogan — “Honestly, it’s not for everyone.” LB 637, introduced by Sen. John Stinner of Gering, would allow that. Right now, the Nebraska Tourism Commission is barred from selling such items. Money raised from the sales would go toward promoting tourism in the state.

» Overcrowding emergencies. Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop brought a bill to clarify the meaning of a state “prison overcrowding emergency,” which state law requires the governor to declare in July 2020 if overcrowding isn’t reduced below 140 percent of capacity. It’s now over 160 percent.

Ricketts administration officials recently maintained that the current law doesn’t mean inmates must be paroled from prison. LB 686 makes it clear that the governor must do so to reduce overcrowding. The bill gives prison officials a year to get the overcrowding to 125 percent of capacity, which is considered a manageable number in corrections circles.

» Secret ballots. Votes for legislative leaders will continue to be done by secret ballot, after state senators rejected a proposed rules change Wednesday. Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte introduced the proposal, which he argued would make the Legislature more transparent and in line with the vision of George Norris.

Opponents, including Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, said it would make senators subject to bullying by political parties and lead to more vote-trading. The proposal died, with 25 senators voting against it and 22 voting for it. All those in support were Republicans. The opponents included a mix of Democrats, Republicans and Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, the lone independent in the body.

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