By J.L. Schmidt, Statehouse Correspondent
In a couple days it’ll be mostly over except for the shouting. The 104th Legislature, First Session, will be in the books. But will it really be over? This session that has been characterized by a lot of cajoling on the part of the Republican Executive Branch which doesn’t seem to have consistent support from the Republican majority in the country’s only one-house, officially non-partisan Legislature.
Remember, officially nobody counts, but there are 35 Republicans, 13 Democrats and one Independent charged with making the laws for the state. Do the math. When a bill that the Governor has spoken against, promised to veto or just downright doesn’t like, advances to final reading with the magical bullet-proof 30 votes, you know that not all of the Republicans are behind the governor. Or maybe they are behind him; they’re just back so far that he can’t see them anymore.
The gas tax increase to pay for much-needed road repairs passed and then lawmakers overrode the Governor’s veto. The death penalty abolition advanced to final consideration and the Governor claimed that public safety was being compromised. Then he promptly announced that the state had purchased the necessary drugs to carry out the death penalty by lethal injection.
Gov. Pete Ricketts said, “The death penalty in Nebraska remains an appropriate tool in sentencing the most heinous criminals. My administration has taken steps to fix management issues that have previously hindered carrying out the death penalty.” Management issues? Really?
The reality is that changing the method will open a whole new round of appeals for those on death row and further delay the Governor’s apparent rush to use the punishment. Opponents have also hinted that lawsuits will be filed because the drugs involved are not legally sold in this country.
What’s missing in all of this is a follow-through on one of the new Governor’s key campaign promises, property tax relief. Yes, the property tax credit has been boosted by $20 million, but there has been no definitive re-write of tax codes that will provide sustained relief. Remember that during the last interim, a specially anointed tax study group recommended no change. Is there another interim study in the wings? Or is the Governor ready to admit that there are bigger fish to fry?
But, here’s at least one positive from the 104th Legislature with a shout-out to Speaker Galen Hadley of Kearney. They’ll honor a final adjournment tradition popularized during the speakership of former Senator Mike Flood of Norfolk by postponing sine die for one week after the final day of debate. That means that Day 89 of the 90-day session will be May 29. The final day will be June 5 and senators will focus on overriding gubernatorial vetoes, if any, from bills passed the last week of May.
In the past, bills passed on those last days could be vetoed after final adjournment and the Legislature would have no recourse. This year’s version comes on the heels of a schedule adjustment early in the month that put an end to late-night sessions when Hadley scratched the usual 90-minute lunch breaks in favor of 20-minute versions with senators dining on food brought in to the Capitol. Those longer lunches have traditionally been prime time for lobbyists and special interest groups to entertain, feed and try to persuade senators. Some have chartered buses to take large numbers of senators tolunch. Omaha Senator Ernie Chambers, who never participates in that activity, chides his colleagues saying they “have been taken to the trough” by the lobbyists.
Are the long lunch breaks helpful? Do senators need the time to rejuvenate? Or do they just break the momentum of the day’s activity? The lobbyists have traditionally sponsored dinner breaks with food brought in to the senate lounge, but even that often caused the daily sessions to linger to a 10 pm or later adjournment. Depending on the topic of debate, those late hours used to lose senators to card games or televised sporting events. They wouldn’t check out or leave the building and would be “on call” if votes were needed. The sergeants at arms were pretty astute at knowing which lounge or offices were hosting said activity.
It’s hard to say how much attention is being paid to a bill by a senator who is counting cards or cheering baskets. Does that affect their vote? I think so.
So here’s to you 104th Legislature. I hope the citizens of Nebraska are the beneficiaries.