Priority bills in Nebraska Legislature aim at health care

LINCOLN — Near the halfway point of this year’s legislative session, every Nebraska lawmaker has named their personal priority bill that will set the tone for the remaining 31 days.

Roughly a dozen state senators named health care issues as their priorities, while several others emphasized workforce development and tax reform. Also among the priority bills are a handful that may foreshadow a return to the rancorous debates seen last year.

Lawmakers had until Thursday to name their one personal priority bill for the session. Legislative committees had the same deadline to name up to two priority bills, and over this weekend, Speaker of the Legislature John Arch is considering what 25 bills will be his speaker priorities for the year.

Priority bills are generally given preference by the speaker when scheduling the daily agendas for floor debates. Now that all individual and committee priority bills have been named, Arch said those measures will start coming up more frequently.

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“From here on out, it will almost exclusively be priority bills on the floor,” Arch said.

Health care rose to the top as one of the most popular subjects prioritized this session, including bills to close an insurance loophole for colonoscopies, establish a prescription drug donation program, and expand services for mothers at risk of adverse birth outcomes.

Leading into the session, many lawmakers pinned tax reform and workforce development solutions — such as affordable housing, education and child care improvements — as top issues for the Legislature to focus on this year.

Those issues came up on the priority list as well, particularly among committee priority bills. Among individual priorities, however, they were a bit more scarce. There is a bill from State Sen. John Fredrickson of Omaha to subsidize child care for child care workers, a bill from Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood to eliminate the inheritance tax, and a bill from Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln to eliminate barriers to obtaining work licenses.

Conrad said she considers the high number of health care bills as part of the push to pass workforce development proposals. She said that health care is “directly tied to workforce” challenges and that the prioritized health care bills would help Nebraska’s working families.

Overall, Conrad said she was happy with what bills were prioritized this year, saying they help “reset the tone” from the drama-filled debates that ate up much of last year’s session. Lawmakers are leaning back into the Legislature’s nonpartisan structure, she said, which helps with collaboration on policies that will help Nebraskans most.

“It’s how it’s supposed to be in the Nebraska Legislature,” Conrad said.

However, there are still several priority bills that are likely to turn into a fight if they make it to floor debates. Most notably, there is Legislative Bill 575, dubbed the “Sports and Spaces Act,” introduced and prioritized by Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha. The bill would restrict access to K-12 school bathrooms and locker rooms on the basis of biological sex and would add similar restrictions to most school sports teams.

Last year, Kauth prioritized LB 574, which restricted access to gender-affirming care for people under 19. An amendment late in the session also tightened Nebraska’s abortion restrictions to 12 weeks, and the combination measure passed. It was the most contentious bill of the session, and was the reason for a session-long filibuster led by one of the bill’s opponents. Kauth said she expects LB 575 to also be filibustered if it gets to the floor.

The bill has been stuck in committee since last year, but Kauth said she isn’t concerned. She said lawmakers are holding the bill in committee until the Legislature gets closer to all-day floor debates, which begin in March. That way, if the bill gets filibustered, it’s less likely to take up multiple days for each of its three rounds, she said.

Arch said he plans to spread out the controversial priority bills in his agenda scheduling, mixing simpler bills in between to give lawmakers time to negotiate. Part of the challenge of the speaker’s job, he said, is anticipating how much time is needed for each agenda item.

“You can’t just back up difficult bills and run them back to back,” Arch said.

Another possible floor fight is expected on LB 1009, introduced and prioritized by Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston. The bill would adjust the abortion restrictions passed last year to add an exception for cases of fatal fetal anomalies, and clarify that women who receive abortions cannot be charged with criminal penalties.

Riepe proposed a 12-week abortion ban last year as an amendment to a measure that would have set Nebraska’s abortion restrictions at six weeks. After that bill failed, other senators drafted an amendment to add a 12-week abortion ban to LB 574. Riepe voted to support it, but he says he didn’t like the legislation that passed and blames himself for not working harder to fix it.

Riepe has made it clear that LB 1009 doesn’t relate to elective abortions, but instead makes it possible for expectant mothers to receive abortions if two physicians agree that her pregnancy isn’t viable. He said many women don’t learn about fatal fetal anomalies until after the 12-week mark, and says it isn’t fair to expect them to carry their pregnancies to term when they know the outcome.

“State government is not the place to have a law on this,” Riepe said.

Although Riepe framed his bill as “a reasonable alternative” between easing Nebraska’s abortion laws and restricting them further, he said he doesn’t expect to see much support from either side of the debate. Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, who has led the charge for increased abortion restrictions in the Legislature, has said she opposes LB 1009, but Riepe said he hopes to find support from other conservative lawmakers.

Other highlights of this year’s priority bills include:

Obscenity — LB 441, introduced and prioritized by Albrecht, would repeal an existing exemption from prosecution, thus making it possible for people working in K-12 schools to be charged with a misdemeanor if they provide obscene materials to minors.

Felons — LB 20, introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha and prioritized by Sen. Jane Raybould of Lincoln, would restore voting rights for people convicted of felonies once they complete their sentence.

Sex trafficking — Constitutional amendment, LR 277CA, introduced and prioritized by Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue, would give Nebraska voters the opportunity to set a minimum life sentence for people convicted of sex or labor trafficking of a minor. All constitutional amendments, once passed by the Legislature, are put on the ballot and require voter approval before taking effect.

Scholarships — LB 1402, introduced and prioritized by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of the Omaha area, would appropriate $25 million to be distributed in grants to scholarship-granting organizations that help students attend private and parochial schools.

Last year, Linehan introduced LB 753, which appropriated funds for tax credits to go to individuals and entities that donated to similar scholarship-granting organizations. That bill, which eventually passed the Legislature, is facing a possible repeal through a voter referendum, but LB 1402 would nullify that effort. Linehan said if LB 1402 passes, she would support a repeal of LB 753.

National Guard — LB 1394, introduced and prioritized by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, would exempt Nebraska National Guard members from income taxes they incur through payments they received on duty.

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