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Debate over legislative rules moves slowly on mostly noncontroversial changes



LINCOLN — Debate moved slowly Thursday as state senators opened discussion on a series of rules changes designed to avoid the acrimony and turmoil of the 2023 session.

During six hours of debate that often strayed into the minutiae of the Nebraska Legislature’s rule book, two less controversial changes were adopted in hopes of restricting tactics that many senators portrayed as stifling meaningful debate and wasting time.

The snail’s pace worked to benefit those who oppose major rules changes. The Speaker of the Legislature, Sen. John Arch of La Vista, has set a Jan. 19 deadline to complete deliberations over rules changes.

John Arch
State Sen. John Arch, the speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, urged his colleagues last week to work out differences with fellow senators and show that “a legislature can function.”  (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

No time

“We don’t have the time,” Arch said, noting that there are dozens of bills to consider during the 60-day session.

The Rules Committee advanced 17 proposed rule changes for debate by the full Legislature, a debate that began on Thursday. But because of the expected snowstorm and brutal cold conditions forecast for Friday, the rules debate won’t resume until Tuesday, leaving only four days for the 15 remaining proposals.

If debate continues to move slowly, it’s possible that not all of the rules changes will be considered. That might include some of the most controversial changes, such as ending secret balloting for committee leadership and reducing the number of votes needed to cut off debate via cloture.

Arch said his proposed rule changes were designed to preserve the majority while protecting the minority and to avoid a repeat of 2023.

“Society has changed and I don’t think we’ve responded well as an institution,” he told fellow senators. The body, Arch said, was “severely tested” in 2023.

Changes called unnecessary, ‘retaliatory’

Several senators have said that the tone, and result, of the rules debate will determine the tenor of the rest of the session.

Thursday’s debate was dominated by opponents of major rules changes that they described as unnecessary and “retaliatory.”

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne said debate can be shut off already, under the current rules.

Former State Sen. Ernie Chambers. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)

Other senators argued that masters of the rules — such as former Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha — will always find a way to bottle up a bill.

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said lawmakers should move onto more important topics, such as addressing the state’s workforce, teacher and housing shortages, and property tax relief — “things people really care about.”

“We don’t need a rules change to punish anyone in the body,” Hunt said. “We need relationships.”

Filibusters featured last year

The 90-day session in 2023 devolved into a series of filibusters, one after another, in an attempt to block a controversial bill to restrict gender-altering procedures for minors.

The tactics, which some senators felt backfired, featured harsh exchanges between lawmakers that hadn’t been seen in the past, as well as outbursts from spectators and a handful of arrests.

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha  (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, who led the filibuster fest, defended her actions Thursday.

She said she was forced to filibuster and attempt to block Legislative Bill 574 because of the hateful and “repugnant” words voiced by fellow senators as families of LGBTQ kids looked on from the balcony.

“Why did it happen? Because of how you behaved,” Cavanaugh said.

But she added that she didn’t want to see a repeat in 2024.

Of the two rules changes passed Thursday, one would prohibit a second vote on the same day on a priority motion to kill a bill or recommit it to committee if such a motion had already come to a vote. Another change would allow cloture votes — to cut off debate — on legislative motions, instead of just bills.

In other legislative news, Arch said that because of the predicted weather conditions on Friday, it would only be a “check-in day” for senators, and no debate will be scheduled. The Legislature is off Monday for Martin Luther King Day.

Among the bills introduced Thursday was one to move the State Parole Board back under the Department of Corrections.

Lincoln Sen. Carolyn Bosn, a former prosecutor, said her LB 1145 would allow rehabilitation programming to continue seamlessly for an inmate from prison to release on parole. Parole was made a separate agency, and removed from Corrections, a decade ago.

The Rules Committee, on a 3-2 vote, advanced another proposed rule change that would allow legislative committees to bar reporters from discussions in executive session — where committees decide whether bills should advance or be killed.

A committee chair could still decide to allow reporters to attend those closed-door sessions, as is allowed now. But unless that happened, the proposed rule would keep reporters out until a formal vote on a bill is taken.

The rule to allow reporters to cover the closed-door discussions in executive sessions grew out of a compromise years ago that allowed state senators to be exempt from public records laws.

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