A committee room in the Nebraska State Capitol on Feb. 24, 2022. The text,
A committee room in the Nebraska State Capitol on Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Zach Wendling/NNS.

Feb. 21-25: Ricketts appoints Sen. Mike Jacobson, abortion bills and Arbor Day changes

Investigation into former senator Groene continues, replacement sworn in

Gov. Pete Ricketts on Feb. 23 appointed Mike Jacobson of North Platte to fill Groene’s seat through January 2023. Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican swore him in the same day. Jacobson said he intends to seek a full term in the November 2022 general election.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte officially resigned from his District 42 legislative seat Feb. 21 at 11:59 p.m. amid workplace harassment allegations. The Nebraska State Patrol will investigate, as will the Nebraska attorney general. Sen. Dan Hughes, chair of the Legislature’s executive board, announced a legislative panel that includes Sens. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, John Arch of La Vista and Tom Briese of Albion will also carry out a formal investigation alongside an outside investigator. 

Committees hear testimony for abortion legislation  

The Health and Human Services Committee considered Feb. 24 a bill to expand authorized abortion practitioners. LB716, introduced by Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, would add advanced practice registered nurses, certified nurse midwives and physician assistants as qualified practitioners. Currently, only physicians are authorized to perform abortions in Nebraska. According to Hunt, these additional practitioners are already authorized in one-third of states and recommended authorization by the American Public Health Association and American College of Obstetricians. Supporters of the bill said an increase in practitioners would allow more people access to the procedures. Currently, women may have to travel hours to seek care, which requires time off work and travel expenses at minimum. Opponents argued that an expansion of practitioners’ scope of practice should go through the state’s credentialing review process, not the legislature. No immediate action was taken.

The committee also heard testimony for LB1129, introduced by Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, which would provide free, FDA-approved contraceptives to any woman who requests them. Contraceptives would be distributed through Title X and family planning clinics, public health clinics, hospitals, pharmacies and other distribution points. Morfeld said that lack of access to contraception is a significant factor in unintended pregnancies, which in turn lead to abortions. Morfeld hopes to reduce abortions by providing these preventative measures, rather than reducing access to care. Supporters said approximately 21,000 Nebraska women live in an area that lacks a full range of reproductive health care and act as more than birth control – including as treatment for migraines, acne, menstrual cramps and endometriosis. Opponents argued that oral contraceptives can have severe impacts on women’s health. No immediate action was taken.

Also on Feb. 24, the Judiciary Committee heard testimony on three bills that would restrict abortion access in Nebraska. LB933, introduced by Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, would ban abortion in Nebraska if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Congress enacts a law giving states complete authority to regulate abortion or the U.S. Constitution is amended to give states that authority. The bill would prohibit both medical and chemical abortions starting at fertilization. A physician who violates the bill’s provisions would face felony charges and up to 20 years of jail time, while the woman would not be held liable. Supporters of the bill argued that all people have an inherent right to life, including the unborn. Opponents said the government should not be in the position to make the important decision of when to become parents for Nebraska families and that the bill would add barriers to care for domestic abuse and sexual violence survivors.

The other two bills would restrict abortion access, but not enact an outright ban. LB781, introduced by Sen. Julie Slama of Sterling, would criminalize performing an abortion after a heartbeat is detected. LB1086, introduced by Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, would prohibit anyone but a physician from providing an abortion-inducing drug. A woman upon whom an abortion is performed would not be liable under either LB781 or LB1086. Supporters of these bills said that they would protect the dignity of the unborn while also preventing unsafe, “back-alley” abortions. Opponents said safety and efficacy of medication abortions up to 70 days gestational age is well-documented and there is no reason to decrease the time frame to 49 days. Furthermore, the change in time frame would limit abortion to a period before many women know they’re pregnant. The committee took no immediate action on any of the proposals.

Arbor Day to merge with Election Day under proposed bill

Nebraskans could celebrate Arbor Day and Election Day at the same time under a bill considered Feb. 24 by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.. Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln introduced LB965 that would move Arbor Day in even-numbered years to Election Day, effectively making elections occur on a state holiday. Bostar said the intent is to increase voter turnout. The bill follows a previous effort by Bostar in 2021 to make Election Day a holiday outright, but the move faced opposition from Gov. Pete Ricketts and has yet to leave committee. Tammy Partsch, marketing director of Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce, spoke in opposition to the effort to move the holiday. Arbor Day has 150-year roots and coincides with planting trees, which must be done in the springtime. Rather than move this bill forward, Bostar encouraged the committee to take parts of his previous bill — LB577 — and advance that legislation to the floor instead.

Government committee considers bill to ban racial, gender scapegoating

The Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee considered a bill that would restrict how schools can teach, advocate, encourage, promote or act upon race or sex Feb. 24. LB1077 from Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair would prohibit racial and gender scapegoating or stereotyping, which he defined as assigning fault, blame or bias to a race or sex or members of a race or sex. The definition also includes blaming someone that because of their race or sex, they are inherently racist or sexist or inclined to be oppressive. Schools could not teach that the United States or Nebraska is fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist. If found to be in violation, the state could withhold funds. University of Nebraska College of Law Dean Richard Moberly, on behalf of the NU system, testified in opposition and said the bill’s language is overly broad and vague. Moberly said the bill would chill speech and make educational institutions weaker.

Bonuses proposed for front-line nurses

The Appropriations Committee heard testimony for a bill to provide bonuses for front-line nurses on Feb. 22. LB1055, introduced by Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, would allocate $50 million in federal pandemic relief funds to fund a grant program for qualified hospitals and health centers. McDonnell said the proposal would show state support for Nebraska nurses and recognize their efforts during the pandemic. This program would define front-line nurses as individuals with direct patient care responsibilities. Traveling nurses would not qualify and bonuses would not exceed $5,000 per nurse. Supporters of the bill argued that, while the bill would not erase the stress the pandemic caused, it would send a clear message that Nebraska stands behind its nurses. No one testified in opposition and the committee took no immediate action.

Bill to require behavioral health resource employees in schools heard by committee

The Education Committee heard testimony for a bill to increase access to mental and behavior services in schools Feb. 22. Under LB852, introduced by Sen. Jen Day of Omaha, each district would be required to employ at least one employee per school who has knowledge of community service providers and resources for students and families. This employee would act as the point of contact and coordinate access to behavioral health services for students and families. The bill would also require the state Department of Education to provide each district with a registry of existing behavioral health resources by area. This registry already exists; it’s maintained by the Nebraska Family Helpline at Boys Town and funded by the Department of Health and Human Services. According to Day, the pandemic worsened an already existing mental health crisis among youth in Nebraska. Supporters said the bill would strengthen communication between educators and health providers during an urgent time and increase the ability of schools to act in the interest of students when they notice something amiss. No one testified in opposition to the bill and the committee took no immediate action on it.

Income tax cut bill advances

A bill to reduce Nebraska’s top individual and corporate income tax rate has gained first-round approval. LB939, introduced by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, would decrease Nebraska’s top individual income tax rate from 6.84% to 5.84% by 2025. The rate applies to taxable income over $29,000 for individuals and over $58,000 for those who are married and filing together. Linehan hopes the bill would attract workers and businesses to Nebraska and provide a tax cut to middle-class Nebraskans during a time when the state has excess revenue. Supporters said that the tax cut would give middle-class families more disposable income that they could use to save for a house or invest in a business and bring Nebraska’s income tax rate down to a competitive level compared to surrounding states. Opponents of the bill said that millionaires and billionaires would benefit most from cutting the tax cut and that minimum wage was a far more important factor in a person’s decision to move to Nebraska. After eight hours of debate over several days, Linehan filed a motion to invoke cloture, which ended debate and forced a vote on the bill. The motion was adopted on a vote of 41-1. 

COVID-19 vaccine exemption passed

Senators approved an exemption process for COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the workplace Feb. 25. Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair’s LB906 requires the Department of Health and Human Services to create a form on its website for employees seeking an exemption based either on a healthcare practitioner’s recommendation or the individual’s sincerely held religious belief to fill out. The bill applies to all entities with one or more employees. The federal government or federally owned corporation, Indian tribes and bona fide private membership clubs that are exempt from federal taxation are exempt from the bill. However, employers may still require unvaccinated employees to wear personal protective equipment or undergo regular testing. The bill passed on a 37-5 vote and was signed by the governor on Feb. 28.

Senators advance bill to increase compensation for first responders’ families

State senators gave first-round approval Feb. 25 to a bill that would increase a one-time death benefit to the families of public safety officers killed in the line of duty. LB717, introduced by Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, would increase the benefit from $50,000 to $250,000 in 2022. The compensation would apply to families of paid or volunteer law enforcement officers, firefighters, correctional officers or government or nonprofit EMS ambulance squad members. Sens. Joni Albrecht of Thurston and Curt Friesen of Henderson spoke against the bill. Albrecht said many agencies offer life insurance and communities support families, so the bill would not be fiscally responsible. Friesen questioned the increase when some departments, counties and cities already provide some level of compensation. Senators voted 32-6. Albrecht, Friesen and Sens. Robert Clements of Elmwood, Steve Erdman of Bayard, John Lowe of Kearney and Terrell McKinney of Omaha voted against it.

Source: Unicameral Update

Contributors: Zach Wendling, Lauren Penington