Keeping up with the Legislature: Weekly Update

Feb. 7-11: COVID-19 vaccine exemptions, rental assistance and legislative video archive


Proposed exemption process for employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates advances 

Senators advanced LB906, which would provide an exemption process for employer vaccine mandates, on a vote of 33-0 on Feb. 9. A Health and Human Services Committee amendment narrowed the bill introduced by Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair from all vaccine mandates to those for COVID-19. If signed into law, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services would be required to create and publish a form on its website so employees can request an exemption if they have a health care practitioner’s recommendation or a strongly held religious belief, practice or observance. Because Nebraska allows employers to fire individuals for any reason, as long as the reason for firing doesn’t have to do with an employee because they are of a protected class, Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue questioned the bill’s necessity.

Nursing bills to address shortage heard by committee

The Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony Feb. 11 on a bill that would create scholarships for nursing students. The Nebraska Nursing Incentive Act, as created under LB1091, would allocate $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to create scholarships for nursing students who are Nebraska residents and intend to enroll in an approved nursing program. “Approved” means the program is offered by a public or private Nebraska institution that consists of regularly scheduled classes in pursuit of an associate degree, diploma or certificate in nursing. Applicants would be required to work in Nebraska for two years post-graduation. Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams said there is a severe nursing shortage in the state that is expected to worsen. Supporters said the bill would both increase the number of nurses and diversify the field by eliminating the financial barrier for students who couldn’t otherwise afford tuition. No one testified in opposition and the committee took no immediate action.

Bill seeking greater accessibility for Nebraskans to legislative recordings heard

The Executive Board heard a bill Feb. 8 that would expand Nebraskans’ access to video of legislative proceedings. Currently, Nebraska Public Media broadcasts and livestreams legislative committee hearings and floor debate. Under LB777, introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, NPM would be required to develop and maintain a public, digital archive of the video coverage starting January 2023. Omaha resident Cindy Maxwell-Ostdiek testified in support of the proposal. She argued that illness, disability and weather should not prevent an individual from accessing the Legislative content. She said that waiting for a transcript takes time and that cable isn’t always reliable. Nicole Fox of the Platte Institute also testified in support, saying that members of the public may be interested in multiple hearings happening simultaneously and being able to access the video in an archive later would encourage citizen participation and engagement. According to Fox, Nebraska is one of only four states that do not make audio or video archives of floor debate available to the public.

Mark Leonard, general manager of Nebraska Public Media, testified as a neutral party. He is not opposed to the bill, but pointed out several implementation challenges and costs. These could include needs to make the system cloud-based, secure, searchable and immediately available. The change would also be a “permanent commitment” that would need to  be maintained. No one opposed the bill and the committee took no immediate action.

Kindergarten autism screenings proposed under new bill

Under a new bill sponsored by Omaha Sen. Jen Day, school boards would require children to be screened for autism before entering the school system. If passed, LB997 would require the screening in addition to the physical and visual examinations necessary for children to enter kindergarten. Day said many young children are not screened for ASD, resulting in late diagnosis and lack of treatments during a crucial time period. According to Day, a screening requirement would help improve the quality of life for these children. The screening would not be required if a child’s guardian objects in writing. The Education Committee heard the bill on Feb. 1, but no immediate action was taken. No one spoke in opposition. 

Amendment considered to require state application for rental assistance funds

Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln introduced an amendment on Feb. 11 to LB446 that would require Nebraska to apply for a second round of federal emergency rental and mortgage assistance. The bill was first introduced in 2021 and would have created a data system of Nebraska housing stock and funding available to housing developers, but Hansen moved to replace those contents for this new legislation. According to Hansen, 48 other states accepted the second round of funding, providing three more years of rental assistance, while Nebraska declined. Lee Will, state budget administrator, testified in opposition on behalf of Gov. Pete Ricketts, saying Nebraska still has first-round funds available from early 2021, so there is not a need for additional federal funding. The U.S. Treasury extended the second-round deadline to March 30, with current assistance scheduled to end Sept. 30.

Two bills aimed to recruit, retain law enforcement considered

Proponents testified for two bills in the Judiciary Committee on Feb. 10 with the goal to recruit and retain more law enforcement officers in Nebraska. Omaha Sen. Brett Lindstrom introduced LB1271, which would appropriate $1 million annually to the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice to aid in recruiting officers outside Nebraska. If approved, the bill would create a subcommittee of law enforcement officials as well. Elmwood Sen. Robert Clements introduced LB1270, which could appropriate $10 million annually to the commission for a two-tier grant program of incentive payments. Tier one would provide a $1,000 incentive to a law enforcement officer employed for one year beginning on or after the bill’s effective date, if signed into law. Tier two would boost this to $2,000 for an officer employed for five years.

State senator proposes ban on obscene digital material for K-12 students

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony for a bill aimed at prohibiting K-12 students from accessing digital content deemed obscene Feb. 9. LB1213, proposed by Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, would prohibit individual schools, school districts or the Nebraska Library Commission from providing students with online resources considered to be obscene or harmful as defined in state law. The bill would require technology protections such as content blockers to be established in schools and for an online account to be established and verified for every student. At the hearing, Albrecht proposed an amendment that would shift certain provisions of the bill to educational research database providers instead of schools, school districts and the NLC. Supporters of the bill argued that educational research providers should be providing age-appropriate materials free of harmful content. However, those against the bill said the bill is largely redundant due to measures already in place under the Children’s Internet Protection Act. No immediate action was taken on the bill or its proposed amendment. 

Bridge to Independence extension for aged out Nebraskans considered

The Health and Human Services Committee considered LB1113 that would provide additional support to individuals aging out of the Bridge to Independence program. This is a program that provides support to state wards and juvenile-adjudicated youth transitioning out of foster care or juvenile justice systems. The bill, introduced by Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney, would create a pilot program to give these Nebraskans $1,000 a month for up to two years. Those in the program who turn 21 before Dec. 31, 2024, would be eligible for the extension until Dec. 31, 2026. If approved, this legislation could be funded through federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

Express lane eligibility for children’s health care considered by committee

The Health and Human Services committee heard on Feb. 10 a bill intended to streamline the process for certain children to obtain health insurance. Under LB857, proposed by Sen. Jen Day of Omaha, children receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits would automatically be enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program under express lane eligibility. According to Day, Nebraska ranked 31st in the nation in 2020 for CHIP participation among eligible children. This bill would help identify those falling through the cracks and connect them to health care access. Supporters argued that LB857 would increase efficiency and reduce the burden on families. Those in opposition said that the bill would place a great administrative burden on the department and cited seven other states that previously used express lane eligibility who have since discontinued it after learning that ineligible children were receiving benefits. No immediate action was taken by the committee. 

Proposed funding for meat processing plants considered by committee

The Appropriations Committee heard a proposal Feb. 9 that would allocate federal pandemic relief funds to independent Nebraska meat processors. LB755 would use $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to fund the Independent Processor Assistance Program. If passed, grant funds could be used for equipment, inspection costs, education and workforce programs or construction costs. According to Sen. Tom Brant of Plymouth, the bill’s sponsor, the pandemic greatly disrupted Nebraska’s food supply chain — when large processing plants struggled to maintain production, farmers turned to local plans who do not have the capacity to meet demand. Supporters of the bill argued that at least 18 other states have used ARPA money to fund similar programs, small processors need help to keep pace with the increased demand and the grant money would help increase the capacity and efficiency of these smaller processors. No one testified in opposition and the committee took no immediate action.

Senators advance proposed expansion to farm-to-school program

Early childhood education programs would be included in the 2021 Nebraska farm-to-school program under LB758, which was given first-round approval Feb. 8. The original program was created in 2021 under a bill sponsored by Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth. It required the state Department of Education to help provide locally grown food to elementary and secondary schools in Nebraska. Brandt introduced LB758 because he felt the original language was too restrictive. An Education Committee amendment would clarify that the program’s expansion includes any early childhood program licensed under the state’s Child Care Licensing Act, which were excluded previously due to an oversight, Brandt said.

Proposal to place cap on school district property tax increases stalls

The senate failed to end debate on LB986 on Feb. 8, stalling a proposal to limit annual increases in property taxes for public school districts. Sen. Tom Briese of Albion introduced the legislation so that a district’s property tax request would not be able to exceed an annual property tax request authority that the Nebraska Department of Education would calculate. Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln raised concerns the bill would allow more flexibility for smaller school districts to exceed their property tax request authority by a higher percentage than larger, fast-growing districts such as Lincoln Public Schools. The vote failed 28-21, needing 33 votes to end debate.

Source: Unicameral Update

Contributors: Lauren Penington, Zach Wendling