The exterior of the Nebraska State Capitol building on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.
Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican gave the State of the Judiciary Address on Jan 21. Photo by Camryn Preston, Nebraska News Service.

Despite ongoing concerns about the outbreak of COVID-19, the Nebraska Legislature stayed in session Monday through Thursday and had all-day floor debates.

However, concerns about the coronavirus outbreak may force the Nebraska Legislature to suspend the session, according to Patrick O’Donnell, clerk of the Legislature. O’Donnell said that the Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer will ultimately make the decision as to whether the session will come back as planned March 17. 

“Right now, I’d say we are going to be in session Tuesday,” he said. “But it won’t surprise me at all if we don’t end up canceling for a week or two or three.”

For now, O’Donnell said everyone at the Nebraska State Capitol is doing what they can to prevent the virus from spreading among legislators and staff members. 

“We are asking members if they have come in contact or been someplace…to self-quarantine,” he said. “If they suspect something, (they should) get a diagnosis then ultimately get a screening test. We haven’t seen a lot of that yet, but we are aware of those kinds of things.”

During floor debate March 9-12, lawmakers advanced a number of bills.

Under a bill that advanced to the second round of floor debate March 9, all public and private K-12 schools in Nebraska would be required to have a policy detailing appropriate conduct between employees and students. Within this policy, there would have to be a prohibition of employees engaging in sexual acts with current students or students who graduated or transferred elsewhere within the past year. 

LB 1080, introduced by Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, would also prohibit school employees, and anyone else with authoritative roles, from engaging in “grooming,” which is the process by which an employee would build trust with a student, or those close to a student, in order to receive sexual favors. A procedure for reporting of grooming would also be laid out in the policy.

The policy would also have to stipulate preferred methods of communication school employees should use when trying to contact students. 

I believe the bill has broad support from the Legislature, and I expect that it will pass without any significant issues,” Lathrop said in an email. “ … My hope is this bill will give schools and the state another tool to curb inappropriate behavior by school employees.”

The bill received a vote of 39-0 March 9 to advance to the second round of floor debate.

A bill that would provide veterans in central Nebraska a burial place in a new state veterans cemetery in Grand Island advanced to the second round of floor debate March 9.

LB 911, introduced by Sen. Dan Quick of Grand Island, would allow the city of Grand Island to give the title of the former Nebraska Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery and adjacent land, as negotiated, to the state. 

The bill would also provide for an initial program statement and require the director of the Nebraska Department of Veterans’ Affairs to apply for financing from the federal government. In an amendment introduced by Quick and adopted 38-0, it was clarified that expenses of the initial program statement would be paid from the Nebraska Veteran Cemetery System Operation Fund.

Currently, the only state cemetery is in Alliance, Nebraska. The Grand Island location would provide central Nebraskan veterans with a burial place that is closer to their families and where they can actually be buried in a state veteran’s cemetery, Quick said.

“I think a lot of them (veterans) choose not to be buried in a veteran’s cemetery because they would have to travel so far,” Quick said. “I just think it’s a great way to honor our veterans.”

After adopting Quick’s amendment, senators voted 39-0 to advance the bill to the second round of floor debate.

During the first round of floor debate, lawmakers amended a bill that would make it easier for Nebraska towns to respond to flooding to include provisions of eight other bills, making it a package municipal bill. 

LB 1003, as originally introduced by Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, would have allowed any second-class city or village to annex land, lots, tracts, streets or highways to relocate all or part of a town because of catastrophic flooding.

LB 1003 originally would have required a two-thirds vote of either a city council or village board in order to annex any land.

The bill was meant to specifically bring aid to Winslow, a town in Walz’s district that suffered severe damage during last year’s flooding. The proposal would have allowed the town to maintain its current governmental structure while it transitions into the recovery stage.

An Urban Affairs Committee amendment, adopted 36-0, provided a definition for catastrophic flooding, and it also established an emergency clause that would make the bill go into effect immediately upon it being passed. 

The amendment also added provisions from eight other municipal-related bills (LB 795 by Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln, LB 799 by the Urban Affairs Committee, LB 801 by the Urban Affairs Committee, LB 821 by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, LB 885 by Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, LB 957 by Walz, LB 984 by Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha and LB 993 by Sen. John Lowe of Kearney).

The package bill advanced March 11 to the second round of floor debate on a vote of 35-0.

Senior journalism student with a history minor.