Nebraskans could celebrate Election Day and Arbor Day at the same time in a bill considered Feb. 24 by the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
LB965, introduced by Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln, would change the day the state observes Arbor Day to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years, the same day as nationwide elections. Arbor Day is currently celebrated on the last Friday in April.
In 2021, Bostar introduced LB577 to make Election Day a holiday, but Gov. Pete Ricketts spoke in opposition the same day as its public hearing, effectively stopping the legislation in its tracks.
“Typically I don’t comment on bills until the Legislature has had a chance to debate them, but in this case, we don’t need another state holiday to be able to allow for elections,” Ricketts said in a March 3, 2021, news conference. “We’ve been doing them successfully for many, many years without it. So that is not a bill I would support.”
Bostar countered and brought forth the new legislation, acknowledging it isn’t a good idea due to the roots Arbor Day has in the state.
“Let’s be clear, I want to make Election Day a holiday; I wanted to last year, I want to this year,” Bostar said. “Last year the governor said we shouldn’t have another holiday. This is actually the only other option.”
Tammy Partsch, marketing director of Nebraska City Tourism and Commerce, said in her testimony that Nebraska City residents were not thrilled when the bill was first brought up.
“We talked to our board about it, we talked to members of our community,” Partsch said, “and we were met with frustration and disbelief that this is even a thought.”
Arbor Day was established in Nebraska City and has a 150-year history. t’s estimated more than 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day in 1872. The day is now celebrated in all 50 states and in many countries around the world, according to Partsch.
“That is our hometown pride,” Partsch said. “And it’s being poached, it’s being thrown under the bus as if it doesn’t matter, and I don’t think that’s the right way to go about trying to fix a problem that maybe we have as a state.”
Chueqa Yang, field manager for Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, said making Election Day a holiday would be important to helping low-income people and those without reliable transportation exercise their right to vote.
“Nebraska should be an example to the rest of the nation as a bastion of a healthy democracy and join the other 19 states that designate Election Day as a holiday,” Yang said.
These 19 states are: Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
“We would be remiss not to give Nebraska voters the same ballot access that is currently afforded in other states,” Bostar said.
Beth Bazyn Ferrell of the Nebraska Association of County Officials said 75 of Nebraska’s 93 counties currently observe Arbor Day. Because 18 counties do not, Ferrell said this could complicate Bostar’s goal to increase voter turnout through Arbor Day.
However, Bostar said the change could encourage more employers to give the day off.
Employers may also need to pay their staff premium pay depending on their county’s policy toward working on holidays, whether that be time and a half, double pay or something else, according to Ferrell. Some employers may be able to offer comp time on a different day, but this may not be available to election workers as they put in a lot of work prior to Election Day.
Ferrell said some fiscal years — the period between July 1 and June 30 of the following year — would have two Arbor Days while some would have none.
This would have a net neutral fiscal impact, according to the attached note with the bill, but counties would need to budget ahead if the legislation were to pass.
As written, Bostar’s legislation would provide for two Arbor Days in 2022: Friday, April 29, and Tuesday, Nov. 8. He introduced an amendment that would have the first changed holiday be on Nov. 5, 2024.
Westin Miller, director of public policy at Civic Nebraska, thanked Bostar for his straightforward, direct and creative response to previous opposition.
Miller recalled a conversation he had with a colleague in which she said, “It’s really weird that we get a day off to celebrate presidents but not to elect them.”
Bostar encouraged the committee to take portions of his bill from 2021, which would make Election Day a holiday without moving Arbor Day, and bring it to the floor. The bill never left committee and was carried over to the 2022 session.
“Short of that, we could do it the confusing way but not very good way,” Bostar said. “But that certainly wouldn’t be my preference.”