Nebraska Legislature

LINCOLN–The Nebraska Legislature spent over an hour debating a bill that would provide a one-time death benefit for first responders during the first full week of floor debate on March 10.

This bill is Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln’s third attempt at addressing first responder compensation. During previous legislative sessions, Hansen’s bill died before reaching floor debate. This year, the bill was voted unanimously out of the Business and Labor Committee to reach the floor. In committee, it also received support from the Nebraska Professional Firefighters Association, the Nebraska Emergency Medical Services Association and the Omaha Police Officers Association, among others.

“I believe it is time for Nebraska to join our neighbors and make sure that those first responders know we value their work, their service and their lives,” Hansen said.

LB255 would apply to any paid and volunteer firefighters, emergency medical service, ambulance squad members and law enforcement. Each employee would have the opportunity to designate a beneficiary who would receive $50,000. If there is no obvious beneficiary, the State Claims Board would be responsible for investigating or approving claims.

“It looks to me like it’s kind of a cumbersome thing to try to figure out who’s going to be the recipient, that would be my question about this,” Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said during the debate.

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said that while the bill was well-intentioned, it duplicated benefits that first responders in Nebraska already receive.

“I have no objection to us doing this, but we have to remember that there are departments out there who do provide very adequate benefits on life insurance policies and things like that,” he said. “So, we are really duplicating, in some cases, what they might be receiving.”

A Nebraska statute currently requires any volunteer fire and rescue departments to offer a life insurance policy that provides a minimum death benefit of $10,000. In many instances, the $50,000 benefit proposed under Hansen’s bill would far exceed what volunteer first responders would receive under life insurance policies.

During the Business and Labor Committee debate on Jan. 25, proponents encouraged Nebraska lawmakers to remember that this money is for those left behind after a first responder dies. A one-time benefit of $50,000 may still not be enough.

“This benefit that we’re asking for, I think, can be compared to a bouquet of flowers,” said Darren Garrean, president of the Nebraska Professional Fire Fighters Association. “Great for a short time, but it won’t last very long.”

Despite a lively debate, senators voted to advance LB255 to the next round of debate by a vote of 37-1.

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, the only senator to vote against the bill, argued that the state doesn’t have to get involved because Nebraskans already rally together to support those in need.

“If something happens, Nebraska rises to the occasion,” she said. “I mean, they can have money raised for these folks in minimal amounts of time, and I just don’t think that this is something that we need to get into.”

The opposition toward the bill prompted Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln to speak out. Morfeld acknowledged that while some senators raised legitimate concerns, it was “really disturbing” to hear colleagues’ reluctance to support this bill.

“I hear from some of my colleagues who constantly talk about supporting blue, supporting our first responders, and then they get up and talk about, ‘Well, it might be just a little too messy after they die to figure out who this $50,000 goes to,’” Morfeld said. “Shame on us. You know what’s more messy, the fact that that person died serving the members of their community.”

Albrecht responded to Morfeld’s comments by relating her personal experiences as a volunteer fireman’s daughter and defended her right to speak out on the bill.

“We better start thinking twice about trying to call each other out on the floor over these bills. If I have a feeling about it, I’m going to stand up and talk about it,” she said. “But, how dare you go out on social media or on this floor, and try to say that I don’t care about these people.”

Before the debate wrapped up, Morfeld clarified that he has not tweeted about Albrecht during this legislative session.

“I didn’t tweet out anything about Sen. Albrecht in this legislation. I just want to correct the record for that,” Morfeld said. “We all have different ways of communicating to our constituents. Some people like Sen. Albrecht posts on her legislative blog; I don’t do that, I post on my Twitter feed.”

Hansen closed the debate by saying he appreciated his colleagues’ suggestions and is willing to negotiate over the finer details.

“This felt like one of the first real good debates of a new legislative session,” Hansen said. “I’m trying to get a functional bill that I can get across the finish line.”

Madeleine Grant is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying journalism. She enjoys reading, writing and travel. Madeleine is from Illinois and aspires to become a professional journalist or editor.