The Nebraska State Capitol at sunset on Feb. 17, 2022. The image has

Feb. 14-18: Groene investigation, health standards and pandemic relief funds

Hunt requests investigation into now-former senator Mike Groene

Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha on Feb. 19, requested an investigation into former Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte. The request was sent to Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, Nebraska State Patrol Superintendent Col. John A. Bolduc and Capt. Lance Rogers, who is in charge of security at the Nebraska State Capitol. Just one day earlier, Groene announced he would resign from his seat and drop his candidacy for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents amid allegations he had taken nonconsensual photographs of one of his legislative staffers. Groene told the Omaha World-Herald he did take photos of the legislative aide and that they were a mistake but that he never made any sexual advances toward or harassed her. The staffer, who the World-Herald identified as Kristina Konecko at her own request, discovered the photos of herself on Groene’s laptop while doing her work. Gov. Pete Ricketts will be able to appoint a replacement for the remainder of Groene’s term, which ends in January 2023.

Education Committee considers bill to limit health education standards

Under LB768 heard by the Education Committee Feb. 15, the State Board of Education would be prohibited from creating health education standards for Nebraska public schools. Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston introduced the bill after the board faced fierce opposition to its drafted standards in 2021. The board would be limited to only developing, approving, distributing, adopting or promoting academic content standards for reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies, no other subjects. Abbi Swatsworth, the executive director of OutNebraska, said all respondents to a recent survey of Nebraska youths said they need more information on sexual orientation, gender identity, consent and healthy relationships. By having comprehensive education, Swatsworth said Nebraska could prevent suicide among these youth by helping them feel seen and respected.

Aid could be withheld if schools violate proposed transparency law

School districts would need to make learning materials more available to the public or risk the state withholding state aid under a bill from Sen. Rita Sanders of Bellevue. The Education Committee considered LB1158 Feb. 15, which would require an update to a nearly 30-year-old state law that requires public schools to make school materials more accessible to parents. Sanders’ bill would require school districts to make all district and school policies accessible online. They also would need to make a reasonable effort for learning materials to be available for public inspection upon request. If this is not done, the commissioner of education would be allowed to withhold state aid. Multiple individuals testified in opposition or in a neutral capacity urging Sanders and the committee to rethink the requirements and reconsider the provision to withholding state funds. Anne Hunter-Pirtle testified in opposition on behalf of Stand for Schools, arguing parents, guardians and members of the public already have access to much of the information Sanders’ bill would require. Hunter-Pirtle also said the bill would discourage teaching challenging, but essential, topics.

Education Committees considers bill to protect students from viewpoint discrimination

The Education Committee heard testimony Feb. 14 on LB150 from Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk. The bill would clarify existing legal standards that prohibit public postsecondary institutions from discriminating against student viewpoints, whether those are political, religious or ideological. Flood said an October 2021 lawsuit from the faith-based, student organization Ratio Christi against the University of Nebraska-Lincoln spurred the bill. The founder of Ratio Christi and a former president of the group testified in support of the bill, arguing it would prevent UNL from discriminating in the distribution of student fees, as it allegedly did. Bren Chambers, on behalf of the University of Nebraska, and Abbi Swatsworth, on behalf of OutNebraska, testified in opposition. Chambers said the bill is unnecessary due to existing laws, and the university is working to fix the mistake it made against Ratio Christi. Swatsworth argued the bill could allow discrimination for groups that prohibit LGBTQ students or other minority groups from joining or leading such organizations. The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.

Appropriations considers $185 million in federal funds for University of Nebraska

The Appropriations Committee Feb. 17 heard testimony on eight proposals that together could allocate $185 million in federal pandemic relief funds to the University of Nebraska. Nebraska has $1.4 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds. University of Nebraska president Ted Carter said the funds represent once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to Nebraska. The bills range from establishing a University of Nebraska Medical Center Rural Health Complex and enhancing pancreatic cancer research to supporting cybersecurity and counterterrorism. No one testified in opposition, and the committee took no immediate action.

These bills include: 

  • LB703 from Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, which would provide $25 million for a agricultural innovation facility on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Nebraska Innovation Campus.
  • LB721 from Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha, which would provide $60 million for a University of Nebraska Medical Center Rural Health Complex at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
  • LB766 from Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, which would provide $15 million to enhance pancreatic cancer research at UNMC.
  • LB904 from Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams, which would provide $50 million to establish the Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity and Holland Computing Center on UNL’s Nebraska Innovation Campus.
  • LB950 from Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington, which would provide $10 million to support the Global Center for Health Security at UNMC.
  • LB961 from Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, which would provide $4 million to support the National Counterterrorism Innovation Technology and Education Center at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
  • LB962 also from Vargas, which would provide $5 million to renovate and construct a facility for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Teaching Research and Inquiry-based Learning Center also at UNO.
  • LB1054 from Sen. Mike McDonnell of Omaha, which would provide $16 million to modernize labs and equipment for UNO’s Department of Biomechanics and the Health and Kinesiology Research, Engagement and Community Hub initiative.

$50 million proposed in recovery funds for South Omaha

Nebraska’s Appropriations Committee heard testimony Feb. 14 on a proposed bill to direct $50 million in federal pandemic relief funds to South Omaha. Under LB1238, introduced by Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, the funds would go toward helping one of Nebraska’s areas hardest hit by COVID-19, where the area’s Latino population was pivotal in keeping the state’s meatpacking, construction and food service industries functional, Vargas said. Hispanic Nebraskans were disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, comprising 40% of Nebraskans hospitalized with COVID-19 in mid-2021 despite being only 11% of the state’s population, according to Armando Salgado of Omaha.

Museum fund to honor former state Sen. Ernie Chambers considered

The Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee considered on Feb. 16 facilitating the creation of a museum to honor former state Sen. Ernie Chambers. Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, who succeeded Chambers in 2021, introduced LB1205, which would create the Ernie Chambers History-Arts-Humanities Museum Assistance Fund. Chambers served a record 46 years in the Legislature. Under the bill, the Nebraska State Historical Society — informally History Nebraska — would need to develop plans for the museum by Dec. 31, 2022. Chambers’ daughter and president of Together We Achieve Miracles, Gayla Lee-Chambers, said the museum could be a landmark for North Omaha and boost tourism in his honor.

Proposed COVID-19 vaccine exemption process advances to final reading

Nebraska state senators advanced to final reading a bill from Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair that would provide an exemption process for employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates. If approved, LB906 would require the state Department of Health and Human Services to create a form for employees to seek an exemption. These could be based on a health care practitioner’s recommendation or if the individual has a strongly held religious belief, practice or observance. The vote was 36-2; Sens. Megan Hunt and John Cavanaugh of Omaha voted against the bill.

Process to allow counties to increase minimum wage proposed

County boards would be able to raise the minimum wage in their county above the state level in a bill from Sen. Eliot Bostar of Lincoln. Under LB935, a county board could raise the minimum wage within their county. Nebraska’s wage is set at $9 per hour. Ordinances could set a different minimum wage for student-learner employees, training wages or those compensated through gratuity. Employers could also apply for exemptions if they can demonstrate the increase would cause an undue burden because they employ individuals in multiple counties. Multiple individuals testified in opposition, including Bud Synhorst of the Lincoln Independent Business Association, arguing it could cause confusion and allow 93 different minimum wages statewide.

Health and Human Services considers protections for senior LGBTQ Nebraskans 

The Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 16 considered a bill that would protect LGBTQ Nebraskans in senior care facilities. Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha introduced LB1136, which would prohibit licensed care facilities from denying admission to individuals who identify as LGBTQ or from discriminating on residents based on their HIV status. Senior care facilities in Nebraska would also be prohibited from restricting access to living spaces or restrooms based on residents’ gender identity. Becky Wisell of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services testified in opposition, arguing the bill would require the department to hire additional staff for paperwork, oversight and inspections.

Proposal to allow campaign funds to cover child care heard in committee

Nebraska’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee heard Feb. 16 testimony on a proposal to allow elected officials to use campaign funds for child care. Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha introduced LB930 so both the officeholder and their staff, while involved in official duties, could use funds for child care expenses. Julie Wertheimer of the ACLU of Nebraska testified in support, saying that Nebraska has fewer women in office than most states and the change could empower more women to run for office.

Proposal could limit regulation on local vaping bans

A proposed bill heard Feb. 17 by the Health and Human Services Committee would limit how some agencies could regulate electronic smoking devices. Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha introduced LB954 to prohibit counties and municipalities from adopting more restrictive ordinances or resolutions than the Nebraska Clean Indoor Air Act. Wayne said this would make it easier for the vaping industry to provide its services to customers. Dave Watts, president of the Nebraska Medical Association, spoke in opposition, saying state law should apply equally to vaping and cigarettes.

Bill could provide more discretion to judges to authorize virtual hearings

The Judiciary Committee Feb. 17 considered allowing Nebraska judges to authorize the use of video, electronic or telephonic technology for certain hearings. LB1053, introduced by Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, would allow a judge who finds good reason for virtual hearings the discretion to authorize them for civil, juvenile and some pre-trial motion hearings. The hearings must be publicly accessible and an accurate record of the hearing would need to be preserved. Confidentiality would also need to be maintained if one party requests it with counsel. Spike Eickholt, testifying in opposition for the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said Zoom hearings are not the same as in-person proceedings. He said courts are for litigants and the people, not for the convenience of judges. Live, in-person hearings, he argued, should remain each person’s right if they choose it. Current state law allows virtual conferencing when all parties give consent.

Source: Unicameral Update

Zach Wendling is a senior journalism and political science double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln focused on political, policy and governance reporting. He is the spring 2023 intern for the Nebraska Examiner and has been published in publications across the state as part of the Nebraska News Service. Wendling interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. and worked for The Daily Nebraskan at UNL. He is one of the founding members and inaugural president of UNL's new campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.