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

March 7-11: Concealed carry, rental assistance, lakes and canals

Legislators give first-round approval to “constitutional carry” handgun bill

After eight hours of debate on March 11, Nebraska state legislators gave first-round approval to a bill to eliminate requirements for concealed handgun permits. LB773, introduced by Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, would waive current requirements for concealed handgun carry. These include that individuals must pass a background check, submit a $100 permit fee and complete a safe firing and handling gun course before obtaining a permit. The bill is often considered a “constitutional carry” measure based on proponents’ assertion the Second Amendment should not be limited by state laws.

The bill divided many senators, some of whom introduced amendments to limit or change the scope of Brewer’s bill. Brewer said he would bring up during the second round of debate a proposal to address Omaha police officers’ concerns with his bill. The change would retain restrictions on concealed carry in Omaha, including a local ordinance requiring handgun registration. Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha expressed concern about carving protections for Omaha police, which he said discriminates against Black people, but not the rest of the state’s police departments. The bill advanced on a 35-9 vote.

Bill requiring Ricketts apply for federal rental assistance gets first-round approval

Lawmakers gave first-round approval March 10 to a bill that would require Gov. Pete Ricketts to accept a second round of federal emergency rental assistance. Ricketts has continually said the aid is not needed. The content of the original bill, LB1073 introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, was replaced to make way for the proposal from Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln. Those eligible could have access to up to 12 months of back rent and three months of future rent — up to $20,000 — which would be paid directly to landlords. According to Hansen, only Nebraska and Arkansas have not accepted the assistance, and the first deadline has passed. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has extended the deadline to March 30. Current assistance is scheduled to end Sept. 30. Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said that while the emergency from COVID-19 may be over, the lasting effects remain, including inflation. The bill advanced on a 29-7 vote.

Water recreation, South Platte River canal projects advance

State senators granted first-round approval March 9 to three water-related proposals, including plans for a new canal and lake in Nebraska. Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, speaker of the Legislature, introduced both bills. He said the Appropriations Committee’s initial budget proposal includes $200 million for proposed projects.

LB1015, introduced on Gov. Pete Ricketts’ behalf, proposes building a canal to divert South Platte River water from Colorado to Nebraska under a 1923 interstate compact. Under the agreement, Nebraska is entitled to set amounts of cubic feet of water. Hilgers said that while Nebraska has received those winter flows for the past century, Colorado is moving to capture as much of its water as possible to support rapid population growth along the Front Range. If approved, the state Department of Natural Resources would be authorized to develop, construct, manage and operate the canal and its associated storage facilities. Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the committee’s proposed budget would appropriate $53.5 million in cash reserves to begin design and engineering studies for where the canal could be built. Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha opposed the bill and argued Colorado’s stake in the proposal could take precedence over Nebraska’s claim to the river. Rickett’s budget proposal includes $400 million in cash reserves and $100 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to support the project, though the fiscal note for the bill states costs would likely exceed this amount. The bill advanced on a 36-3 vote.

LB1023 would authorize two state agencies to carry out projects recommended by the Legislature’s Statewide Tourism and Recreational Water Access and Resource Sustainability special committee. The first would be from the state Department of Natural Resources to build a lake of at least 3,600 surface acres in or near Sarpy County and within the Platte River’s floodplain. No dam would be built on the main channel of the river and no city or village would be flooded so the lake could be built. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission would carry out the other projects, including new and expanded marinas at Lake McConaughy and Lewis and Clark Lake as well as an event center and lodge at Niobrara State Park. Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln supported the measure and said the Appropriations Committee’s proposed budget includes $1 million for an independent study for how the proposed lake would affect Lincoln and Omaha water supplies. Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha said he would work with Hilgers so the state-owned lake to be developed through a public-private partnership would be open to the public. On the other hand, Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson opposed the bill and said more information is needed about how the lake would be built, developed and managed. The bill advanced on a 29-4 vote.

Immunity for some drug, alcohol offenses related to sexual assault advances

A bill that would provide immunity for drug or alcohol offenses for survivors or witnesses of sexual assault in certain situations advanced March 9 through the first round of debate. Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln introduced LB519 to encourage survivors to come forward after an assault, which he said is widespread in many communities but especially prevalent on college campuses. Some survivors may not come forward to report the crime because of a belief authorities will focus on drug or alcohol offenses before an assault, according to Morfeld. Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte expressed concern the bill could affect how drug or alcohol offenses are prosecuted. Senators advanced the bill on a 29-6 vote.

Process for emergency grants for small businesses passes first round

State senators advanced a bill March 9 that would offer financial assistance to small businesses during certain qualifying events. Sen. Anna Wishart introduced LB598, which could apply in the event of a natural disaster, pandemic or other emergency as declared by the governor. Under the bill, businesses must be physically located in Nebraska and have annual revenue of less than $1 million. Businesses must also demonstrate a significant loss of gross revenue, at least 50% from the amount received over the same period in the prior year. Wishart said the bill would make permanent a similar program the Department of Economic Development used to deploy federal relief dollars to small businesses during the pandemic. Sen. Lou Ann Linehan expressed concern the bill might hinder how future administrations distribute emergency funds. Legislators gave first-round approval on a 32-0 vote.

Proposal to expand authority for state environmental regulator advances

Legislators gave first-round approval March 11 to a proposal intended to help a state agency respond more quickly to the release of pollution. Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard introduced LB1102, which would authorize the director of the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy to issue an order requiring a person responsible for releasing a pollutant. The director would also be authorized to take additional action if the person fails or refuses, including issuing orders or administrative penalties. If the state needs to take over the cleanup, the company or persons would still have to cover costs. According to Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha, the bill came from an interim study sparked by past pollution, including the incident at the AltEn ethanol plant in Mead. Cavanaugh said the bill highlighted weaknesses in how state agencies addressed those pollution concerns. Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue supported the bill but said it would not do enough to prevent future events like the one that led to AltEn. The bill advanced on a 40-0 vote.

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.