This story was written by Luna Stephens and Katie Anderson with reporting from Anderson, Stephens, Blaney Dreifurst, Colby Woodson, Madeleine Grant and Natalie Stanley.
Most state senators say they plan to wear a face mask and stay 6 feet from others when the legislative session resumes later this month, according to interviews with 25 of the state’s 49 senators.
Speaker Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk has outlined safety protocols for the summer session. According to a memo Scheer sent June 23, the Legislature will have a plexiglass barrier in front of senators’ desks, temperature checks for everyone who enters the chamber and hand sanitizer available. Scheer is encouraging senators to wear face masks in the chamber but has not required it.
He hopes that the safety guidelines will help senators maintain 6 feet of space between each other. The Nebraska Legislature’s 2020 session was suspended March 16 because of COVID-19. It will resume July 20.
The Legislature is waiting to hear from the Executive Board about guidelines for legislative staff.
Of the 25 senators who spoke to Nebraska News Service for this story over the last few weeks, three said they did not plan on wearing a mask in the chamber. Several others said they weren’t sure if they’d wear a mask or would only wear one sometimes.
Senators had varying legislative priorities including property tax relief, business incentives, rural broadband and the budget.
The state’s latest COVID-19 health directives allow for indoor gatherings that are 50% of rated occupancy. The chamber’s occupancy is between 275 and300 people, according to the clerk’s office. When session reconvenes, 75 people will be allowed in the chamber.
Nebraska News Service reporters contacted all 49 senators for comment. Here’s what they said:
District 2: Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood
Clements said he doesn’t plan to wear a face mask unless requested by other senators, but he does plan to practice social distancing and use hand sanitizer often.
“I am most interested in passing LB 1106, the property tax relief bill. The state budget will be another focus of mine,” Clements said.
District 3: Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue
Blood plans to be in the legislative chamber even though she was hospitalized in March for congestive heart failure from a virus that attacked her heart. She said she will be wearing a face mask and following Scheer’s rules. Her hope is that bills that have passed general file and are sitting in select file or ready for final reading that do not have fiscal notes will move forward.
“The revenue outlook has changed since we approved the budget, and there are many discussions on property tax relief, economic incentives and more that must happen before we adjourn,” Blood said.
District 4: Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha
Hilkemann plans to social distance, wash his hands frequently, refrain from handshakes and use hand sanitizer. He said he may use a mask but in general hasn’t been wearing one unless required. His priority bill is included in other legislation, and he will be concerned that the senators not pass legislation that has fiscal impacts.
District 6: Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha
Cavanaugh will be on the legislative floor as long as she is healthy. Canvanaugh said she will wear a face mask, have hand sanitizer with her at all times and wear gloves. She will focus on CARES Act funding and TestNebraska, but her main focus is on her priority bill, LB1060, which is up for the second round of debate. It expands the definition of race in workplace discrimination to include hair texture and style. She related the bill to racial injustice issues that prompted protests around the country.
“I hope we can move forward in Nebraska and show Nebraskans that we take Black Lives Matter seriously,” Cavanaugh said about LB1060.
District 7: Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha
Vargas plans to follow guidelines and wear a mask.
His priority will be on LB1089, which would require students enrolled in a public high school to complete and submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid before graduating, starting with the 2021-2022 school year. According to Vargas, the majority of students qualify for at least some financial aid, but many do not complete the FAFSA because they do not realize they would qualify.
“By requiring the FAFSA to be complete, people will know what options are ahead of them,” Vargas said.
District 8: Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha
Hunt plans to wear a face mask, wash her hands often, social distance and use hand sanitizer. She has requested Scheer to schedule the following bills for floor debate:
- LB944, which would allow owners to seek a refund on vehicle registration if a vehicle is lost to natural disaster and would also harmonize several technical provisions of state law related to motor vehicles
- LB780, which would authorize the Nebraska Arts Council to use 0.5% of the balance of the Nebraska Cultural Preservation Endowment Fund to cover administrative costs
- Hunt’s priority bill LB962, which would adopt the Nebraska Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow student athletes at Nebraska public and private four-year colleges to earn money from endorsements, sponsorships and other activities related to their athletic skills.
“I am hopeful that my priority bill will pass this session. I expect many amendments to address racial justice issues to be introduced once we reconvene that I will support,“ Hunt said.
District 10: Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington
DeBoer said she will wear a mask whenever she cannot social distance and will require a mask for anyone visiting her and her staff’s offices. She said she is confident that if all safety precautions are followed, the risks will be low.
DeBoer is focused on fighting for education policy and working to keep the state financially stable during the economic crisis.
“The people elected me to do a job, and I will do it,” DeBoer said.
District 11: Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha
Chambers said when he returns to the Legislature he will be wearing a mask, washing his hands and forgoing handshakes for elbow bumps, something he’s done for years.
“I’m known by people in states other than Nebraska – when they’re introduced to me they say, ‘I know senator, you don’t shake hands,’” he said. “So some things that people are just now talking about are practices I’ve always observed.”
Chambers said while he isn’t sure what bills each senator will focus on, the Legislature needs to pass a budget.
District 13: Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha
Wayne said he will be wearing a mask and using lots of hand sanitizer.
Wayne hopes the Legislature can revamp Nebraska’s procurement process to make sure all businesses, including minority and women-owned businesses, have an opportunity to compete fairly.
District 14: Sen. John Arch of La Vista
Arch said he’s been paying close attention to Scheer’s email updates. He said he will probably be wearing a mask when in close contact with others. He said the Legislature will need to focus on the budget first, as well as finding a compromise with property tax relief and the ImagiNE Act, which would provide tax incentives for businesses.
“I think it’s very important that we finish our session. We’ve got some very important issues that we have to tackle,” Arch said.
District 18: Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha
Lindstrom said since he is one of the younger senators, he is not as concerned about his health. However, he does plan to follow the precautions put in place for the safety of his fellow senators.
His priority bill, LB242, would return a portion of the state’s sales taxes on water and sewer services back to communities to help offset escalating water and sewer bills. This bill has a fiscal note attached to it, so he does not believe it will pass due to current circumstances.
District 19: Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk
Scheer said the Legislature environment will be as safe as it can be, and he is hoping that the session can be completed without anyone becoming ill.
“I am just hoping that we’ll be able to get the 17 days in, and everyone will be able to function properly, and we will have a good last session,” Scheer said.
District 24: Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward
Kolterman plans to wear a mask while in the building and will watch the debate from his office if he is not needed on the floor. His focus will be on his priority bill, LB720, which is the ImagiNE Act, which would provide tax incentives for businesses.
“As a body, we will have to do everything from the budget, and I imagine we will be talking about a variety of tax proposals and potentially updates and changes related to COVID-19 as well,” Kolterman said.
District 25: Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln
Geist plans to wear a mask occasionally and wash her hands frequently. She said the budget will be the priority during the session.
“Of course we have to finish the budget. It sounds like it’s not going to be as drastic of an adjustment as we anticipated early on in the pandemic, but that will be the number one point of order,” Geist said.
She also said the bills regarding property tax relief and business incentives will be of priority and believes they are important to pass.
District 26: Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln
Hansen plans to follow Scheer’s health guidelines. He said he feels like the precautions that have been set up in the Capitol are enough to keep him safe. He will be focusing on the state budget and tax reform.
District 30: Sen. Myron Dorn of Adams
Dorn plans to start session by wearing a mask but isn’t sure if he will continue to wear one.
Dorn is focused on property tax relief and helping pass a bill that allows additional medical insurance providers to sell their policies in the state of Nebraska.
District 32: Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth
Brandt sits on the outside row closest to the balconies in the legislative chamber, so he is required to move to the tables underneath the balcony. The exception will be when he votes or speaks over the microphone.
Brandt is focused on property tax relief and his priority bill LB996. This bill still needs to go through final reading and would create the Broadband Data Improvement Program. The bill would ensure that Nebraska is represented in federal broadband grant programs.
“Property tax relief would not help just agriculture land owners, it would also help business owners and homeowners in the state of Nebraska,” Brandt said.
District 34: Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson
Friesen doesn’t intend to wear a mask, but said he will take precautions such as washing his hands and not touching his face. Friesen is focused on passing his rural broadband bill, LB992, and property tax relief.
District 36: Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg
Williams plans on wearing a face mask. He has visited the Legislature and gotten a glimpse of how the chamber is set up. His priority is finalizing the budget.
“Normally, every committee has a handful of bills that are things that really need to get passed. They’re noncontroversial. So, I’m very hopeful we can get all those things cleaned up,” Williams said.
District 39: Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn
Linehan will exercise precautions such as wearing a mask and following Scheer’s protocols. Her two priorities are property tax relief and a business tax incentive package.
“We have a tremendous amount of work left undone. If our budget is the same as last year, this would put some people in a bind,” Linehan said.
District 40: Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton
Gragert considers returning to the Legislature as his duty and feels safe returning. He will be practicing the recommended and required precautions at the Capitol. His priorities will be property tax relief and economic development.
“I think they’ve thought it through, and it will be good to go as long as something doesn’t happen between now and then,” Gragert said regarding the new COVID-19 protocols.
District 45: Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue
Crawford said it is critical to her constituents that she participate in debate and vote. She plans to wear a mask and sanitize her desk and microphone often. She wants to keep her office a safe place, but one that still allows for constituent access.
“The speaker has indicated that he will work to schedule all priority bills. I look forward to having debate on these bills that are priorities to the senators and legislative committees,” Crawford said.
District 46: Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln
Morfeld will wear a mask at all times and practice social distancing. He is focused on passing his priority legislation to end surprise medical billing, address COVID-19-related priorities and criminal justice reform.
District 47: Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard
Erdman said he does not plan to wear a mask and is not scared to come back to the Legislature. His priority is to pass property tax relief legislation.
“We will have several people who want to talk about police brutality and defunding police. We have all kinds of issues, and I think those issues will get in the way of providing relief for peoples’ taxes,“ Erdman said.
District 48: Sen. John Stinner of Gering
Stinner will be following all protocols that were put in place. His priority is the budget modification.