An illustration of six state senators in the Nebraska Legislature divided into six equal sqares.
This illustration by the Nebraska News Service shows (top left to bottom right) State Sens. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha, Joni Albrecht of Thurston, Dave Murman of Glenvil, Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha and Megan Hunt of Omaha. The six senators — among others — have been active in key legislation in the early weeks of the Legislature that addresses abortion and LGBTQ Nebraskans. (Nebraska News Service Photos/Illustration by Zach Wendling)

After the introduction of two bills to address LGBTQ and transgender Nebraskans, State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln abruptly called for the Legislature to adjourn “Sine Die” on Tuesday, Jan. 17.

The motion means to adjourn without a future date for reconvening and, if successful, would have ended the 90-day session abruptly on its ninth day. The motion failed 33-7, with State Sens. Carol Blood (Bellevue), Machaela Cavanaugh (Omaha), Conrad, Jen Day (Omaha), Megan Hunt (Omaha), Jane Raybould (Lincoln) and Justin Wayne (Omaha) voting in favor.

Six senators did not return to the chamber for the vote; three others were excused.

Had the motion been successful, Gov. Jim Pillen could — and would — have called the Legislature back, especially with the Legislature not passing a budget as it is required to by law.

But the motion set a tone: there will be a fight this session over key issues, including those around the LGBTQ community, women’s health, elections policies and guns rights.

Transgender Nebraskans at center

The main bills at issue on Jan. 17 came from State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha — the “Let Them Grow Act” (LB574) and “Sports and Spaces Act” (LB575).

These would, respectively, prohibit medical professionals from performing or referring minors for gender altering procedures and define school bathroom, locker room and sports teams as male or female according to students’ assigned sex at birth.

The bills are a reflection of what Kauth’s constituents told her over the summer while she was campaigning, she said. The bills also follow a national trend of restrictive legislation aimed gender health care and school sports and bathrooms.

Kauth said her bills have “nothing to do with hurting anyone” and that kids are dealing with difficult issues already.

“This is, again, just saying that all kids deserve privacy and respect,” Kauth said.

Jane Seu, the ACLU of Nebraska’s legal and policy counsel, said in a statement that Kauth’s anti-trans legislation does hurt Nebraskans. Seu added the bills are examples of government overreach that “threaten young Nebraskans’ right to exist as exactly who you are.”

“From denying youth the opportunity to benefit from school sports to taking away decisions from Nebraska families and medical professionals — these are deeply harmful proposals,” Seu said. “Trans youth belong in Nebraska, and they should be able to grow up as exactly who they are.”

“Red” or “white” flag

Conrad said her motion sent a “strategic” message after many of her colleagues had left the chamber that bills that would hurt working families, civil rights or civil liberties will meet opposition.

“I think it also had the intended effect and purpose of sending out a broader red flag to the citizenry at large that there is a host of grave threats pending before the Nebraska Legislature that can really really hurt a lot of Nebraskans,” she said.

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State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar speaks against a proposed rule change in the Nebraska Legislature on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, in Lincoln. (Nebraska News Service Photo/Zach Wendling)

But State Sen. Julie Slama of Dunbar took to Twitter and said in an interview the effort showed that “liberal Democrats” were “already waving the white flag on this session” (all those in favor of the Sine Die motion were registered Democrats; the Legislature is officially nonpartisan).

“To me, to see that Sine Die motion, it was a slap in the face to Nebraskans but it also indicated a very clear white flag from that side because they know they don’t have the numbers to block legislation that they’ve been able to block in the past,” Slama said.

Kauth said all senators should be able to use motions and rules to their advantage but that Conrad’s efforts seemed like a trick and “set the ground rules” for the trajectory of the session.

Issues bridge debate

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha withdrew an unrelated bill on Wednesday, Jan. 18, but took the moment to talk about the Sine Die motion and encourage her colleagues to withdraw bills if they were not ready.

Hunt and State Sen. John Fredrickson of Omaha are Nebraska’s only openly LGBTQ senators.

Hunt said the adjourn motion was appropriate after Kauth’s anti-trans legislation, State Sen. Dave Murman’s bill to restrict drag shows (LB371), State Sen. Joni Albrecht’s bill to restrict abortion access (LB626) and others were introduced.

“So in your haste to be morality police when no one is asking you to do this, you’re really hurting yourselves,” Hunt said on the floor. “All of this is a circus to divert attention from the financial ripoffs that are happening in this state. … The people introducing these divisive, culture war, fake-problem bills don’t realize how they’re being used by the wizards behind the curtain to make all of these financial ripoffs happen.”

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State Sen. John Fredrickson listens to his fellow senators on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Lincoln. (Nebraska News Service Photo/Zach Wendling)

Murman and Albrecht have both said their legislation is to protect children, not harm Nebraskans.

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha echoed Hunt with a message to LGBTQ Nebraskans and trans youth, and Fredrickson issued a similar message on social media.

“You are valued, you are important, you matter,” Cavanaugh said from the floor on Jan. 18. “You may not always feel that way. There may be people in this Legislature that work to make you not feel that way. But there are several people in this Legislature that care about you, about who you are and are here to defend your rights, and you are loved.”

Indefinitely postpone motions

One legislative tool Conrad, Hunt and State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha are using — among others — is an indefinitely postpone motion, referred to as an “IPP” or a “kill” motion. This allows senators to voice their opposition early in floor debate — though bills must first get out of committee — and send a message to the bill introducer’s they have a fight on their hands.

These motions have been filed on the legislation by Kauth, Murman and Albrecht as well as others.

Guns rights next big fight

On Thursday, Jan. 19, while debating a proposed rules change offered by Cavanaugh to ban firearms and deadly weapons in the Capitol, State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon — who has led the charge to expand guns rights — voiced opposition to what could take away guns rights.

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State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon talks with his fellow senators on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Lincoln. (Nebraska News Service Photo/Zach Wendling)

Brewer said Second Amendment issues have brought the “second house” in Nebraska to the Capitol, without issue.

“If there isn’t a problem, and if we hadn’t had a problem, because of someone’s feelings we’re going to take away one of your rights, well standby,” Brewer said, “because I think there are other rights we need to take a look at if that’s how we’re going to handle things.”

LB77 by Brewer would allow for the concealed carry of a handgun without a permit, a measure Brewer has prioritized for multiple years. The Judiciary Committee will host a hearing for that bill and other gun-related legislation on Thursday, Jan. 26.

Hunt spoke just after Brewer in agreeance that rights should not be taken away based on feelings.

Cavanaugh’s proposed rules change failed 32-7. She and State Sens. John Cavanaugh (Omaha), Wendy DeBoer (Bennington), George Dungan (Lincoln), John Fredrickson (Omaha), Jane Raybould (Lincoln) and Tony Vargas (Omaha) voted in favor.

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.