Legislative rule changes considered

The Rules Committee considered 58 possible changes to the permanent rules that govern legislative proceedings during a marathon public hearing Jan. 12. The rules generally are adopted at the beginning of each biennium.

The proposals, offered by a variety of senators, ranged from technical revisions to substantive changes meant to increase transparency and political participation in the legislative process.

Public hearing input

Three measures aimed at increasing the ability of residents to participate in public hearings were offered.

Omaha Sen. Jen Day brought a proposal that would add a statement to the rules that no qualified individual may be excluded from participating in public hearings based on a disability.

Day said her proposal would not force a committee to adopt specific accommodations but rather would formalize accommodations that committees already make for individuals with mobility challenges and other barriers to participation. More voices would add important perspectives to the issues lawmakers face, she said.

“If we truly care about having a full discussion, we should make a small change that would emphasize our commitment to being a place where all Nebraskans can be heard,” Day said.

Kathy Hoell, a member of the grassroots disability rights group Adapt Nebraska, testified in support of Day’s proposal. One in four people have some form of disability, she said, and many people with disabilities also are immunocompromised, making testifying in public among large groups of people dangerous as well as difficult.

“On your website and on [the inscriptions on] this building, you talk about people making up the ‘second house,’ but you don’t provide opportunities for people to be involved,” Hoell said.

Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad and Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt offered similar proposals that would go farther and require committees to allow the option to submit written testimony, which would be included in the official public hearing record.

Hunt pointed out that during the COVID-19 pandemic accommodations were made for written testimony, which she said made participation easier for members of the public. Doing away with that option meant reverting to a process that privileges people who live near the Capitol and those who can take time off during the workday when hearings are held, she said.

Meg Mikolajczyk, executive director of Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, testified in support of the proposals allowing anyone to provide written testimony. It currently costs almost $100 in gas to make the round-trip from Scottsbluff to Lincoln, she said, and many people who travel similar distances to testify in person at a legislative hearing also must pay for child care and take a day off of work.

“That’s a big ask,” Mikolajczyk said.

Jeanne Greisen testified in opposition to the proposals, citing concerns about manipulation of the process if committees begin accepting written or remote virtual testimony.

“That’s going to open up a whole can of worms that you won’t be able to control,” Greisen said.

Speaking in a neutral capacity, Clerk of the Legislature Brandon Metzler said a written Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation policy for the Legislature is being developed and asked senators for more time to finalize it. Rule changes take immediate effect, he said, and the Legislature does not yet have the logistical ability to implement the proposed changes to how committees receive testimony.

Secret ballots

A proposal offered by Hastings Sen. Steve Halloran would require the recording and announcement of all votes cast in the election of the speaker, standing committee chairpersons, the chairperson and vice chairperson of the Executive Board and the six elected members of the Executive Committee.

Senators currently elect those positions by secret ballot.

Halloran said secret ballots for leadership positions are contrary to the value of transparency on which the state’s unicameral legislature was founded.

William Feely testified in support of the change, saying constituents want transparency and accountability. Nebraskans expect to be able to know where lawmakers stand based on being able to see how they vote, he said.

“In secret votes, you can’t have that,” Feely said.

Steve Ray of Fremont also testified in support, saying all votes should be recorded as part of the legislative process.

“As a citizen and a constituent, we have a right to know how you voted and who you voted for,” Ray said.

Testifying in opposition, Nathan Leach of Nonpartisan Nebraska said votes for leadership positions should be kept confidential, just as the public’s ballots are when they vote to elect their state senator. Otherwise, he said, there is a risk that political parties will exert undue influence over the process.

“When they wrote the rules for the first session of the new unicameral in 1937, the members realized that electing the body’s leaders by [secret] ballot would preserve and support nonpartisanship by assuring that leaders would be elected on the basis of their experience, knowledge and expertise instead of solely on the basis of party affiliation,” Leach said.

Other proposals

A change offered by committee chairperson Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman would remove a current provision in the rules that requires committee executive sessions to be open to the news media. The proposed change instead would require executive session to be open only to committee members and “necessary staff.”

Erdman said lawmakers need to be able to speak freely when deciding what action to take on a bill following a public hearing and that the media’s presence can hinder their ability to do so. All votes are recorded on a bill’s committee statement, he said, so nothing would be hidden by excluding the media from executive sessions.

“It is time for us to have executive session and be able to discuss things openly,” Erdman said. “The discussion needs to be in private, and the only way to do that is to keep the media out.”

No one testified in support of the proposal, but representatives of several media outlets and organizations expressed concerns.

Rose Ann Shannon, president of Media of Nebraska — which represents the state’s newspapers, broadcast media and associated digital outlets — said executive sessions provide important background and context needed for reporters to provide better coverage of complex issues considered by lawmakers.

“This change has the potential to reduce transparency, undermine public trust in government and impact the accuracy of reporting on legislative matters,” Shannon said.

Nancy Finken of Nebraska Public Media also testified in opposition. Access to executive sessions allows the media to provide meaningful and accurate coverage, she said, which in turn contributes to a more informed society.

Other proposed rule changes included:
• limiting to 12 per session the number of bills a senator may introduce, offered by Blair Sen. Ben. Hansen;
• requiring video recordings of hearings and floor debate to be posted on the Legislature’s website within one week, offered by Erdman;
• eliminating the opening prayer at the start of each day of the legislation session, offered by Hunt;
• allowing active military members to lead the Legislature in the daily Pledge of Allegiance, offered by Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell;
• increasing the number of votes required to pull a bill from committee, offered by Hunt and Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh;
• allowing senators to keep companion animals in their offices, offered by Hunt;
• requiring racial impact statements for each bill introduced, offered by Conrad; and
• banning the possession of firearms and other lethal weapons in legislative spaces by any individual except Capitol security personnel, members of the armed forces and reserves and those engaging in historical reenactments, offered by Cavanaugh.

The committee took no action on any of the proposed rule changes but is expected to file its report next week. General file debate on adoption of the permanent rules is tentatively scheduled to begin Jan. 19.

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