Proposed legislative rule changes considered

The Rules Committee heard testimony Jan. 8 on nearly three dozen proposed changes to the Legislature’s permanent rules.

The 34 proposals offered a variety of changes aimed at streamlining floor debate and other legislative processes, and included a proposed requirement that votes to elect chairpersons of the 14 standing committees be done by roll-call vote.

Those votes currently are cast by secret ballot.

The 2023 legislative session saw extended debate on almost every measure introduced in an effort to prevent consideration of proposals that restricted gender affirming care for transgender youth and tightened abortion restrictions. La Vista Sen. John Arch, Speaker of the Legislature, said he began looking for ways to avoid repeating that situation as soon as the session ended last June.

Floor debate

The major proposed rule changes heard by the committee relating to floor debate came in two packages: one offered by Arch and another by Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, chairperson of the Rules Committee.

Under the current permanent rules of the Legislature, senators who oppose a bill, amendment or motion under consideration have a number of tools at their disposal to extend debate. Both rules package proposals would rewrite the current rule regarding motions and amendments filed for “dilatory” purposes — those intended solely as delaying tactics.

Under Arch’s version, if the primary introducer of a pending bill, resolution or motion believes it to be the subject of dilatory action, he or she may offer a motion for a dilatory designation. A motion to approve a dilatory designation would require four-fifths of elected members — or 40 votes — for approval and would not be debatable, amendable or divisible.

Under an approved dilatory motion, any further amendments and motions, except for a motion to invoke cloture, would be out of order unless designated as in order by direction of the Speaker of the Legislature.

A bill or motion would carry a dilatory designation for the remainder of the stage of debate during which the designation was assigned. Subsequent stages of consideration would require an additional designation.

Erdman’s package also offered a change to that section of the rules, but with a slightly different process. The Speaker of the Legislature or the principal introducer could seek to have motions declared dilatory, which would be subject to a majority vote of the members present.

Erdman also offered a change that would allow the presiding officer or a senator to “call another member to order for non-germane speech,” or speech that does not specifically address the question under consideration or the general topic at hand.

Under the proposal, if a member is called to order for non-germane speech, the presiding officer would issue them a warning. If the member being called to order is found against but persists, the member would be liable to censure or “such punishment as the Legislature may deem proper.”

Another component of Erdman’s package of proposals would address how the required number of votes for cloture — a motion that ceases debate and forces a vote on a bill — is calculated. Currently, a cloture motion requires approval by a two-thirds majority of the 49 members of the Legislature, or 33 votes. The proposed change instead would require a two-thirds vote of the members present who are voting yes or no, with at least 25 affirmative votes.

The change would mean that members who are present in the legislative chamber but do not cast a yes or no vote would not be included in the calculus for reaching the required two-thirds majority.

Heidi Uhing, public policy director at Civic Nebraska, testified in opposition to the proposal. She encouraged senators to respect the rules that have been in place for decades and said changing how the two-thirds majority is calculated could have unintended consequences.

“The number of rural senators is likely to further decrease as [the] population shifts east in our state,” Uhing said, “so lowering the threshold for the filibuster will put rural interests at a greater disadvantage today and even more so in the future.”

Other proposals

Among the other measures offered by Erdman was a proposed public roll-call vote for leadership elections within the Legislature and the closing of committee executive sessions to the press.

Currently media members are allowed in sit in on executive sessions and report on the proceedings. Erdman suggested that media coverage of executive sessions is done from the reporter’s perspective and that their presence inhibits discussion of important issues out of members’ fear that their comments will be taken out of context.

Nancy Finken, chief content officer at Nebraska Public Media, testified in opposition to the proposal on behalf of Media of Nebraska. She said access to executive sessions gives the media important background and context needed for their reporting.

Responsible journalists do not take advantage of the access they are granted, she said, and attempting to remove that access gives the public the impression that the work taking place behind closed doors is “not above board.”

“Secrecy helps no one,” Finken said. “It doesn’t help this body and it doesn’t help the people that you serve.”

Among the other proposed rule changes offered at the hearing were proposals to:
• eliminate a requirement that not more than five members appointed to the Redistricting Committee be affiliated with the same political party, offered by Erdman;
• require that statements of intent on bills be submitted to the appropriate committee chairperson at least five calendar days prior to the bill’s public hearing, offered by Arch;
• limit to 14 the number of bills that an individual member could introduce in a single legislative session and allow an additional priority designation for members who introduce five or fewer bills, offered by Blair Sen. Ben Hansen; and
• require a vote for or against the final passage of a bill from all members present when a vote is taken, offered by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposals. Debate on any changes forwarded to the floor by the committee is expected to begin Jan. 11. An affirmative vote of 30 members is needed to approve a change to the permanent rules.

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