Government Military and Veterans Affairs

Government reform bill amended, advanced

An omnibus measure aimed at furthering open government and transparency was amended March 4 to include an additional bill and advanced to the final round of debate.

Sen. Rita Sanders
Sen. Rita Sanders

LB43, sponsored by Bellevue Sen. Rita Sanders, would direct hearing officers and judges not to rely on a state agency’s interpretation of state laws or regulations in contested cases under the Administrative Procedures Act.

The bill was amended during the first round of debate to include provisions of five additional proposals that address the state’s Administrative Procedures Act and Public Records Act, including LB366, sponsored by Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln. Provisions of that measure seek to improve the process for fulfilling public information requests.

Currently, Nebraska residents may be charged for time spent fulfilling a public records request beyond the first four hours. Conrad’s proposal would change that threshold to eight hours and allow nonresidents to be charged the full cost of fulfilling a request.

In addition, it would require that any claim made by an agency that a request requires more than four days to fulfill be “attested to under oath” before being provided in writing to the requester.

Gordon Sen. Tom Brewer offered an amendment during select file debate, adopted 41-0, to remove the attestation requirement. Brewer said the provision would have required county clerks in rural areas to drive long distances to have an attestation notarized.

The Brewer amendment — which he said was the result of many hours of negotiations with stakeholders, including the state attorney general’s office and the governor — also would make a number of technical changes and add the provisions of LB637, sponsored by Thurston Sen. Joni Albrecht.

Those provisions would require a public body to allow members of the public an opportunity to speak at every meeting except for closed sessions related to personnel matters, investigations regarding allegations of criminal conduct or other purposes already exempted under state law.

Albrecht said it’s important for local elected officials to make the time to listen to their constituents and for residents to know that they have the opportunity to make their voices heard. She said many government agencies currently don’t put a public comment item on their agenda for every meeting, despite state law requiring that constituents have that opportunity.

Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln supported the inclusion of the provisions of Albrecht’s bill and the rest of the amendment, although she said she would have preferred not to have “weakened” the underlying LB43.

“We have a proud and strong tradition of open government in Nebraska,” Conrad said. “Citizens have a right to know what government is doing in their name and with their money.”

Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus questioned the wisdom of the Albrecht provision, saying the inclusion of a broad public comment period at every public meeting would mean hours of testimony — possibly on topics not at all related to items on the agenda for that particular meeting.

“I think people should have the right to speak to their … elected representatives when they’re spending money, but I don’t know that every meeting that they have would necessarily have to have time for open comment,” Moser said.

Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh supported the portion of the amendment related to Albrecht’s proposal, but expressed concern about some of the other provisions. He offered an amendment to remove a technical section of the bill that he said was unnecessary, which was rejected on a vote of 12-30.

As amended on general file, LB43 also includes provisions of the following bills:
• LB41, sponsored by Sen. Ben. Hansen of Blair, which would prohibit the state from placing “intrusive or politically motivated” filing or reporting requirements on charitable organizations beyond those required by state law unless narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest or to fulfill federal funding requirements;
• LB277, sponsored by Brewer, which would create a more restrictive standard for imposing a “substantial burden” on a person’s right to the exercise of religion and authorize indigenous tribal members who are students in approved or accredited public schools to wear tribal regalia at any school facility or function, unless doing so would prevent school purposes or interfere with the educational process;
• LB297, sponsored by Sanders, which would prohibit state and local government agencies from compelling a nonprofit organization to release the personal information of its members, supporters, volunteers or donors; and
• LB650, introduced by Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell, which would amend public records law to permit the state or any political subdivision to withhold records relating to the “nature, location or function of cybersecurity.”

Following adoption of the Brewer amendment, senators advanced LB307 to final reading by voice vote.

Bookmark and Share