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Although public hearings and floor debate dominate the media coverage of the legislative process, what happens in the committee setting ultimately dictates the direction of bills introduced at the beginning of the legislative session. In Nebraska’s unicameral system, committees, and especially committee chairs, are allowed a level of discretion and control over bills unlike any other legislative body. Every bill introduced is required to have a public hearing. However, that is where equal treatment of a piece of legislation ends. The scheduling of the bills for hearing, the consideration of a bill by the committee in executive session for advancement, and the development of any committee amendments to a bill are all controlled by each individual committee chair.
When during the session a public hearing is scheduled can have a significant impact on the fate of a bill. If a bill does not receive a priority designation, it is highly unlikely it will be debated by the full legislature. Each senator gets to designate one bill as a priority, and each committee can designate two. The Speaker gets to select 25 bills as Speaker Priorities. The deadline for selection of priority bills was last week. Bills with hearings scheduled after the priority selection deadline are not likely to be selected as priorities or make it to the floor for debate.
Additionally, bills are scheduled for floor debate only when advanced. The earlier a bill has a public hearing, the earlier it can be advanced from committee to General File for full debate. The latter half of the session, as we are in now, becomes packed with many of the more complex and controversial bills that have been given a priority designation. Later bills are unlikely to be discussed even if advanced to General File.
Even if a bill has significant support by senators in the Legislature, it still must have the support of a majority of the members of a committee to be advanced to the floor. Determining committee membership is a complex process. Assigned by the Committee on Committees at the start of a new legislative session, committee membership is balanced among congressional districts. Determining which senators sit on a committee is a complex matrix that considers ranking of the members of a particular congressional district caucus, seniority, the caucus of the committee’s chair, and previous service on a committee.
Additionally, not all committees have an odd number of members. Revenue, education, and judiciary, for example, have only 8 members. It is not uncommon for a bill to be deadlocked in a committee on a 4-4 vote, even if it has substantial support in the broader Legislature. If members of the Legislature want to debate a bill that has not been advanced by a committee, it requires a “pull motion” supported by a majority of the senators to advance it to General File. Last year the first pull motion was used during my tenure in office.
In order for a bill to be considered for advancement from a committee, the chair must consider the bill in an executive session. Committee chairs are given wide latitude to determine how their committee will operate, with some controlling which bills may even be considered during an executive session. Simply put, if a committee chair opposes a bill, they are within their authority under the current rules to never act upon it following the public hearing.
Given the nature of the committee process, a senator has the greatest influence on policy areas of the committees on which they serve. As a member of the Appropriations Committee over the past four years, I have spent a significant portion of my time working on the state budget. Appropriations is the only committee that meets every day of the week, and thus is the only standing committee on which I can serve. The other 40 senators serve on 2 or 3 different committees in different subject areas.
With less than half of the session remaining, the Nebraska Legislature will conclude bill hearings and move to full days of floor debate on February 28. If you would like to see which bills will be the focus of debate for the remainder of the session, you can access the list of priority bills on the homepage of the Nebraska Legislature’s website. You can also access the agenda for each day and link to live coverage provided by NET.