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Interim Comes to a Close, Preparations for the 2017 Session Begin
The 105th Legislature convenes on January 4, 2017. This begins the first session of a two year legislative cycle, or biennium. Each biennium contains a long session (90 days) and a short session (60 days). The oath of office will be taken by 17 new senators elected in November, along with the eight senators re-elected for a second term, including me.
The first day of session will shape the committee structure for the next two years. The Legislature first elects permanent officers such as Clerk of the Legislature and Chief Sergeant-at-Arms. Next the body votes for its leadership, beginning with Speaker of the Legislature. The Speaker sets the daily agenda and can designate up to 25 bills as Speaker priority bills. These 25 bills, along with committee and senator priority bills, receive preference over other bills for floor debate during the second half of the session. Three of my bills, LB 368 (2013), LB 719 (2014), and LB 540 (2015), received Speaker priority designations in previous years.
Following the election of Speaker, the Legislature elects chairpeople for its fourteen Standing Committees and the Executive Board by secret ballot. This unique method of electing leadership and committee chairs plays an important role in maintaining the integrity of our nonpartisan Unicameral system. In Washington DC and other states, the majority party determines who serves in leadership and as committee chairs. Unfortunately this leads, in many cases, to chairs being selected based on the amount of money that they raise for their political parties or on their favor with party leaders instead of whether they have the skills and experience for the position. In Nebraska we have a strong tradition of selecting chairs of both parties, based on who has the experience and expertise to run our committees well. I currently serve as Chair of the Urban Affairs Committee, and am seeking re-election to this position. If re-elected, I hope to continue working with municipalities across the state, including, of course, Bellevue, to ensure that state policies empower local communities to thrive.
Because of our unique nonpartisan structure, our committee assignments also do not work like Congress or any other state. In Congress and all other states, party caucuses determine who sits on each committee. In Nebraska, we designate a nonpartisan Committee on Committees to determine each senator’s committee membership. The Committee on Committees meets after the election of standing committee chairs to select the remaining membership of each committee.
2017 Bill Introduction
Bills are introduced during the first ten days of session. This year, due to the election of leadership and other agenda items on the first day of session, bill introduction will begin on Day 2 (January 5th). Each of those bills will receive a public hearing in the relevant committee; those hearings will take place in the second half of January, throughout February, and sometimes into March. The official legislative calendar, which lists the daily agenda, hearing schedules, and other information, can be found here.
Our office has been hard at work on several bills to introduce in the first 10 days. Several of the bills come from concerns raised from constituents and from issues facing Bellevue and Sarpy County. Some of the bills are necessary updates to existing programs and laws. My responsibilities on the Behavioral and Mental Health Task Force over the interim includes work on a few bills related to the recommendations of that report. Our weekly updates will discuss these bills as they are introduced and discussed in the Legislature.
One bill that I will introduce has already received press attention. This bill will provide additional transparency and accountability in campaign spending. It closes a loophole that allows outside groups to purchase ads that clearly target a candidate during a campaign without disclosure. The bill would require groups to report spending for “electioneering communications” that exceed $250, with electioneering communications being defined as communications that refer to a candidate and are distributed to his/her electorate 30 days or less before the election. Currently, these electioneering communications (sometimes referred to as “issue ads”) are not required to be reported because they do not explicitly mention that the individual featured in the ad is a candidate or direct voters to vote for or against the individual. The bill would provide protections for issue education efforts such as voter guides, communications to group members, and discussions of pending legislation. The bill does not restrict what outside groups can spend or say during a campaign, but it provides important transparency and accountability protections for elections in our state.
State Auditor Releases Report on TIF Projects
Earlier this month, State Auditor Charlie Janssen issued a report on a handful of tax-increment financing (TIF) projects by Nebraska municipalities that were audited by his office. While I am pleased that these audits did not find any instances of expenditures that were not allowable, the report did identify some vulnerabilities in current statutes and processes. After reviewing the report, it appears that these vulnerabilities can be addressed with changes that can improve local oversight for these TIF projects. Our office had already been engaged in discussions with municipalities, counties, and school officials about common sense improvements to TIF over the interim as part of the LR 439 interim study. My office has been developing a package of reforms to the TIF statutes that will provide for greater local oversight and record-keeping, increased transparency, and improved communication between municipalities and other political subdivisions. This bill addresses issues raised in our interim study conversations and the Auditor’s report. TIF is the most important economic development tool available to municipalities in Nebraska, and ensuring that it works well in our communities is an important responsibility of the Urban Affairs committee and the Legislature.
National Guard Celebrates 380th Birthday
The National Guard celebrated its 380th birthday on December 13th, and I was honored to join Governor Ricketts, Major General Daryl Bohac, and members of the Nebraska National Guard for a ceremony at the Capitol. During that ceremony we were also treated to a performance by the 43rd Army Band, which does an excellent job representing the Nebraska National Guard throughout the state. The ceremony was a chance to honor and remember all the men and women who have served since even before this country’s founding, and to thank those currently serving for their commitment and dedication.
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I look forward to all that we can do together to support and strengthen our families and communities in 2017. Best wishes for a Happy New Year!
All the best,