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All Day Public Hearings
We are in unprecedented times with the Covid-19 pandemic. Families, businesses, and governments are making decisions daily as to how they respond, balancing essential functions and safety of the public. The Legislature is not immune from these decisions. As Speaker, a significant priority is avoiding a suspension of session. Keeping our session intact is both good for the body and for the citizens of Nebraska who expect their Legislature to continue to do their work during this time. While a suspension may become unavoidable at some point, I believe there are measures we can take to lessen the likelihood of that occurring, and advanced planning will maximize our chances at continuing with the session uninterrupted.
To that end, I have decided to structure the session to accommodate all-day committee hearings beginning on January 25th, with morning hearings beginning at 9:30 a.m. and afternoon hearings beginning at 1:30 p.m.
Gathering in large groups, as we would in floor debate, creates one of the most direct ways in which an exposure and/or self-quarantine of significant numbers of senators could occur and cause a suspension of session. This schedule will lessen the amount of time we are gathering on the floor as a large group during January and February, the projected peak time for the virus. In addition, senators who need to self-quarantine during committee hearings are less likely to miss out on core legislative functions as, unlike floor debate, there are options for them to meaningfully participate in the committee process without being physically present. Last, I believe all-day hearings will make efficient use of our time during this early phase of our session.
This decision is not made lightly, and not without significant input and consideration. I have spent weeks collaborating and discussing this proposal with the Speaker’s office and the Clerk’s office, as well as the standing committee chairs, working to determine the feasibility, risks, and potential downsides of such an approach. Of serious consideration was the safety measures and public input options that we could provide to the public to have their voices heard. On balance, I believe that this is the right approach to allow us to continue our work as a co-equal branch of government and to keep us on the field during this pandemic while balancing the needs of the public and being responsible partners.
Critical to this decision is protection of the public and allowing their voices to be heard. The Nebraska Legislature takes seriously the right of the second house to participate in our unique public hearing process, and to do so in a safe manner during this pandemic.
To that end, sometime next week we will announce expanded options for citizens testifying and having their voices heard without having to sit in the committee hearing rooms all morning or afternoon. In addition, next week I will be announcing Covid protocols for public hearings that have been formulated with the input and agreement of the standing committee chairs. These two sets of measures—expanded options for input and safety precautions—will help ensure that the public function as the second house safely.
I am waiting to announce the date on which public hearings will end until after the ten days of bill introduction concludes. At that time I will know what the workload is for each committee and I will have had an opportunity to consult with the chairs of committees with the largest workloads.
The all-day public hearing structure does not mean we will not have floor debate in February. I will be working with the chairs of committees with fewer bills to arrange some mornings for scheduled floor debate.
Last, I want to acknowledge and thank the committee staff, in particular the committee clerks and legal counsels, who will help to execute these changes. We have solicited and incorporated input from committee staff, and we are here to assist you in any way that we can in this process. I personally appreciate your help in making sure that this works and that we can fulfill our constitutional functions.
Rules Debate and Schedule for Next Week
In my memo dated January 8th, I had indicated the debate of the motion to adopt permanent rules would begin on Wednesday, January 20th. I am rescheduling that debate to begin on Thursday, January 21st. The start time for Wednesday and Thursday will remain the same. We will convene at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday and at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday. On Wednesday will we will adjourn around 11:30 a.m. or when introduced bills have been processed by the Clerk’s office. On Thursday, the Chief Justice will be giving his State of the Judiciary Address followed by the rules debate. On Thursday we will recess at noon and reconvene at 1:30 p.m. to continue debate of the rules. Adjournment may be as late as 6:00 p.m. that day dependent upon our progress. If the rules debate is still pending on Friday, it will not be a check-in day as previously announced, and instead will be a full morning session to finalize our permanent rules.
While Wednesday is the last day of bill introduction, some senators have indicated to me they would like to introduce the remainder of their bills on Tuesday. The Revisor’s Office will be open on Monday and in order to guarantee the receipt of your 3-parts by Tuesday prior to adjournment you will need to order them by 5:00 p.m. on Monday. You may request your 3-part by phone or email but if your email is not acknowledged, I would recommend you phone the office for confirmation.
Revision/Clarification to the Food Policy
The Speaker’s Memo dated January 8th noted that “Food sponsored by groups or senators will not be distributed to members of the Legislature in the Chamber or to their offices.”
In response to questions regarding the direct delivery of food by sponsoring groups or individuals to senators’ offices, I am requesting no one deliver to senators’ offices unsolicited food. In other words, I am requesting no door-to-door delivery of food to a senator’s office without the senator’s or staffs’ prior knowledge and agreement to accept the food item.
On the other hand, if senators or staff are participating in a meeting, either in person or virtual, and the sponsoring group provides food for the meeting that the participants have prior knowledge of and agreement to accept, that is permissible.