2020 Legislature Begins With Proposals Ranging From Abortion and Terrorism to Housing

Jan. 8, 2020, 5:22 p.m. ·

Heads bow as Sen. Matt Williams, left, leads a prayer in the Nebraska Legislature(Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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With prayer, pageantry, and a number of new proposals, the Nebraska Legislature began its 2020 session Wednesday.

As state senators gathered for their first full meeting of the year, Sen. Matt Williams said the most common question was ‘Are you ready?’ In an opening prayer, Williams asked for help from the Lord, and invoked the words of Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, the musician also known as Sting. “Help each of us to be ready. Ready to work for the common good. Ready to work for the universal good. Ready to work for your true good. Guide us Lord, with every move we make, and strengthen us with every breath we take,” Williams said.

Next was the ceremonial presentation of the colors – the American and Nebraska flags – by the Nebraska State Patrol headquarters troop honor guard.

Then the 49 senators got down to the business of introducing new bills for consideration this year. One proposal, LB814, introduced by Sen. Suzanne Geist and cosponsored by 20 others, would outlaw a procedure used for most abortions after the first trimester of pregnancy – something supporters of the bill call “dismemberment abortion.”

“Regardless of our individual opinions on the issue of abortion, I think we can all agree that no living human being should be torn apart limb by limb,” Geist said in a Capitol rotunda news conference .

According to the University of Michigan Health System, a procedure known as dilation and extraction used for abortions in the second trimester of pregnancy involves dilating the cervix, applying suction and then using forceps to remove larger pieces of tissue.

Courts have ruled against similar bans on the procedure in at least half a dozen states, but in a couple of others, they’ve gone into effect. Geist said she isn’t worried about the prospect that the law could be blocked.

“My job is to legislate, not to worry about what the courts are going to do,” she said.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case on a similar Alabama law that’s been blocked. But Marion Miner, a lawyer with the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said that’s often the case until two federal circuits have ruled differently, and Nebraska could provoke such a test case.

Planned Parenthood immediately denounced the proposal, with Nebraska Executive director Andi Curry Grubb saying in a news release, “LB 814 is not based on a desire to improve women’s health, but rather aims to eliminate access to abortion as part of a larger anti-abortion strategy to ban abortion method by method.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists calls such bans “legislative interference at its worst: doctors will be forced, by ill-advised, unscientifically motivated policy, to provide lesser care to patients.”

Another bill, LB749 introduced Wednesday would create a state anti-terrorism law. Its sponsor, Sen. Carol Blood, says she wants to enhance penalties for activities that are already crimes, depending on intent.

“Is it more than just shooting somebody and killing them, which of course is a crime in Nebraska, or did you train for a year with a neo-Nazi group and decide who was going to be your target and how long did you practice to make sure that you killed everybody at that target?” Blood asked.

Blood said her proposal would rely on a listing of domestic terrorist groups maintained by the FBI. And she said she was trying to protect free speech.

“People are still legally able, based on the Constitution, to share who they hate and why they hate them. And that’s not what I’m trying to stop, because they do have their constitutional right to hate whomever they like,” she said, adding that her bill would apply “when they act on it.”

There were also several proposals trying to deal with a shortage of housing. Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln has a bill to prohibit cities from zoning areas exclusively for single-family housing.

“Time and time again we hear that we don’t have enough workforce housing. We don’t have enough affordable housing. And part of that is there’s just huge sections of all of our cities where you can’t build anything but a single-family home, which nowadays prices out a lot of people,” Hansen said.

And Sen. Williams, who’s from Gothenburg, wants to allocate $10 million from the state to match local grants to subsidize rural workforce housing. Williams described the kind of houses he’s trying to promote.

“They’re middle income housing, they’re not low income housing. And to build a $200,000 to 250,000 house today, that’s not an extravagant home at all. That’s a home that the new teacher that’s moving to your community, the nurse that’s moving to your community, those kind of things,” he said.

Another measure introduced Wednesday would impose sales tax on pop, candy and bottled water. And there’s a proposal to block Gov. Pete Ricketts plan to require people who are eligible for expanded Medicaid to be working, going to school, or caring for a relative in order to qualify for certain benefits like vision and dental coverage.

Bill introductions will continue for the next nine legislative days.