2023 Legislature made big changes to economic, social policies

June 5, 2023, 7 a.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature concluded its 2023 session last week, bringing big changes to the state’s social and economic policies. Here’s a look at what senators did this year.

Standing in the front of the ornate legislative chamber in Nebraska’s state capitol last week, Republican Gov. Jim Pillen thanked lawmakers for their work.

“I'm incredibly honored to be here with you in this unbelievable chamber to mark the conclusion of the one of most impactful sessions in this body's history,” Pillen said.

Senators entered the session with a record budget surplus, fueled by a strong economy and federal stimulus spending during the pandemic. Sen. John Arch, Republican speaker of the officially nonpartisan Unicameral, said the Legislature handled it well.

“I think the session was historic… The big issue that we that we had going into this session was what do you do with the excess cash? We had billions of dollars that we had to decide what is the best for the state of Nebraska. And that was decided with tax cuts -- income and property tax -- it was decided with investment in education with a billion dollar fund set up for public education. And it was investments in communities,” Arch said.

Aside from those decisions, the list of significant legislation senators passed is a long one.

It includes tax credit-funded scholarships to private and religious schools, and authorization to float bonds for highway construction.

Senators approved allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit, and to ride motorcycles without wearing a helmet.

They authorized building a new prison, and set aside money for a canal to bring water from the South Platte River in Colorado to Nebraska.

And they passed a bill that both prohibits most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, and limits gender-affirming health care for transgender youth.

Those health care issues produced some of the most bitter fights of the session. Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, one of the outnumbered Democrats in the body, described the experience as “Unpleasant. Very, very unpleasant.”

Cavanaugh led the fight against the transgender health care restrictions. Her tactic was to dragging out debate on nearly every other bill, in an attempt to pressure senators into dropping their support for the transgender health care restrictions. She said she had mixed feelings on whether the tactic was worthwhile.

“Yes and no. It wasn’t worthwhile in that it wasn’t successful. But it was worthwhile in that it showed the community that’s been targeted that they are worth fighting for, and that there are people – not just myself, but others – that are willing to stand up and fight for them and fight for their rights to exist,” she said.

Sen. Kathleen Kauth, Republican sponsor of the transgender health restrictions, suggested shortly before the session ended that opponents’ filibuster tactics had backfired.

“When you saw the filibustering going on, please know on the sides, everywhere, were conversations with all the other senators. We have been working on issues, not just this one, but every issue that we are going to get passed this year. We have been ignoring the filibuster and doing our work. And I think that’s important for everyone to remember,” Kauth said.

The delaying tactics did reduce the number of bills that passed. But those that made it through were sometimes combinations of 20 or 30 bills. Arch said in the end, the contents of 291 bills passed, compared to 281 in the last 90-day session two years ago.

And he said navigating through the filibusters required balancing competing questions.

“How can we get our work done? And at the same time, not stop dissent, not stop (the) minority voice? I think we largely accomplished that. Democracy and (the) representative form of government is messy. It is it is a messy process. And we certainly proved that. But in spite of it all, we got our work done,” he said.

Not everyone approved of that work. The day senators passed the restrictions on abortion and transgender health care, opponents packed the Capitol rotunda and denounced the vote, chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Sen. Danielle Conrad, a Democrat on the losing side of the fight over that bill, says the battle, on that and other issues, is not over.

“There's rarely a last word in politics. Our system has a variety of components in terms of an elegant design to ensure that there's pivot points and other opportunities for checks and balances when the Legislature gets it wrong,” Conrad said.

Already, Planned Parenthood has a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the restrictions on abortion and gender-affirming care. And an attempt is underway to repeal the tax credit-funded scholarship law via a referendum.

How those efforts progress, and what effects other laws passed this year will have, should be clearer by the time the Legislature reconvenes in January.