Cash for needy families, broccoli and hostas discussed

April 17, 2023, midnight ·

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

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On the surface, it was a day of discussing broccoli, hostas, and temporary assistance to needy families. Meanwhile, work in the Nebraska Legislature continued on subjects ranging from archival videos to superintendents salaries.

As senators embarked on the 63rd day of their 90-day session, there was a continuing disconnect between what was being discussed and what was on the agenda. That agenda included an omnibus health bill, to reimburse hospitals for patients who can’t be discharged because nursing homes are closing, and to increase the amount of money nursing home patients are allowed to keep for personal expenses.

But meanwhile, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh continued her tactic of stretching out debate on nearly every bill, in protest over a proposal that would bar surgery, hormone treatments and puberty blockers for transgender Nebraskans under age 19.

Cavanaugh used her time mostly to complain about the state’s Department of Health and Human Services keeping $130 million in a reserve fund, instead of using it to increase payments under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, or TANF. Cavanaugh said the department intends to use the money for other programs instead.

Programming is fine. It's not as good as food. It's not as good as housing and it's not as good as clothing. So before we do any new programming, let's take care of the basic essential needs. And let's increase TANF eligibility and access to the cash assistance for aid to dependent children,” Cavanaugh said.

Asked for comment, DHHS spokesperson Jeff Powell released a statement that said “Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) distributed $33.1 million in TANF funds to support Nebraska families in need. On average, Nebraska has consistently performed better in TANF distribution than most other states in the nation for direct cash assistance.

DHHS has held several meetings with stakeholders throughout the state including nonprofit organizations, state agencies, families, and individuals with lived experience to hear what resources they felt were most important. What was heard is that more support is needed in the areas of improved childcare services, family stability services, economic mobility services, housing, and transportation which has informed the plan that is currently being finalized.”

While Cavanaugh focused on the subject of TANF, she also touched on other topics, including her children’s aversion to broccoli.

“My middle kid complained about it for a good long while, saying that they didn't want to eat broccoli. They couldn't stand it. It was going to make them just physically ill. And when I said ‘Well, if you don't eat your broccoli, you're not getting dessert.’ All of a sudden she was in love with broccoli. It was her new best friend. She ate it all -- an entire bowl,” she said.

Senators also got to hear about Cavanaugh’s weekend, and her hosta plants.

While Cavanaugh was speaking, the Legislature reached the eight hour minimum set for debate on the health bill, and advanced it. They then turned to a bill to create a digital, online archive of legislative debate and committee hearings, while Cavanaugh continued to speak.

Meanwhile, the Education Committee, meeting under the balcony in the legislative chamber, voted 6-2 to advance a bill that would limit superintendents’ salaries to five times the salary of a starting teacher. Committee Chair Sen. Dave Murman explained the thinking behind his bill.

“I do feel teachers are underpaid, and of course we have a huge teacher shortage right now in the state. And, you know, we need to do what we can to address that. I don't think we have a superintendent shortage, by the way,” Murman said.

Murman conceded a significant obstacle to his bill, based on Gov. Jim Pillen’s argument that superintendent salaries are a matter of local control.

“The governor, of course -- it's no secret he's opposed to it. I feel that with the large increase in state funding that we're putting towards schools that the Legislature should have some say as to how that money is spent,” he said.

And he said Speaker John Arch has urged committees not to include controversial proposals in the big packages of bills they are assembling.

“I assume it probably won't go anywhere this year. But this is a biennium, so you know, it's definitely got possibilities next year, if not this year,” he said.

The same could be said for many pieces of legislation this year. But on the agenda Monday evening was a bill making various tweaks to the state’s laws on alcohol. It is at the final stage of debate, and if, as expected, it passes, that would be the first bill passed by the Legislature this year.

By contrast, at the same stage in the last 90-day session, the number of bills passed stood at 57.