Efficiency, Education, Redistricting Discussed Amid COVID Concerns

Jan. 28, 2021, 6:16 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Legislature held hearings Thursday on subjects including government efficiency and education, amid COVID concerns at the Capitol. NET’s Bill Anderson spoke with legislative reporter Fred Knapp about what’s going on.

Anderson: The Nebraska Legislature is continuing to hold public hearings on proposals that senators will be considering this year. Here to talk to us about that is NET legislative reporter Fred Knapp. Fred, how’s that process going?

Knapp: It's very different from the usual way. There's all day hearings instead of floor debate, there's limited testimony in the hearing rooms, they clean everything between the testifiers, people are wearing masks, they can submit testimony electronically.

In the past, contentious issues have had knockdown drag out sessions that could last into the night. This year, they're over early because of the limited number of people that are wanting to testify in person. It's still contentious but the conflict is less visible.

Anderson: So what were some of the hearings held on Thursday?

Knapp: In the morning, there was a proposal by Senator Tom Briese to hire an outside firm to recommend efficiency improvements in state government. Briese said similar efforts in other states had cost $2 million to $4 million, and resulted in substantial savings.

Briese: This bill is not about reducing or eliminating government services. It's simply trying to ensure that we're operating in the most efficient way possible. I believe we have an obligation to our taxpayers, the stewards of their tax dollars to do everything possible to ensure that government run programs are run responsibly efficiently and with as little waste as possible. And with as little untapped potential as possible.

Knapp: But the bill was opposed, not only by the head of the state's largest employee union, who predicted it would lead to short sighted cuts, but also governor Pete Ricketts’ Director of Administrative Services Jason Jackson.

Jackson: While I'm sympathetic to the goals of LB213, I think it's redundant to contract with a private vendor at a higher cost to do efforts that the state already has in flight to make our operations more enduring in character. And I'm skeptical that such an effort would have the same success in imbuing the culture of our organization with the skills necessary to make this sustainable.

Anderson: So Fred, what other proposals were being heard?

Knapp: Thursday afternoon, there was a proposal to establish a scholarship program for students to attend private or religious schools. This is an annual battle between supporters who say public school’s not for everyone, and the state should establish alternatives, or let people go to alternatives with scholarship support, and public school supporters who say the bill would divert tax dollars in the form of income tax credits, away from the public schools where they're needed. Anderson: So how about one of the big issues the legislature has to deal with this year, namely redistricting. Where does that stand?

Knapp: Well they've picked who's going to be on the committee, and even though it's a nonpartisan legislature the rules say that there should be no more than five of the nine members from one party and that happens to be the Republicans who have a majority in the Legislature and a five to four majority on the committee. And there are big things at stake. There's the Second (Congressional) District boundaries -- that's the Omaha area which not only always has a closely contested congressional election but it also there's a presidential electoral college vote there at stake. There are probably going to be two legislative seats that shift from the rural west to the urban east. But the Census says the results may be delayed ‘til the end of July. So that could mean either a special session, or a suspended end to this session, and then they come back like they did last year and continue after the results come in.

Anderson: Okay I'm curious how's the pandemic affecting committee work?

Knapp: Members of one entire committee, the Appropriations Committee, are supposedly quarantining until next week after being exposed to a staff member who had it. But two members have still been participating, Senator Tony Vargas said he tested negative he constantly wears a mask and he felt he had to participate in selecting the redistricting committee. Senator Steve Erdmann generally doesn't wear a mask, but he said that he's had COVID, and he's recovered so he doesn't have to quarantine. Meanwhile, the Committee Chairman Senator John Stinner says the committee is working via Zoom, so they don't have to go to what he nicknamed the “COVID Castle” at the Capitol, and the preliminary budget will come out in the near future.

Anderson: So what's coming up next?

Knapp: Next week there are going to be hearings on everything from legalizing sports betting, which some people argue is already legal as a result of the initiative passed last fall, to requiring civilian police oversight boards in Lincoln and Omaha. There's a proposal for year-round daylight savings time, and even giving villages of 500 people or more the ability to lower speed limits on state highways that pass through them, if there are hazardous conditions.