Mental health services discussed; trans health fallout continues

March 24, 2023, midnight ·

Senator Anna Wishart in debate Friday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot))
Senator Anna Wishart in debate Friday (Nebraska Public Media screenshot)

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The Nebraska Legislature tried to move forward with its business Friday, considering a bill that would expand mental health services. But fallout from this week’s bruising debate over medical treatments for transgender youth made for slow going.

Sen. Anna Wishart is the sponsor of LB276, a bill to expand mental health services and coordinate them with agencies including schools, hospitals, and law enforcement. Wishart said the proposal will lead to better outcomes when officials interact with people in a mental health crisis.

“This offers law enforcement the opportunity to collaborate with these crisis, 24-hour mobile clinics and get that person the care that they need, so that they're not going into an emergency room and taking up another hospital bed, so that they're not going in to our county jail system,” Wishart said.

The proposal would cost the state up to $4.5 million a year and generate additional federal funds as well. Sen. Rob Clements, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said that would fit within the proposed state budget. Sen. Mike Moser supported the proposal.

“We have money in this fund, and even if we didn't, this is critically important,” Moser said.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh also expressed support. But she vowed to stick to her promise to filibuster every bill, following Thursday’s vote that advanced a ban on medical treatments to help those under age 19 transition to a different gender.

“I appreciate the work that Senator Wishart has put into this bill, and I think that it is a good piece of legislation. That, however, does not change the fact that this will be going eight hours and requiring 33 votes for cloture as well everything on the agenda from this moment forward,” Cavanaugh said.

Cavanaugh went on to discuss another example of legislation she opposes, Sen. Dave Murman’s proposal to prohibit those under 19 from attending drag shows. She said that kind of legislation encouraged a bomb threat last weekend to Urban Abbey, an Omaha church where she had taken her children to a drag story hour. That prompted Murman to ask Cavanaugh about threats late last year to members of the University of Nebraska -Omaha’s Newman Center over their opposition to abortion.

“Senator Cavanagh, do you feel that I am responsible for this threat that was made to Urban Abbey?” Murman asked.

“Yes, I do. Yes,” Cavanaugh replied.

“Okay. If I'm responsible for this threat, do you feel that you are responsible for threats?” (to Newman Center members) Murman asked.

“I didn’t introduce legislation to perpetuate hate in our communities. So no,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Jen Day said it was ironic that the Legislature was discussing mental health legislation one day after advancing legislation she said threatens the mental health of trans people.

“We saw people coming out of the balcony sobbing, in tears, because they're genuinely afraid of the consequences of that bill being moved to Select File yesterday. And yet today, the very next thing we're doing is playing Kumbaya about how we all care about mental health. I don't get it,” Day said.

Sen. Terrell McKinney, who voted against restrictions on transgender care Thursday, nevertheless expressed frustration that constant filibustering could derail legislation he supports, like criminal justice reforms. McKinney used his experience as a wrestling coach to draw an analogy.

“I'm not up here trying to minimize what happened yesterday, because what happened yesterday is also frustrating, too. This shouldn't have happened. But just like I would tell one of my wrestlers when they lose a match, you’ve got to wake up tomorrow and be ready, and you’ve got to live to fight another day and you have to figure it out. You can't necessarily be stuck in the moment. We have to get things done,” McKinney said.

Wishart, sponsor of the mental health bill, expressed no opinion about the filibuster. She said she’s confident she has enough support to get her legislation passed.

But Sen. Steve Erdman, chair of the Rules Committee, proposed suspending the rules to limit delaying tactics that have been used by opponents of the transgender bill. Speaker of the Legislature John Arch urged his colleagues to consider making those changes.

“We're running out of time. I believe we need to consider some changes that will make the remainder of this session more efficient in the flow of the bills, without stopping serious debate on the bills. That's the challenge before us: how to balance those two priorities,” Arch said.

The Legislature has now completed 50 of the 90 business days scheduled for this session, without passing a single bill. At this same point in the last 90-day session, 15 bills had been passed and signed by the governor.

Senators are now beginning a three-day weekend. When they come back Tuesday, Arch says they’ll debate the rules suspension, then resume debate on the mental health bill.