Senators combining bills to get things done

April 5, 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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There’s been a lot of news this year about filibusters tying up the Nebraska Legislature. But that’s not stopping every proposal from advancing. Bills on everything from telehealth to pet insurance are moving ahead, using some creative techniques that could raise constitutional questions.

It was Tuesday night in the Nebraska Legislature – lights down low, senators talking and occasionally pushing their buttons to vote.

On the agenda was a bill, sponsored by Sen. Beau Ballard, setting standards for companies that sell pet insurance.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Fredrickson was waiting with an amendment requiring health insurance companies to pay claims for telehealth services the same as they would for in-person visits.

The Nebraska Constitution says “No bill shall contain more than one subject,” but courts have generally given wide discretion to what legislatures do. The Legislature’s own rules say different subjects should not be amended into bills.

But no one challenged the telehealth amendment Tuesday night. It was added to the pet insurance bill, which then got the second of three approvals required to pass.

Fredrickson, who made the telehealth bill his priority, liked the result.

“I think this was a really incredible show of a number of legislators coming together to make something happen that's going to have real impact in the state,” Fredrickson said.

And Ballard, sponsor of the pet insurance bill, said he was glad to work with Fredrickson.

“We’re at an interesting point in the session right now where most priorities are not going to be heard. So we have to be a little bit creative in how we get things to the floor,” Ballard said.

That wasn’t the only example of different bills being combined Tuesday night. Sen. Terrell McKinney had a bill to require schools to have written dress codes and not discriminate against people for wearing braids, hijabs, or tribal regalia, for example.

He got that amended into a bill by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan that requires Nebraska schools to keep better track of how students with dyslexia are treated.

McKinney said he saw an opportunity Tuesday night, and took it.

“It was late. I saw opportunity to potentially get it attached to the bill and just, you know, just work to get an amendment as soon as possible, and got it amended,” McKinney said.

Linehan, whose dyslexia bill was amended by McKinney’s dress code measure, said that kind of thing’s typical when the Legislature works late.

“Well, it's late night’s work. I mean, you're here till 10 o'clock at night, you’ve got people with children and spouses at home, they're getting completely ignored. And you're looking at being here every night till midnight, that's not going to work. And people are not going to do it. So you put those together that both sides, you know, liberal/progressives want, and conservatives want, and you put them together and they sail right through late at night,” Linehan said.

Speaker John Arch, who sets the legislative agenda, defended combining telehealth with pet insurance, and dress codes with dyslexia.

“You're talking about common subjects: insurance in one case, and education and schools and the other case. So the body didn't challenge that and felt that that was appropriate,” Arch said.

Even Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh and her allies didn’t object, and they’re the senators who’ve been staging filibuster after filibuster to prevent passage of a bill barring transgendner health treatments for youth under 19. Cavanaugh said she hasn’t changed her opposition to the trans youth bill, but recognizes some bills are still going to pass.

“Certainly my intention, to slow everything down to as close to a halt as possible, is what we are doing and what we have done. When it comes to things still happening, things we're always going to still happen. So when there's an opportunity to facilitate something good happening, I'm definitely going to take that opportunity and support my colleagues in their efforts to make those things happen,” Cavanaugh said.

Wednesday, senators continued to process bills slowly, giving second-round approval to expanding mental health services and creating a state Broadband office. But they still have yet to pass a single bill this year.