Senators debate fire pensions; transgender sports bill up Friday

April 4, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Kathleen Kauth listens to debate Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Kathleen Kauth listens to debate Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature moved toward a fight over transgender students’ participation in sports, as senators worked to resolve big issues, including taxes and school funding, in the waning days of the legislative session.

As senators debated Thursday, issues like retirement pensions for firefighters took up much of the day. Meanwhile, the Education Committee advanced a proposal on transgender athletes that sets the stage for a contentious debate Friday.

The firefighters issue involves retirement benefits for firefighters in first class cities. That’s a group that excludes Omaha and Lincoln, but includes every other city with a population of at least 5,000. Sen. Lynne Walz said firefighters risk their lives for others, but often face financial difficulties when they near retirement:

In: Some firefighters in these midsize cities, after dedicating over 30 years of service, are forced to rely on Medicaid for basic health care. Others continued to work while injured…retire with minimal savings, or leave for cities and states, offering true defined benefit pensions,” Walz said.

Walz originally proposed requiring cities to offer a cash balance plan guaranteeing annual returns of at least five percent. The Retirement Systems committee proposed dropping that requirement, but way with that, but making other improvements, including increased employee and employer contributions and allowing firefighters to maintain city health coverage for two years after retiring.

Sen. Mike McDonnell, chair of the Retirement Systems Committee, said when cities switched from defined benefit to defined contribution plans 40 years ago, the state promised to help them provide pensions worth 50 percent of their wages. But he said that has not happened.

“We’re going back to 40 years from a promise, made an agreement made, and never kept, that we were part of that process. So we are responsible,” McDonnell said.

Sen. Jana Hughes opposed the committee’s proposal.

“This amendment presents a massive unfunded mandate for first class cities… we have spent days discussing the need to reduce property taxes, and that cannot happen if we continue to send unfunded mandates to other political subdivisions. The only way cities can pay for these benefits is by increasing property taxes or making cuts to current programs and services,” Hughes said.

Sen. Mike Jacobson proposed an amendment that would have dropped the two-year health insurance extension, as well as not counting the value of health insurance in salary calculations. Senators first voted 26-16 for that amendment, but after McDonnell said it would kill the bill, they then reversed that decision. They then gave Walz’ version of the the bill first-round approval, but with the understanding that negotiations will continue, and there may not be time enough to pass something this year.

Also Thursday, the Education Committee voted 5-3 to advance restrictions on transgender athletes’ ability to participate in school sports. Sen. Kathleen Kauth’s LB575 would prohibit schools from allowing students on teams or in locker rooms and bathrooms that don’t correspond to their gender at birth.

In the Education Committee meeting, Sen. Danielle Conrad opposed the bill, arguing that the Nebraska School Activities Association already has policies involving both psychological and medical testing to help schools decide what to allow. Sen. Fred Meyer supported it, saying school officials he talks to want a uniform state policy.

“My superintendents want the state to come out with a clear statement of what is allowed or not allowed in schools. And my superintendents have told me loud and clear they want boys to play boys sports and girls to play girls sports and they don't want to have to handle the issue of a biological male wanting to play in female sports. And if that's already settled by the legislature, then they don't have to worry about it,” Meyer said.

Opposing the measure, Walz said it has not been an issue for Nebraska schools. Twenty-eight members of the 49-member Legislature have signed on to support the bill. But Walz said that doesn’t reflect public sentiment.

“There's a big difference between the majority of legislators on that floor and a majority of people in Nebraska. And I strongly feel that the majority of people in Nebraska feel that there are bigger issues that we need to address this year,” she said.

Kauth said she’s glad the committee advanced her bill, and hopes for a good debate.

“My hopes are that it will not be a contentious as it was last year, that the bullying from the Left will stop and that we will have collegial discussions, that this will be something that we work on for the good of Nebraskans, for the good of all kids in Nebraska because this bill is about protecting the dignity and privacy of all kids and protecting girls’ sports,” she said.

But Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh accused Kauth of wanting to drive transgender people from the state or prevent them from living as their authentic selves. Cavanaugh led a nearly session-long filibuster last year trying to derail another Kauth bill that eventually passed, restricting healthcare treatments for transgender youth. In a floor speech Thursday, she initially promised to resume those delaying tactics.

“I wanted this session to go better than last year (but) I refuse -- categorically, across the board, no question about it -- I refuse to let this happen without a cost. And that cost is time,” Cavanaugh said.

However, later in the afternoon, she said her brother, Sen. John Cavanaugh, had convinced her to withdraw her threat to filibuster the rest of the session. She indicated she would continue to filibuster against LB575, however.

Speaker John Arch said debate on LB575 would begin no later than noon on Friday. He said he would allow four hours of debate before a cloture motion could be filed to cut off debate and vote on the bill.

Arch also said he would schedule debate on another controversial measure, Sen Lou Ann Linehan’s LB1402, setting aside $25 million for scholarships to private and religious schools, for Tuesday.

After Thursday, only five business days remain scheduled for this legislative session, with lawmakers still facing major decisions on taxes and school finance.