Senators to adjourn early; laws face legal, political challenges

May 30, 2023, midnight ·

Senator Lou Ann Linehan, chief sponsor, watches as Gov. Jim Pillen speaks about signing a tax-credit-funded scholarship law (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Senator Lou Ann Linehan, chief sponsor, watches as Gov. Jim Pillen speaks about signing a tax-credit-funded scholarship law (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature moved toward ending its 2023 session ahead of schedule Tuesday, even as several major bills it’s passed face legal or political challenges.

This year’s legislative session was originally scheduled to adjourn on Friday, June 9. But Tuesday, Speaker of the Legislature John Arch announced that this Thursday, June 1, will be the last day.

“Although I had hoped last week that Thursday could be our final day of session, I was not prepared to announce it until I had assurance from the governor that there would be no possibility of any pocket vetoes. I received that assurance this morning,” Arch said.

Unlike in the federal system, where a president can veto a bill by simply not signing it, or putting it in his pocket after Congress adjourns, in Nebraska a bill becomes law even if the governor does not sign it.

The governor can still affirmatively veto a bill, and if the Legislature has adjourned, lawmakers do not have the ability to override the veto. Arch said Gov. Jim Pillen has promised he won’t veto any pending bills too late for lawmakers to consider an override.

Pillen held a ceremonial bill signing Tuesday for LB753, the so-called Opportunity Scholarships Act. That’s a bill the Legislature passed last week that authorizes tax-credit-funded scholarships to be used to send students to private and religious schools. Pillen said the bill will help students go to a school that’s the right fit for them.

“Our kids deserve extraordinary public education. Our kids deserve extraordinary private education. Nebraska needs both. This is not about who's better or who's worse. It's about the right fit for our kids,” Pillen said.

Speaking to a crowd of bill supporters on the north steps of the Capitol, the governor referred to some of the students the bill singles out to get priority for the scholarships.

“It’s for our kids in poverty, for our kids in foster care, and our for our kids that need a different setting that are from military family. Is there any Nebraskan that can possibly be against this? No way possible. Do you all agree?” the governor asked, as the crowd applauded.

There is at least one group that is against it. The Nebraska State Education Association – the state teacher’s union – has already announced its support for a referendum campaign to repeal the law. The association argues the law will take funds away from public education, an argument Pillen and other supporters reject.

Also Tuesday, ACLU Nebraska filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn another recently-enacted law, contained in LB574. That was a bill that originally had one subject: limiting gender-affirming health care for transgender youth. But senators then amended it to also prohibit most abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy. Mindy Rush Chipman of ACLU Nebraska said that amendment violated the Nebraska Constitution’s requirement that bills contain only one subject.

“Senators combined two unrelated bans into one bill, circumventing not just norms but the state constitution itself, in a last ditch effort to take away Nebraskans rights,” Rush Chipman said.

Previous attempts to have laws overturned on the basis of the single subject requirement have not succeeded. But Rush Chipman said those cases were old, and dealt with matters such as taxes, which were different from this situation.

The lawsuit asks the Lancaster District Court to declare the law unconstitutional and seeks an injunction to prevent it from being enforced. Andi Curry Grubb of Planned Parenthood said the bill, signed into law last week, had already forced her organization to refer some patients elsewhere.

“The effects of this abortion ban have been swift. In its first week, we worked with several patients who could no longer access abortion in Nebraska, and we only expect this number to increase,” Curry Grubb said.

And Eli Rigatuso, a transgender man, said the transgender health restrictions in the law violate the rights of parents who want to support their children’s transitioning.

“There are enough parents who have been indoctrinated into religious ideology who will kick their kids out at a mere notice of them possibly being LGBTQ plus. And here you all have parents who want to support and help their children thrive, being relegated to not have any rights,” Rigatuso said.

Supporters of the law have argued the two areas it regulates are related, because both seek to permit the unaltered growth of children, born and unborn.

Meanwhile, in legislative debate Tuesday, Sen. Julie Slama spent four hours filibustering against voter ID legislation she says is not strict enough.

“I don't take filibustering lightly at all. At the end of the day, I took an oath to uphold the constitution. And our constitution requires voter ID after as of the November 2022 elections, so I'm going to follow through with my oath and with the will of the people,” Slama said.

Nebraskans voted last November to require showing a photo ID to vote, while leaving it up to lawmakers to work out the details of how to make that requirement work. A committee drafted a bill that allows exceptions to the requirement if voters can show they have a “reasonable impediment” to getting a photo ID. Slama complained that “reasonable impediment” is not defined.

But Sen. Tom Brewer, chair of the committee that advanced the bill, said it needs to pass now.

“We have had a long discussion on this. The bill does what the people have asked. And we will go to special session if we do not pass voter ID,” Brewer said.

Senators gave the bill second-round approval on a voice vote, with Slama voting ‘no.’ She said later several groups have expressed interest in a court challenge. The bill will be up for a final vote on Thursday, the last day of this year’s legislative session.