Nebraska lawmakers propose disability, racial impact statements for certain legislation

By: - January 27, 2023 6:26 pm
Carol Blood with long blonde hair and a grey suit testifies on the left while Terrell McKinney in a gray North Omaha shirt testifies before the Legislature's Executive Board.

State Sens. Carol Blood and Terrell McKinney have proposed legislation that would help lawmakers better understand the impacts of legislative bills on people with disabilities and racial minority populations. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Most legislation in the Nebraska Legislature includes a fiscal impact statement, a process two lawmakers encouraged the body’s Executive Board on Friday to expand to disability and racial impact statements for certain legislation.

Legislative Bill 39 and Legislative Bill 54, introduced by State Sens. Carol Blood of Bellevue and Terrell McKinney of Omaha, respectively, would provide the Executive Board with the authority to ask for disability or racial impact statements. The Legislative Research Office would prepare these statements.

McKinney and Blood said including these impact statements would help legislators understand often unanticipated consequences of legislation. This, McKinney added, could alleviate or eliminate potential harm and advance Nebraska’s value of “Equality Before the Law.”

“We must ensure that we pass legislation with all Nebraskans in mind,” McKinney said.

‘No consideration’

More than a dozen supporters told the Executive Board on Friday they endorsed Blood’s legislation for providing a simple tool to bring Nebraskans with disabilities into policy conversations.

Kathy Hoell wears a flannel blanket around her shoulders reading her prepared testimony before the Legislature's Executive Board. In her hands she holds a yellow folder that contains her testimony.
Kathy Hoell of Papillion testifies in support of legislation to provide disability impact statements for certain bills. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Kathy Hoell of Papillion said lawmakers may pass legislation with “little or no consideration” of people with disabilities, even though they live in every county in the state and are one of the largest minority groups in the country.

“Our community is very frustrated with able-bodied people making decisions with no consideration of the repercussions,” Hoell said.

Edison McDonald, representing The Arc of Nebraska, and Brad Meurrens, public policy director at Disability Rights Nebraska, said people may not be aware of small obstacles that people with disabilities must overcome. 

McDonald noted the mobility needed to twist door handles or how a small wage increase may change Medicaid coverage. Meurrens said people with disabilities face higher poverty rate, fewer employment opportunities and more difficult transportation challenges than people without disabilities.

‘Cannot shy away’

Another dozen supporters endorsed McKinney’s legislation, which he said he would like to see applied to all legislation, though his proposal would focus on bills that, if passed, may have a disparate impact on racial minority populations and relate to the criminal or juvenile justice systems, prisons, jails, probation or parole.

Nine states — Colorado, Iowa, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon and Virginia — have racial impact statements already, McKinney said.

“We cannot shy away from the conversation because it’s deemed uncomfortable,” McKinney said. “What should be uncomfortable is that we champion our state as the good life state, but we have in the past and currently continue to push forward legislation that will have negative effects on minority populations in our state.”

‘Valued members of Nebraska’

Deanna Henke of Lincoln told the board that people with disabilities make up one-quarter of the country’s population, so state senators who ignore these impacts would be “alienating” a large part of their constituents.

“We’re not asking for special rights,” Henke said. “We’re only asking to be seen, heard and treated as valued members of Nebraska.”

McDonald said Nebraska has been a leader in the “disability arena” before and can embrace the legal, ethical and moral reasons to do so again.

“We have an opportunity to be a leader with really a very small process to get us to that place,” Blood said, echoing McDonald. “And then we can start addressing all Nebraskans.”

‘Healing racial wounds’

Jasmine Harris, director of public policy and advocacy at RISE in Omaha, said conversations can sometimes shift to what’s happening on the coasts, but she noted that neighboring states also have racial impact statements.

Jasmine Harris wears a black shirt with her hair in a bun, sitting at a desk to testify before the Legislature's Executive Board.
Jasmine Harris, director of public policy and advocacy at RISE in Omaha, testifies in support of legislation to provide for racial impact statements on certain legislation. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“It is imperative that we begin to look at how people of color are impacted by the legislation in Nebraska, specifically aligned with criminal and juvenile justice systems,” Harris said.

Legislative bills may be written to be racially neutral, said Rose Godinez, senior legal and policy counsel for the ACLU of Nebraska, but she added they can still perpetuate racial disparities.

Che Orduna, program director for Heartland Family Service, said senators are elected to maintain “high ethical stands,” which she said must include “denouncing any bill that supports the perpetuation of racism.”

“By passing LB 54, we would make a monumental impact on healing racial wounds through our state,” Orduna said.

Coming to the table

Benjamin Thompson, director of the Legislative Research Office, said there may be increased costs associated with the impact statements, though he and his staff “would be happy” to provide assistance as is requested of them.

Benjamin Thompson in a blue button up and tan suit testifies before the Legislature's Executive Board.
Benjamin Thompson, director of the Legislative Research Office, testifies neutral on two legislative bills that would provide for disability and racial impact statements. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Doing so, Thompson added, could ensure there are no unintended or at least anticipated obstacles.

No one testified against either bill on Friday, but five statements were submitted opposing Blood’s bill and eight opposing McKinney’s bill, according to Executive Board Chair Tom Briese of Albion. Blood said the opposition focused on allegations her bill would increase government overreach.

That’s not the case, she told the board, because the Legislature has the chance to tap into an existing tool to improve the state.

“Friends, once we start this, it’s going to be getting more movement,” Blood told the board. “And we’re always last to the table, come on. We won’t be the very first, but we’ll be in the top 10.”

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.