The Nebraska State Capitol (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Conservatives ruled at the State Capitol like never before in 2023, passing several right-wing measures, including proposals on gun rights and school choice that had been perennial losers in the Legislature, as well as new restrictions on abortion and transgender rights.
And, it appears that an 11th-hour push will be successful to achieve a long-running goal of the right: to repeal Nebraska’s motorcycle helmet law.
The 90-day session may end a couple of days early — on Thursday (see infobox) — wrapping up an often combative, sometimes nasty, filibuster-filled session that also saw passage of long-sought, major cuts in state income taxes, more relief on property taxes and a major boost in state aid to K-12 education.
It’s going to be remembered as the session of the filibuster, after Omaha State Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh and Megan Hunt embarked on an endless string of filibusters in protest of the proposal to ban gender-affirming care for minors that delayed debate on major issues.
It won a small, red state national publicity as lawmakers wrestled with “culture war” issues roiling in state legislatures across the country.
But behind the night sessions and rough-and-tumble debates reminiscent of the British House of Commons, several conservative laws were passed, unlike any previous session.
How did they do it after falling short in the past?
Veteran lobbyist Walt Radcliffe said the conservative coup has been years in the coming, and was helped by a new governor, Jim Pillen, who was willing to work with others. That was clearly evident on the school aid issue.
“It just got to the point that there were enough like-minded people with clear goals and objectives,” Radcliffe said. “And that’s what they did.”
Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, a major force in bringing together filibuster-proof majorities on school choice, education and tax measures, credited former Gov. Pete Ricketts for appointing and helping elect conservatives who stuck with the conservative agenda. The Republican lawmaker also credited Pillen for reaching out to the other side, and for a willingness to work out issues.
“He came in with a big agenda, a lot of energy and a willing group of senators,” Linehan said.
Blair Sen. Ben Hansen, who got the helmet bill attached as a last-minute amendment, said that obviously it helped that Republicans had a nearly filibuster-proof majority in the one-house Unicameral.
But, he said, “that doesn’t translate into automatically getting what you want. Different personalities and political philosophies play a huge role.”
Some Democrats, meanwhile, said it was more about defections of senators on their team that helped give conservatives critical votes that allowed bills to pass. And, they add, court challenges and ballot initiatives may overturn some conservative victories.
Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, who switched her registration from Democrat to nonpartisan during the session, said her first priority was to prevent a ban on abortion and that was accomplished “against all odds.”
But, Hunt, who has a transgender son, said she was disappointed in colleagues who “turned their backs on me and all LGBTQ Nebraskans this year” by voting to ban gender-affirming care for minors.
“They did the easy thing instead of the right thing, and I will never respect them again,” Hunt said.
Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, a Democrat, said that progressives had other wins, preventing harmful rule changes, addressing racial injustice, and finding some help for families struggling with child care expenses.
Conrad said that it appears that a “thoughtful” voter ID bill will be passed, after some extreme requirements for voting by mail were dropped.
But no doubt, between the endless filibusters and passage of long-blocked conservative measures, it was an unprecedented session.
“My hope is that we’ve just established and lived through what should be the low-water mark for Nebraska politics,” Conrad said. “No one wants to repeat this year.”
Here are some takeaways based on interviews with senators, lobbyists and legislative observers:
1) Elections Matter
More and more conservative Republicans are being elected, and moderate Republicans — who used to run the Legislature — are nearly extinct.
That situation gained momentum in 2016, when then-Gov. Ricketts put his wealth behind primary campaigns to throw out a group of moderate GOP senators who had defied him on raising the state gas tax and providing driver’s licenses to children of immigrants.
Their replacements, all more conservative, included Sens. Steve Halloran of Hastings, Bruce Bostelman of Brainard and Tom Brewer of Gordon, who now all chair legislative committees, powerful posts that guide which bills are debated and which ones are not.
Sen. John Arch, Speaker of the Legislature, said he hasn’t yet decided on the final day of the 90-day session, which has been rumored to end as soon as Thursday — two days early.
Arch said it would depend on how the debate goes on two bills, Legislative Bill 50, a criminal justice reform measure, and LB 514, the voter ID measure, plus whether the governor issues any further vetoes.
The 2023 was scheduled to end June 9.
The 2022 election brought in more conservative Republicans that replaced a group of moderate leaders who were term limited, including Sens. John Stinner of Gering, Matt Williams of Gothenburg and Mark Kolterman of Seward, who weren’t always in lockstep with the governor’s priorities.
The 49-seat Unicameral Legislature’s split between Republicans and non-Republicans is the same as last year, 32-17 (with one of the 17 being registered as nonpartisan).
But the new conservative Republicans, such as Omaha Sens. Kathleen Kauth and Brad von Gillern, Gering Sen. Brian Hardin and Central City Sen. Loren Lippincott, didn’t stray from the script, and were comfortable pushing “culture war” bills that were being introduced across the country.
Those bills included a ban on gender-affirming procedures for minors (which passed), and measures restricting drag shows and blocking transgender kids from participating in sports.
Some Democrats said that if just one more election contest had gone their way, several right-wing bills would have again failed to pass, and power within legislative committees would have been more balanced.
2. Republicans got some help
Three Democrats in the body, Omaha Sens. Mike McDonnell, Justin Wayne and Terrell McKinney, provided key votes on conservative priorities.
McDonnell, who has aspirations of running for Omaha mayor, has defended his votes as upholding his long-held beliefs. He was part of the minimum-required 33 votes needed to pass the combined bill that restricted abortion and gender-affirming surgeries for minors, as well as the bill allowing permit-less carry of concealed weapons.
McDonnell, as well as Wayne and McKinney, were also key supporters of the “school choice” bill that will provide generous tax credits for donations to organizations that provide scholarships for parochial and private education.
Nebraska had been one of only two states that didn’t allow some kind of school choice, and the idea — fought feverishly by the state teachers union and public school advocates — hadn’t advanced in six previous sessions.
Allowing carrying of concealed weapons without a permit, and repealing the state’s helmet law, had also been long-time losers until, it now appears, this year.
3. Conservative senators stuck together
One Democrat state senator said conservatives worked in “lockstep,” never straying from the script.
A year ago, one Republican state senator, John McCollister, would sometimes vote with the Democrats, and other moderate Republicans wouldn’t back some conservative initiatives.
This year you could predict, with much more certainty, how votes would go.
Some of those interviewed were critical of the new group of senators for failing to vote independently, and going along with the crowd. More than once, veteran senators were heard this year reminding freshmen that the Legislature was an independent wing of government, and that votes could be cast that disagree with the executive branch.
“The institution itself has really been damaged by term limits, gerrymandering and voter suppression,” Conrad said.
“Now, we have new members doubling down on radical policies, against what the voters, business leaders and physicians want,” she said, referring to the abortion and trans rights issues.
4. Conservatives were more organized
Linehan, who used to wrangle votes in Washington, D.C., for then-U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, was mentioned often as “the glue” for building support for packages of bills and holding supporters together, particularly for her school choice bill and the record income- and property-tax relief measures.
“Like Al Capone, she knew that you got farther with a kind word and gun rather than a gun alone,” Radcliffe said.
Linehan also credited the Speaker of the Legislature, Sen. John Arch, for not engaging in “the shenanigans” — a reference to the nearly session-long string of filibusters — and for devising an agenda that allowed dozens of bills to pass.
The filibuster fest got a lot of national publicity — stories in the New York Times, New York magazine and interviews on Rachel Maddow and Good Morning America. And it did win concessions on the abortion and trans rights issues.
But it couldn’t prevent, to a large extent, the conservative surge.
Those interviewed were split on whether the filibusters backfired — helping conservative causes instead.
5. Governor was more collaborative
Pillen, despite being knocked as avoiding publicly announced events, worked with state lawmakers in a more collaborative way.
He put together a group that crafted a school aid package that won approval, unlike in past years.
The $1 billion education “future fund” and additional money for special education, observers said, were things long sought by educators, while conservatives had been seeking additional lids on local K-12 spending. It was an example, some said, of conservatives and progressives working together.
Senators and lobbyists gave Pillen kudos for reaching out, listening and being willing to grant concessions. It didn’t hurt that Pillen did some personal friend raising, by rubbing shoulders with the Capitol crowd in the Rotunda or at a nearby restaurant/bar.
6. There was a lot of money to spend
Senators entered the 2023 session with a record budget surplus and cash reserve fund, and ended up funding some huge projects, such as the nearly $600-million Perkins County Canal and a new, $366-million state prison.
But there was also plenty of money for income tax cuts long sought by the business community and more property tax relief, a major gripe of farm interests. Funds existed for personal priorities such as expansion of shopping centers, helping eastern Omaha, and encouraging the use of ethanol and bio-diesel.
Tax credits were extended for a waste incinerator expansion in Kimball, sewers in Sarpy County, for historic restoration statewide and for convention center projects in Omaha and Lincoln.
Everyone seemed to get something, as long as they stuck together.
And there was plenty of funds for tax cuts and credits, which Linehan and other committee chairs used to provide benefits to many interests, both conservative and progressive.
Said Linehan, “It helped that we had as much money as we had. When you have $2 billion extra dollars, you can get a lot done.”
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