On final day of session, legislators give final OK for voter ID, tax break bills
Tumultuous 90-day session ends two days early
State senators work on the final day of the 2023 session of the Nebraska Legislature (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — State senators ended a tumultuous 2023 session Thursday, giving a final OK to bills concerning voter identification, tax breaks for economic development and criminal justice reform.
The 90-day session ended two days early and will be remembered for historic tax cuts, hard feelings aired during floor debate, and an almost session-long string of filibusters mounted in protest of a bill that banned gender-affirming procedures for minors.
State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, a key player in the legislation that delivered income tax cuts and property tax relief, summed it up best: It was a “momentous session” for what got done and for how hard it was to get those things done.
The time-sucking filibusters, led by Omaha Sens. Machaela Cavanaugh and Megan Hunt, forced legislators to get creative to get bills passed.
Instead of several individual bills being advanced for debate, “Christmas tree” bills, containing up to 30 pieces of legislation, became the norm.
In the end, only 56 bills were passed, but those measures contained 291 separate bills. That compares favorably with the most recent 90-day sessions, in which 281 bills were passed in 2021 and 322 were passed in 2019.
The perception that state lawmakers weren’t getting anything done because of the filibusters was incorrect, said the Speaker of the Legislature, Sen. John Arch of La Vista.
“We have done the work we were sent to do despite all the challenges before us,” Arch said.
Cavanaugh, who helped set a new record for filibusters, said it was a disappointing session in which income tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthiest Nebraskans and out-of-state corporations were passed, but little for average Nebraskans.
“We had record revenue and we did next to nothing to ease the economic struggles of everyday Nebraskans,” she said.
COVID-19 era food stamp and child care credits were extended, but not increased, Cavanaugh said, despite increased need at a time of record inflation.
Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell struck a note of optimism, saying that toward the end of the 2023 session, floor debates became more substantive, instead of readings of recipes and news stories during the lengthy filibusters.
“By the end of the session, people were trying to work together,” he said. “I think that may carry over to the 60-day session (next year).”
Wins for conservatives
Gov. Jim Pillen said the 2023 session included “historic wins for social conservatives.” Those included:
- Passage of a stricter, ban on abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy.
- A law banning gender-affirming procedures for minors.
- Passage of a “school choice” law, allowing a generous tax break for donations to organizations that provide scholarships for parochial and private schools.
- Repeal of the state’s motorcycle helmet law
- Passage of a “constitutional carry” law, allowing Nebraskans to carry concealed weapons without having to obtain a state license or pass a gun safety class.
Gov. Jim Pillen, in his first legislative session, labeled as “historic” and “transformational” the income tax and property tax bills passed this year.
“This is one of the most impactful sessions in Nebraska history,” Pillen said in a speech at the end of the session.
Said Pillen, “In the face of extraordinary challenges, the will of the people of Nebraska has prevailed and our state has implemented once-in-a-generation conservative policies.”
He said lawmakers passed a fiscally conservative budget that raised spending by 2%, provided low-income students a chance to attend a private school via the “Opportunity Scholarships Act” and boosted spending on K-12 education. Also passed was a stricter, 12-week (gestational) ban on abortion, as well as the ban on certain gender-affirming procedures for minors.
Legislative Bill 754, sponsored by Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, will drop the state’s top two income tax brackets, and the corporate income tax rate, to 3.99% by tax year 2027.
The bill also provides a total exemption on Social Security benefits a year early, in 2024, and provides tax credits related to child care.
A companion measure, LB 243, increases state property tax relief credits and removes community colleges from the property tax rolls.
All together, the two measures, along with the impact of increased state aid to K-12 schools, are expected to provide $6.4 billion in tax relief over the next six years.
“(This) tax package puts Nebraska back on track to become competitive nationally,” Pillen said at a press conference Wednesday.
Among the measures gaining final-round approval on Thursday were:
LB 514, which implements voter ID in Nebraska, following voter approval of a state constitutional amendment in 2022 requiring voters to show a photo ID.
The bill overcame a one-woman filibuster by Dunbar Sen. Julie Slama, who was pushing for a “more conservative vision” of voter ID.
Gordon Sen. Tom Brewer, who chairs the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, said the panel picked the “narrower, more focused” approach on voter ID when no compromise could be found between Slama and Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen.
LB 514 requires voters to show ID when voting in person. It makes exceptions for religious objectors to being photographed and people with disabilities.
LB 727, an omnibus tax credit bill that offers breaks for everything from biodiesel to waste incinerators to expansion of the Nebraska Crossing shopping mall. The measure also would allow bond financing of state freeway projects and would end a controversial “home equity theft” procedure.
Linehan, the main sponsor, has said the tax break to Nebraska Crossing could help it transform into a regional destination for shoppers and youth sports tournaments like the “Legends” development in Kansas City.
The bill also expands the state’s turnback tax to benefit an expansion of the CHI Health Center in Omaha, a new convention center in Lincoln and concert halls in downtown Omaha and LaVista.
LB 50, a package of criminal justice reforms fashioned by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne out of recommendations made a year ago by the Crime and Justice Institute, a think tank that has helped several states reduce spending.
The bill, the topic of several negotiations with county prosecutors, the Attorney General’s Office and the Pillen administration, is aimed at reducing the number of inmates who “jam out” of prison without undergoing some rehabilitation programming.
Wayne, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said his main goal was ensuring public safety while trying to reduce the need for Nebraska to build two new prisons.
He said the bill should make the state’s criminal justice system more “efficient and effective.”
One aspect of the bill, promoted by Brewer, would provide Kevlar protective vests for state correctional officers.
The need for such protective gear came into stark focus Wednesday after five prison guards were stabbed during an altercation with inmates armed with homemade weapons at the Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln.
The union that represents state corrections officers have long sought the stab-resistant vests.
Nebraska Examiner reporter Aaron Sanderford contributed to this report.
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