Time marches on in the Capital City.
They’re playing football at Memorial Stadium, there are 116 new laws on the books and the schedule of interim studies in the Legislature is bustling.
First, let’s get the football out of the way: New quarterback who either throws too much or not enough; new defensive scheme and a new defensive coach – you have the right to remain silent; same old Cornhuskers taking every game – no matter the quality of the opponent – to the last few seconds. Unpredictable.
The enactment of new laws marks the end of the 90-day period following adjournment of the Legislature. These are the measures passed without the emergency clause or a specific enacting date. They include a mixed bag of topics from requiring schools to provide space for nursing mothers who are also students to allowing the creation of two new license plates. More on that later.
It has long been thought that legislative interim hearings are scheduled to coincide with football games on the following day as a good excuse to get senators to Lincoln. The Judiciary Committee has a blockbuster lineup of resolutions to be discussed September 15, an agenda that could be far more exciting than the next day’s football game with Northern Illinois in Lincoln.
Topics include: possible reforms to sentencing laws to accommodate an option of deferred judgment probation; the impact of incarceration on children; possible legislative reforms to mandatory minimum sentencing laws; and examination of statutes relating to geriatric or compassionate release laws for elderly inmates.
The interim studies take on a new seriousness this year in the wake of the state’s on-going fiscal problems. On September 22, the Appropriations Committee meets to discuss LR209 to examine the volatility of Nebraska’s revenue portfolio to determine the level of the constitutionally mandated Reserve Fund.
The committee is also set to discuss LR210 to examine fiscal distress among local political subdivisions in Nebraska and how the Legislature could establish a warning system to identify and respond to such fiscal distress. Read that, no more unfunded mandates.
That same day, the Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on LR125, a study to examine public power in Nebraska. Any of these hearings will likely be more exciting than the next day’s football game between the Huskers and Rutgers at Memorial Stadium. For sure, the outcomes will have a longer lasting impact on all Nebraskans.
As for the new laws, which actually went on the books August 24, some reflect the changing times of society. Nebraska schools will have to give students a place to express and store breast milk and adopt written policies for how to handle absences and class work for pregnant students. Supporters of the measure argued last session that it’s necessary to ensure teen parents have the flexibility they need to raise children and finish high school. The state Department of Education is working on a model policy for pregnant and breastfeeding students that school districts can use at their discretion. The department says that many districts already have such policies in place.
In another school related measure, public school teachers in Nebraska can now wear habits, hijabs and other religious clothing in their classrooms. The new law ends a 98-year-old ban on religious garb, which was apparently enacted during a time of anti-Catholic sentiment. The ban came to lawmakers' attention after a nun in Norfolk was rejected for a substitute-teaching job because her faith calls on her to wear a habit.
Nebraska comes one step closer to creating two new license plates: a "Choose Life" plate endorsed by groups that oppose abortion and a "Native American Cultural Awareness and History" plate.
The Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles still needs to design the plates and is expected to start offering them in mid-December. That’ll be just in time for Nebraskans to celebrate the Cornhuskers appearance in a lesser bowl game and get ready for the 2018 session of the Legislature.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.