Jan. 31 marks day 16 of the 90-day session of the 106th Legislature. The pace has been hectic.

There have been 744 bills introduced, of which I introduced 17.

Four of my bills are standard legislation that the committee chairman traditionally introduces to cover annual Department of Education and committee cleanup work.

The Education Committee that I chair has a heavy workload — 56 bills to address during the 16 afternoons reserved for committee hearings.

The Judiciary Committee that I am a member of received the most assignments — 142 bills and one resolution — to be heard on 26 afternoons of hearings. As you can probably guess, many afternoons will turn into evenings.

Nebraska has a unique system that allows all citizens, as the second house of the Legislature, to testify on bills at committee hearings.

I remember from my past as a concerned citizen often testifying in front of school boards and city councils where the members sat silently and asked no questions.

Hence, as chairman of the Education Committee, out of respect for the testifiers, I try to engage with them. Many of them have taken a day off work, or driven long distances to testify for five minutes. They appreciate the respect questions from the committee offer them, and quite frankly, many times amendments are made to legislation as a result of testimony.

 

Seeking transparency

Each year as the session begins, the Legislature debates the rules that govern our legislative process, either accepting the present ones or including changes.

I picked up the mantle from past senators who wanted to change the current rule, which allows secret votes for the speaker and the committee chairs, to a public vote.

Our argument was the Legislature should honor the citizens’ expectation of transparency in government, which was clearly exemplified in Sen. George Norris’ original 1934 constitutional amendment. We all associate his effort with the creation of the unicameral form of a legislature that Nebraska has had since 1937, but there were actually 10 constitutional requirements in his amendment that govern the operation of the Legislature.

This included non-partisan elections, senator numbers limited to no less than 30 members and no more than 50, length of senator’s terms, salary limitations, and “the request from any one member to be sufficient to secure a roll call on any question.”

That last requirement in our state Constitution, simply put, makes it clear that any question — vote — taken by the legislative body must be public.

Claiming a vote is not a question does not change the constitutional mandate.

My proposal to change the rule failed by a 25-22 public vote. Next year, you will be assured a senator will request a roll-call vote for a chairman and when denied, the Nebraska Supreme Court may need to decide the issue.

 

Fire districts

Our bill, LB 63, addressing property tax levies for fire districts in counties with Mutual Fund Organizations (MFO), has had its Revenue Committee hearing and been advanced to the floor for debate.

When a county creates an MFO, it allows some of the taxes you pay on your insurance policies to flow back into our fire district’s budgets. Fire districts in Lincoln County received $300,000 last year.

LB 63 will allow individual fire districts to have tax levies below an agreed upon common levy (in Lincoln County it is 3 cents) for 2 out of 3 years of the agreement. It is basically a local control measure that will allow lower property taxes for fire district residents that have well-managed volunteer fire departments.

 

Electrical codes

Also, our LB 65, changing electrical codes to allow horizontal boring machine operators to be non-electricians as long as their work is supervised by a licensed electrician, was heard by the General Affairs Committee on Monday. It’s a common-sense elimination of over-regulation that will lessen the cost of electrical work for the consumer while allowing electrical and horizontal boring contractors to work together.

So far in the Education Committee, we have heard a couple of controversial bills: Sen. Erdman’s LB 73, requiring the national motto “In God We Trust” to be displayed in all public schools, and Sen. Slama’s LB 399, updating Nebraska’s Americanism statutes.

I will expand in future columns on those bills’ outcomes.

Contact Sen. Mike Groene: mgroene@leg.ne.gov or 402-471-2729.