I mentioned in a recent newsletter, and a letter to the papers, that I would post a link to all of the reports that the Legislature has generated or received regarding the Corrections system over the last few years. Below are the links:
LR 424 (2014) Final Report, LR34 (2016) Final Report; Documentary Information for both
Ombudsman’s Report on May 2015 TSCI Riot
Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System—first report (newly created position), Fall, 2016.
This post has little to do with the Legislative session (or does it?), and marks more of a side note commentary on my part.
As I was driving home from a Convention of States Townhall meeting in Blair tonight, I was switching through the talk radio stations in the Omaha area, and landed on a show that I rarely listen to, but the topic they had announced "coming up" was interesting to me: "public shaming" in the age of social media.
The host was talking with Jon Ronson, author of So You've Been Publicly Shamed. I've added the book to my near-term reading list (I usually have several books of different genres "in progress," and although I have less time during the Legislative session for recreational reading, picking up a book (or in my case, usually my eBook reader) for even 15 minutes in the evening helps me to switch gears and get a good nights sleep.
The premise of the Ronson book, in appears, is the story of people who have literally had their lives destroyed as the result of an errant social media post--a flip comment made on Twitter in jest, which was misinterpretted and went "viral", or a light-hearted picture posted on Facebook which was an inside joke gone wrong.
This topic interests me--especially in the political realm. Political figures are expected to "be accessible" to the public, and many of us have taken to social media to help facilitate that. But I think we all forget just how social media can get away from us after we push the send button. Over time, I've had interesting interactions online with both constitutents and non-constituents. I've been asked questions (and tried to answer them, even when social media did not necessariy lend itself well to a full or deep discussion); I've been called names, and had to decide whether to defend myself, or remain silent--knowing that either action could be taken the wrong way, and was semi-public; and I've been surprised when what I thought was a relatively inocuous comment on Facebook or Twitter ended up with multiple re-tweets, shares, or likes.
Sometimes I wish that we could go back to the days before social media; before the days when moral outrage in full display of the world seemed to be the norm. At the very least, I wish we could go back to a time when we were a little more circumspect before engaging in social action against a mere comment or photo, perhaps taken out of context. Ronson, in the interview I heard, talked of three particular instances (two on Twitter, one on Facebook), where posts were made that were "supposed to be" jokes, blew up on social media, resulting in the original poster being publicly humiliated, threatened, and in each of those cases, fired from their jobs. Many of these people claim that at some point, before they were able to fnd new jobs and reclaim some sense of normalcy, that they contemplated suicide. There are also anecdotal stories of people who actually have succeeded in committing suicide as the result of public social media shaming.
Many have commented about the culture of personal destruction. It seems to me that we have decided that rather than taking adeep breath and tryng to ascertain what's really going on before taking to social media in retribution or for humiliation, we have decided that it's ok to publicly shame anyone who says or does something that we don't like. I suppose that politicians and public figures are especially sensitive to this phenomenon, however we do take on a public role, and must accept what goes along with that.
Nevertheless, while some things--our representation of constituents while in office, etc.--are certainly fair game, it seems that there are other things which cross the line of decency and good taste.
Not everyone can hear the inflections in our voices indicating sarcasm on social media; not everyone can hear the irony in our voices as we write our words; not everyone can see the smirks on our faces as we post something intended to be a "joke post."
Social media isn't going away, but I think it says a lot about us as a civilized people when we look not just at what we're posting originally (and perhaps a little caution is order for all of us), but also when we think twice about how we respond. The concept of "public shaming" asks us all to be a little more introspective, and perhaps to consider the Golden Rule which we Nebraskans have seemed to have as part of our DNA for so long--in modern terms, "do unto others" might be read "stop and think about how you'd feel if someone was contemplating the action against you that you're contemplating at this moment," or "how would YOU and your family feel is someone wrote that about YOU?"
Parts 1 and 2 talked about a lot of the most notable bills that we passed (or didn't pass) in the 2nd session of the 104th Legislature. I'm going to go through just a few more in the next few paragraphs, and then I'm going to provide the first of my thoughts on what will be coming in the 2017 Legislative session (Session 1 of the 105th Legislature).
LB 47 came out of the Transporation and Telecommunications Committee, and--while a common sense bill, caused a bit of early consternation in the 2015 session, before returning for consideration in the 2016 session. The title of the bill "Change Provisions Relating to Anatomical Gifts under the Motor Vehicle Operator's License Act" had the best of intentnions. Senator Watermeier, who is a proponent of anatomical gifts, believed that we could increase the number of people choosing to make anatomical gifts (for instance, in the case of a catastrophic car accident), if those getting driver's licneses HAD to answer the question of whether or not they wanted to be an organ donor. The bill, as originally drafted, would have made that a mandatory question to answer when applying for a driver's license ("yes" or "no" to the question of "Do you wish to include your name in the Donor Registry of Nebraska and donate your organs and tissues at the time of your death?" A number of us were concerned about making this a mandatory question--essentially forcing those who were seeking a driver's license to choose a box, or not get their license. Ultimately, a compromise was struck, and the question remains voluntary, but is placed on a more prominent place on the application.
Senator Scheer's LB53, also out of Transportaion and Telecommunication, allows certan passenger cars not manufactured to be equipped for displaying a front license plate to be exempt. Basically, some sports cars (and perhaps others) are manufactured wtihout a bracket for the placement of front license plates, and while workarounds can be found by drilling holes into the front bumper, cars can now be exempt IF those brackets do not come equipped as manufactured.
Senator Chambers' LB474 created a new license plate design (Mountain Lion Conservation), and creates a fund that will be benefited by those who choose to purchase those plates. LB844 (a related bill) created a Breast Cancer Awareness license plate, as well.
The Urban Affairs Committee (which I served on during the last 2 sessions), dealt primarily with building codes and regulations related to municipalitites or sanitary and improvement districts. Probably the most significant legislation to come out of the Urban Affairs Committee was Senator Mello's Property Assessed Clean Energy Act (PACE Act). Thwhich are repaid with is bill made Nebraska the 33rd state to adopt some sort of PACE legislation, and authorizes local governments to assist residents and businesses with up-front financing for energy efficeincy and renewable energy improvements by creating a special district known as a Clean Energy District. Property owners can apply for special loans (from private financers) which are repaid with an annual assessment on the property tax bill. The loans remain assessed to the property through the tax assessment until paid off, so if (for instance) upgrades to HVAC systems are made by an owner who lives in one of these PACE districts, the owner can sell the home, and then new owner then assumes that payment through the property taxes. It is unclear how much this option will be used--and it's likely to be used primarily in metropolitan areas like Omaha--however this proveds an option for homeowners in specific areas who wish to make those home improvements.
LOOKING AHEAD to 2017
Day 1 of the Legislature is on January 4. There will be 17 new legislators, combined with another 17 from the class that I am in, meaning that there will 34 of the 49 legislators who will have 2 years or less experience. In the world of term limits, those who are just begnning their second terms (have 4 years under their belts) are seasoned veterans.
On the first day of the session, several key things will happen. First, the new (and re-elected) legislators will be sworn in. This is a fun day, with lots of family and friends of the new senators (especially, but not exclusively) in attendance for the swearing in.
Following the swearing in, we'll adopt the "temporary rules" which will govern the procedure of the Legislature until the Rules committee has met and brought us recommendations for permanent rules. By tradition, the temporary rules for the beginning of the session are the permanent rules from the previous session. One thing to watch: There are a number of new senators (and old senators) who have pledged to move toward "open votes" of Committee Chairs and the Speaker. Our current rules call for secret ballots. In order to go to open votes (or public votes), the rules would need to be amended. There are people on both sides of this issue--some who believe firmly that open votes for leadership positions (so that constituents can know who their senators voted for) is critical to good governance; others believe that the nature of our non-partisan unicameral is better served if senators do not feel obliged reveal their votes, and can comfortably vote across party lines if they feel that the best person is someone who doesn't belong to the same party that they do. The effort to open these votes to the public view has been attempted several times, and turned back. My view: I supported open votes when first elected, and conceptually, I still support the notion. I do wish, however, that an effort had been made to amend the rules during the last session, when we could have devoted the time to really thinking this through and having fair, honest debate, rather than trying to amend the temporary rules on the first day, with 17 brand new senators with their friends and family around. A number of other issues that are "hanging" suggest to me that if an effort to amend the rules to have open/transparent votes for leadership, on Day One, that the session might go off the rails before it even gets up to speed. There are strong feelings on both sides of this issue. Lieutenant Governor Foley, in his role as President of the Legislature, will be presiding over all of these preliminary matters. The Chief Justice will be escorted in to administer the oath of office to this years class of senators, and those who were re-elected.
Once rules (in whatever form) are adopted, we will move to the election of the Speaker, Executive Committee Chair and Vice Chair, and then the Chairs of all of the Committees. Most committees have had someone (or several someones) announce their intent to run for Chair. We have two candidates for Speaker--Senator Williams from Gothenburg, and Senator Scheer from Norfolk. In my judgment, both would do fine jobs. Candidates for Speaker and Chairs self-nominate on the floor; if the race is contested, under current rules, the Lt. Governor appoints a balloting committee to count the votes for each office which are turned in by members. If we move to "open votes" I suppose that the same is done, except that votes will be tallied based on a roll call, voice vote.
In addition to the Speaker, and the Chair and Vice Chair of the Executive Committee (which is also a "special committee" known as the Reference Committee), we will elect the Chairs of 14 standing committees, and three other "special committees". Most crucial for the first day proceedings is the "Committee on Committees." Upon adjournment on January 4, the Committee on Committees will meet, and start assigning members to their committee. This is a process that can be very complicated, and really can't be started in earnest until the Committee Chairs are elected. Each committee gets a near-equal distribution of members from each Congressional District Caucus. Those caucuses will have already met, and chosen their four members on the Committee on Committees. The members of that committee from each caucus generally try to make sure that the other members of their caucus are placed on at least some of the committees that are top choices for them. Usually by late in the afternoon, we'll start getting committee membership figured out.
Additionally, the first day is hectic. After Commttee Chairs are selected, their offices start getting moved to their new locations (each Committee has an office that is viewed as the "Committee Office" for the Chair and staff--Committees have some staff in addition to the Chair's personal staff). Once movement of the Chairs is done, then the scramble for new offices by others begins. While we are now have reached a point where every senator has a private office, some offices--by virtue of location, size, or condition--are more desirable than others. Seniority typically carries the day, and so it will be Thursday or Friday before the freshmen know where their office space will be.
In my next post, I'll talk about some of the issues that I think will get the most attention in the next session.
Today, I have an OpEd published in the Omaha World Herald, suggesting the need for a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Nebraska certainly falls victim to higher than average taxes (of all types), but even more, we have a problem of spending that has increased over the last two decades at a rate that exceeds our rate of population growth and inflation rate. Click on the link above to read the full piece.
Part 1 of this review of the 2016 Legislative covered highlights of bills considered (some passed) from the first half of our fourteen standing committees. In addition to those fourteen committees, we also have the Executive/Reference Committee, as well as the Committee on Committees (which meets early in the session to assign members to committees), and the Rules Committee (which typically meets in the first few weeks of the session). There are also a number of "Special Committees" which have specific, sometimes sporadic, purposes.
Senator Howard's LB 471 came to the floor of the Legislature through the Health and Human Services Committee. The bill enhances Nebraska's already existing prescription drug monitoring program. It requires all dispensed prescriptions of controlled substances to be reported to the drug monitoring system beginning in January of 2017, and all dispensed prescription medication to be reported to the system by January 1, 2018. This bill was brought primarily to stem the tide of abuse of prescription narcotics/pain killers. I had some concerns about the broader prescription drug reporting and confidentiality/privacy concerns. However I was ultimately persuaded that the information generated from the system would be kept as confidential as any medical record, and voted for the bill on Final Reading.
Another bill that came out of Health and Human Services was the Surgical First Assistant Practice Act, which created a licensing mechanism for Surgical First Assistants who have received specialized training and passed boards for that profession. While I am not generally in favor of creating more boards and licensures, current statute prohibits surgeons from delegating surgical tasks (such as would typically be performed by Surgical First Assistants) to unlicensed individuals. This creates a credentialing mechanism for that profession, which wil allow surgeons to delegate tasks to those assistants.
LB 804, brought by Senator Hilkemann, would have authorized patients with terminal illness to try treatments not yet authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration--a so-called "right to try" law. The bill advanced to the floor from the committee, but died because it had not been prioritized at the end of the session. I would have supported this legislation if it had been taken up on the floor.
Senator McCollister's "Transitional Health Insurance Program Act" (aka "Medicaid Expansion") failed to advance from General File. There was significant concern about expansion of the entitlement problem, generally, as well as the concern about cost to the state should the federal government decide to withdraw its commitment to the program. I'm told that this isn't likely to come back this year, given the nature of the revenue projections shortfall.
A number of bills of note came out of the Judiciary Committee, which I sit on. Sen. Hughes' LB 710 expands the state's anti-hazing regulations to include hazing in elementary, middle, and high schools, and provides for misdemeanor charges LB 843 (Senator Pansing Brooks was the introducer, I was one of the co-sponsors) provides immunity from prosecution for prostitution for those who are victims of sex trafficking. LB894 (which was co-sponsored by all committee members) will require that juveniles in Lancaster, Sarpy and Douglas County have an attorney present with them in Court, and that the waiving of counsel for minors will be allowed only in limited circumstances.
LB1000 (which I co-sposnored) requires that law enforcement agencies in Nebraska which use body-worn cameras must adopt guidelines governing their use. Included in those requirements are a 90 day retention requirement on all footage, and procedures for the destruction of footage. If the video has evidentiary value, it must be retained until a prosecution occurs, or the investiigation is closed. Body cameras can provide a valuable record of interactions between police and citizens--and can protect both citizens from the rare officer who would abuse authority, but also protect police officers from citizens who would make false claims.
Perhaps the most significant bill (in my view) to come out of the Judiciary Committee this year was LB1106. LB1106 was introduced by Senator Garrett--I was pleased to act as the primary co-sponsor helping to shepherd the bill through the committee. For those who are not familiar with civil forfeiture, a good article on the topic can be found here. At its very core, this bill provides that law enforcement (and the state more broadly) can't take your property (money, gold bullion, whatever) based purely on suspicion that it might have been ill-gotten. Rather, property is forfeited only when the state has proven that it has been ill-gotten as the result of criminal activity, and a conviction is obtained. This is a crucial civil liberties issue.
Senator Kolowski's LB 344 (emerging from the Natural Resources Committee) was turned away. The bill would have allowed Natural Resource Districts (NRD's) the power to issue General Obligation bonds. Proponents cited a need for additonal funding to pay for some water projects. Those of us opposed to the bill were concerned about additional property tax burden to the taxpayers.
The Legislative Performance Audit Committee brought LB 756 through the Revenue Committee. This bill terminated the Long-Term Care Savings Plan Act from 2006. The Performance Audit Committee released a report analyzing the effectiveness of the plan, and found that there were not many participants, and that those who were participating were not saving enough in the plan to actually pay for their long-term care expenses. The termination date of the plan is January 1, 2018.
LB886, which I co-sponsored, adopted the Volunteer Emergency Responders Act. This act allows volunteer first responders to receive a $250 refundable credit against their income tax liability. This was a small way to recognize the efforts of volunteers who serve our communities.
Part 3 will include the last few bills passed (or not passed) which I want to call attention to, as well as to provide a bit of a preview to the next session.
As we approach the end of 2016, and the beginning of the 105th Legislature on January 4, I want to do a bit of a retropective of the year that's now in the rearview mirror. The next two (or perhaps three) posts over the coming week or two will address some of the legislation that was passed (or not passed) in 2016, and will also discuss the changing political climate in Lincoln as we look ahead to the 2017 session. I'll also discuss the finding of a pre-session survey that I've had up for the last several weeks. You have about 3 more days (until December 2) to respond to it here.
Bills of Note in the 2016 Legislative Session:
Watch for Part 2 of this review coming later in the week.
The 2017 Legislative Session will begin on January 4, 2017. Per the Nebraska Constitution, each regular session begins on the first Wednesday after the first Monday in January.
We will begin the 105th Legislature, 1st Session, at 10 a.m. on that day. Each Legislature consists of two regular sessions--one, in odd numbered years following an election which lasts 90 days, and the second, in even numbered years, which lasts 60 days.
During the long session, the Legislature debates and approves a biennial budget which serves as the basis for state operations for the next two fiscal years--in addtion to other legislation which comes before it. The only mandated activity of the Legislature (constitutionally) is the budget.
There will be at least 12 NEW senators in this next class (senators representing odd numbered districts are elected in presidential election years, those representing even number dstricts are elected in the "mid-term" elections). Twelve senators will be gone because of term limits. There are another 12 who are up for re-election, and about half of those are in races with a serious challenge. The faces will be different, but the work of the Legislature goes on.
I am conducting a "survey" of sorts, and would welcome your input into what our priorities should be in the coming year.
As I write this, on the evening of January 31, we are preparing for the 17th day of our 60 day legislative session--and wondering whether the Speaker will call a "snow day" for the 18th day. By the afternoon of February 1, we're supposed to be getting some snow, and Tuesday is currently sounding downright nasty--perhaps even blizzard-like. As I was writing this, one of the organizations that was hosting a breakfast for senators on Tuesday morning sent out a mass email postponing the event.
Priority bills are starting to work their way through committee, and a number of bills will be moving through the system this week on the "consent calendar". The consent calendar is so called because it represents bills that are seemingly non-controversial: no opponents spoke in committee hearings, no committee amendments were offered, and the subject of the bill is more or less routine.
The next few weeks, a lot of bills will start moving out of committee, and if the oral histories I've heard from the veteran senators and legislature watchers are correct, things will start getting frantic. With only 44 days in the session, and a lot of priority legislation that hasn't moved, a sense of urgency will likely set in. Some bills will be filibustered, and for every one which has extended debate time, we'll all be watching the chances for our legislation to move diminish.
Be sure to sign up for my weekly email updates (and occaional "specialty" updates) here: http://lauraebke.com/sign-up Those updates will be more detailed, and more regular, than what I am able to post here.
As we approach Christmas and New Years--and the start of a new Legislative session on January 6--let me take this opportunity to wish all reading this a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. My staff and I look forward to working with you and for you in 2016!
The staff and I took a few minutes in front of the Capitol Christmas tree. Hadassah Moore is my Administrative Assistant and Brandon Benson is my Legislative Aide. Between them, they keep me on schedule, do constituent service, research legislation, and are a joy for me to work with.
As the calendar closes in on turning to November, I thought this might be a good time to reflect upon the last year.
Last year at this time, our campaign was winding down. We were knocking on the last of the doors, sending volunteers out to "lit drop" key communities, and sending out more mailings than anyone really wanted. And in the end, the people of the 32nd Legislative District of Nebraska did me the great honor of electing me as their state senator for the next 4 years.
While I thought that perhaps once the campaign was over, I'd have a few days to decompress and restore some level of normalcy to my life, little did I know that there would be little let-down. I received calls as I made my way home from Wilber (where we had our election night party) from friends congratulating me. Early the next morning, I started receiving calls from current senators, eager to chat about issues they saw coming up in the 2015 session. Several days were spent attending New Senator Orientation and getting a taste of the rules of the Legislature.
Mid November to the start of session in January flew by quickly. Between holiday preparations and gatherings, and meetings with various interest groups, individuals, and future colleagues, time much of the two months between the election and the first day of the session was taken up.
Day 1 of the 104th Legislature was a whirlwind.