Politics

Nebraska lawmakers adjourn for year after banning gender surgery for minors, abortion

Nebraska lawmakers adjourned for the year on Thursday, wrapping up a particularly contentious session that saw nearly every bill before the body filibustered.

The filibuster effort led by Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh and a handful of allies was a protest over a bill that began as a measure to ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors but morphed to also included a 12-week abortion ban.

The effort greatly slowed the work of the Legislature, leading to long days that saw debate routinely stretch into the evening hours and forced leaders to attach bills as amendments in order to get legislation passed.

The tactic appears to have worked.

Speaker of the Legislature Sen. John Arch announced before adjournment Thursday that using the so-called “Christmas tree” bills, lawmakers passed 291 pieces of legislation out of more than 800 bills introduced. That’s compared to 281 bills passed in the last 90-day session in 2021.

Here’s a look at major legislation passed this session that will become law — and some that won’t.

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Trans Health and Abortion:

Easily the most contentious bill of the 2023 session, the bill will prevent people under 19 from receiving gender-affirming surgery and restrict the use of hormone treatments and puberty blockers in minors when those restrictions go into effect Oct. 1. It will put the state’s chief medical officer — a political appointee who is an ear, nose and throat doctor — in charge of setting the rules for hormone therapies for minors already receiving that therapy and some teens deemed through an exhaustive process to need such therapy.

The law also imposes an immediate ban on abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. That ban was shoehorned into the trans care bill as an amendment after a separate bill to ban abortion at about six weeks failed to overcome a filibuster.

The American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland has already filed a lawsuit, which argues that the law violates a state constitutional requirement that legislative bills stick to a single subject. The lawsuit is also asking for an injunction to block enforcement of the trans health and abortion restrictions until the court case is decided.

Guns:

Nebraska lawmakers passed a bill to allow people to carry concealed guns in the state without a permit. Its passage came as national attention has ramped up over gun violence in the wake of several mass shootings, including the March killing of six people at a Christian elementary school in Tennessee.

The passage came despite fierce opposition. A federal background check is still required to buy a gun, but the measure allows people to carry guns hidden in their clothing or vehicle without having to pay for a government permit or take a gun safety course.

Taxes:

Lawmakers passed a slew of tax cuts, including an across-the-board state income tax cut that would slash individual and corporate tax rates gradually to a maximum of 3.99% by 2027. Currently, the top rates are just under 7%. Critics of the tax cut say the plan to slash income taxes for the highest earners immediately, while waiting until 2026 to cut taxes for middle-bracket earners, is unfair.

Lawmakers also delivered full tax exemption for Social Security benefits starting next year and expanded tax credits for child care.

Other measures provide property tax relief, including one that sees the state provide funding to community colleges instead of the funds coming from local property tax collections. The state funding would start at the amount the two-year colleges currently collect through local taxes and increase annually by 3.5%.

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Another measure increases the amount of a property tax credit offered to property owners on their income tax returns. And another establishes a 3% annual cap — with some exceptions — on how much school districts can increase property tax requests.

In all, lawmakers approved tax cuts amounting to more than $6 billion in tax relief over the next six years, according to Gov. Jim Pillen, who had sought the cuts.

Voter Id:

On the last day of the session, lawmakers passed a bill to comply with a voter ID requirement that voters mandated in November. The bill’s passage came despite a filibuster effort by conservative Sen. Julie Slama, who was the only lawmaker to vote against it. Slama had chaired the referendum effort that saw the voter ID question put on the ballot in November.

The bill allows a wide array of photo identification voters can present at the polls and gives rare exceptions for voting without a photo ID. Slama argued the bill flies in the face of what voters intended.

Criminal Justice and Prisons:

Also passing on the last day of the session was a bill creating several programs related to Nebraska’s criminal justice system. Crafted by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, the bill includes expansion of several programs, including a pilot program to establish parole-violation residential housing, a probationer incentive program and problem-solving courts, like drug courts and veterans courts.

The bill also speeds up parole for many prisoners, ensuring they are subject to transitional services rather than being released with no oversight — a practice called “jamming out.” Experts say those inmates who jam out of prison are at higher risk to reoffend.

Earlier in the session, lawmakers approved nearly $400 million to build a new prison to ease severe overcrowding in the state’s prison system. Critics of that appropriation say that without serious efforts to further change tough-on-crime sentencing mandates and create more centers to transition lower-level offenders back into the community, the new prison will be overcrowded on the first day it opens.

Education and School Choice:

Lawmakers passed a bill to pump more than $300 million a year into public school funding, mostly from federal pandemic recovery dollars, starting next school year. Supporters note it’s the largest increase in state aid to public schools in the state’s history, but critics fear the boost won’t be sustainable for the long haul.

The public school funding boost accompanied a bill that funnels millions in taxpayer money from public coffers to scholarships for private school tuition. Opponents have already launched a petition in an effort to repeal the scholarship-funding bill at the ballot box in 2024.

The bill does not appropriate taxpayer dollars directly toward private school vouchers. Instead, it allows businesses, individuals, estates and trusts to donate a portion of owed state income tax — up to $25 million in just the first year — to private school tuition scholarships.

Miscellaneous:

Among a hodge-podge of bills that made it through this year is one that requires Nebraska gasoline sellers to offer gas blends with 15% ethanol, know as E15. Starting next year, the requirement has at least half of pumps at new gas stations offering the E15 blend. Existing sites must replace more than 80% of the fuel storage and dispensing with E15.

Another measure added as an amendment to a vehicle titling bill repeals the state’s more than 30-year-old law requiring motorcycle riders to wear a helmet. The measure takes effect in January and applies only to riders 21 and older.

Another bill passed provides nearly $575 million to build an unfinished 1894 canal and reservoir system in southwestern Nebraska that would divert water from Colorado along the South Platte River to benefit agriculture, power generation and municipal drinking water in an increasingly parched region of the state. The measure invokes an obscure, 99-year-old water compact between the states that allows Nebraska to seize the land necessary to build that canal.

Passed, but Vetoed:

Republican Gov. Jim Pillen gutted several bills passed this year with line-item vetoes amounting to more than $140 million. One veto was a child welfare rate increase, amounting to $6 million. Another amounted to $20 million over two years that would have funded middle-income housing developments in urban areas and workforce housing in rural Nebraska, areas where officials have said a shortage of affordable housing has led to businesses being unable to fill open jobs.

Also vetoed were pay raises for legislative staff, increases to Medicaid payment rates for hospitals and nursing homes, funding for a pilot program related to childhood trauma and gun violence, and $3 million to fund a Lincoln housing facility for pregnant or parenting teens.

Lawmakers overrode only one line-item veto measure — an additional $1.1 million for the State Auditor’s Office to increase employee pay and hire more staffers.

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