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‘Priority bills’ force Nebraska lawmakers to be choosy

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Posted at 6:17 PM, Mar 01, 2020

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers introduce hundreds of bills each year, but only a fortunate few get debated because of a quirky rule that only lets lawmakers designate one bill each as a priority.

So, if the other, non-priority bills have little chance of being approved, do they serve a purpose?

Legislators say yes.

Consider last week’s hearing on a constitutional amendment to require voters to show government-issued identification at the polls. The proposal wasn’t prioritized this year, has repeatedly been rejected and will almost certainly die at the end of the session, but its sponsor said it’s still important to raise the issue.

“Even if you know it’s not going to pass, you hear about it from your constituents,” said Sen. Andrew La Grone, of Gretna. “It’s important enough to them that you want to make sure you press the issue. A lot of times, if you don’t introduce a bill, the conversation falls by the wayside and then those issues that are important to your constituents don’t get heard.”

La Grone said he prioritizes bills based on what would do the most good for his constituents and what has the most realistic chance of passing.

This year, he picked a measure that would provide tax deductions for people who contribute to one of Nebraska’s state-sponsored college savings plans. La Grone said he chose the bill because he has a lot of young families in his fast-growing district who want to save for their children’s education. He also was a legislative aide to former Nebraska Sen. John Murante, who now oversees the college savings plans as state treasurer.

The “priority bill” system was adopted in 1981 to give senators at least one opportunity to pass a bill each year, said Patrick O’Donnell, the longtime clerk of the Nebraska Legislature. O’Donnell said lawmakers at the time didn’t want the speaker of the legislature to have the power to kill bills by sticking them at the bottom of legislative agenda.

Under the system, each senator gets one priority. Most legislative committees can designate two priorities, and the speaker of the legislature gets 25. The speaker’s priority bills are generally noncontroversial measures. Committee priorities are sometimes dubbed “Christmas tree bills” because they can squeeze many loosely related proposals into one package.

The system generally forces lawmakers to focus on the one or two issues that are most important to them, said Sen. Mike Groene, of North Platte. Some lawmakers prioritize bills that ultimately fail because they want a public debate. But Groene said he aims to prioritize bills with decent prospects.

“If you’re going to do all that work to try to get it out to the floor, you’ve really got to believe that it’s going to pass,” he said.

Lawmakers still have a few narrow ways to get around the system. For instance, bills introduced in odd-numbered years may get held over to the following year and debated early in that year’s session, before any other bills have been prioritized. Lawmakers can also prioritize legislation that they support but didn’t personally sponsor, freeing up the sponsor to prioritize something else.

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said lawmakers will sometimes introduce longshot bills to help them identify problems and unintended consequences that they can address in future versions. Unlike most other state legislatures, Nebraska’s process guarantees a hearing for every bill, no matter how far-fetched.

“Sometimes the only way you can get public input is to have a public hearing,” Scheer said. “It helps you define and focus your bill.”

Sen. John McCollister, of Omaha, said the process works well considering that lawmakers have limited time in each session but are free to introduce as many bills as they want. Senators introduced a total of 482 bills this year, plus 739 that can be carried over from last year’s session.

“You need some kind of system to bring some bills to the top of that list,” McCollister said. “The priority system works pretty well for that.”