If someone said the Nebraska Legislature failed the state in 2020, they wouldn’t be wrong. That’s how State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh, of District 6 in Omaha, feels after the body did little to address calls to address the state’s most pressing issues.
“I was definitely depressed and disappointed,” she said. “A lot of the depression came from the fact I felt that we should be focused on things related to the pandemic and we were not at all.”
The 2020 legislative session was unlike any other. In addition to COVID-19 cleaving the body’s 90-day work schedule into two sections, the latter being a 17-day lightning round of passing bills and politicking, the Legislature compromised on perennial issues while staying silent on immediate needs like racial justice and COVID-19 protections. Personal attacks on senators, questions about how bills were passed and late vetos from Gov. Ricketts also made for a frustrating end to a hectic year for some of the Legislature’s more progress senators.
“I walked out of the capitol relieved that I didn’t have to go back,” Cavanaugh said. “It was very challenging.”
State Senator Wendy DeBoer said the rules and procedures of the Legislature broke down in the final days. The Unicameral does not allow for new bills to be easily introduced late in the session. Any efforts, including bills, amendments or calls for discussion around issues like policing, rental assistance and protections for meatpacking workers, did not gain much traction. Senator Wayne was able to introduce a bill that would create police oversight boards but the initiative stalled in committee hearings.
The process of scheduling and getting more time for discussion also felt ad-hoc to some.
“It makes you wonder, what are the rules?” DeBoer asked. “What are the rules we’re operating under? What are the conventions and when can the conventions be gone around and when are they binding?”
This also felt like a bigger year for partisanship than ever before, despite compromising across the aisle on property taxes, an issue that’s beleaguered the Legislature for years. Following the end of the session, Gov. Ricketts vetoed several Democrats’ bills like Cavanaugh’s, which provided anti-discrimination protections around women’s natural hair.
“For it to have been vetoed was hurtful and disappointing,” Cavanaugh said. “And it was…hurtful for women of color and very demoralizing to the racial justice movement in our state.”
Following the end of the session, several senators gathered on the steps of the Capitol to call for a special session to address the pandemic- and racial justice. Other special sessions have been called to address the Keystone XL Pipeline and the state budget.
The citizens had spoken, whether in the streets or at formal legislative hearings, and it was time for the Legislature to respond in a policy-driven way, legislators said. Fourteen senators ended up signing on to the call, far short of the necessary 33. It was a defeat for senators who felt like this was the time for the Legislature to flex its muscle.
Instead they’re bargaining with Gov. Ricketts, sending letters asking him to join every other state in the nation by expanding food assistance programs that could provide meals to nearly 85,000 Nebraskan kids. And Wednesday, 28 senators signed on to a letter, helmed by Senator Julie Slama, of Peru, asking the Big Ten to reconsider its cancellation of fall sports.
28 of Nebraska’s 49 state senators have signed onto my letter to Commissioner Warren, urging the Big Ten Conference to transparently reconsider its decision to cancel fall sports.
— Senator Julie Slama (@SenatorSlama) September 9, 2020
One senator signed both the letter to the Big Ten and called for the special session, Senator Justin Wayne. While Cavanaugh said the two issues aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s hard to imagine why this was a priority for so many senators when a special session was not.
“It is disconcerting that this is where efforts are being put when people are struggling,” she said.
For Senator Megan Hunt, of District 8 of Omaha, the work now is focused on local elections. In a time when so many are dealing with economic, social or public health crises, the way to strengthen the Legislature is to elect better people, she said.
“We are asked to learn this lesson time and time again: Local elections matter,” Hunt wrote in an email, the full transcript of which is available on The Reader’s website. “Activism, volunteering, and organizing locally is vital, but all of the work we do to try and make our world better won’t matter if we don’t elect people who will put better policy into law.”
Senator Cavanaugh is also thinking about policy. She will reintroduce her bill providing protections against hair discrimination, but also wants to look at issues around maternal health and pregnancy outcomes for women of color. Senator DeBoer said she wants to work with senators to create better internal policy and procedure that can protect against the chaos last session experienced.
All of this is not to say the session wasn’t without its victories for Omaha-area senators. Among policy passed include Senator Cavanaugh’s increased efficiency of sexual assault testing. Senator Hunt secured the right for college athletes to make money off their likeness. Senator DeBoer was a part of the compromise that brought the property tax bill to fruition—though DeBoer said she’s still unsure of whether it’s financially sound and will do the best job of protecting schools.
“I will think about the days around that bill for the rest of my life,” she said. “And I will wonder if what we did was as good as it could have been or not.”
Senators also found ways to help that didn’t happen in the halls of the Unicameral. Some took to the streets demonstrating with protesters. Senator Cavanaugh said her office has helped hundreds navigate the complicated unemployment benefit system. Senator Hunt said her office worked with nonprofits and community advocates to organize housing assistance, provide meals and get people tested for COVID-19.
But some of the biggest obstacles faced in the Legislature continue to be partisanship. It’s not the competing interests of a rural/urban divide that many might think. It’s the effect term limits have had on reducing the body’s institutional knowledge. It’s the fact that some believe Gov. Ricketts is trying to circumvent the authority of the legislature.
It’s usually procedure for the Governor to voice their concern about a bill before voting it. Cavanaugh reached out to the office for feedback on her hair anti-discrimination bill and got nothing, she said. Others point to the dollars Gov. Ricketts has invested in races as a sign that his wealth is having an impact.
“Term limits and campaign finance are big issues into the influence that this governor has,” Cavanaugh said, “and I think it’s fair to state that this governor has more influence over this legislature than any governor has ever had.”
But looking forward, senators can only take lessons learned from this session and apply them to the policy and strategy they plan to implement come Jan. 6, 2021.
“I truly believe that we can be a welcoming and supporting state of the people here, and I think that the governor can be a partner in that,” Cavanaugh said. “So I continue to hold out hope that he and I can find a way to work together.”