By Nebraska State Senator Megan Hunt
We knew that the second session of the 106th Legislature wasn’t going to be easy when we convened in January, but there was no way for us to prepare for the challenges that COVID-19 would bring upon us. When the pandemic began to reach Nebraska in March, the Legislature suspended its session, and my office started working remotely. We made the decision to pivot from our legislative work to a focus on the immediate, urgent safety needs of Nebraskans facing hunger, unemployment, and eviction. Our agenda for 2020 changed completely, from the slate of policy goals we brought into the new year, to the simple but critical objective of ensuring that Nebraskans would survive.
Most importantly, Nebraskans needed factual and accurate information about the pandemic, and how to get help. We spent many long nights gathering information and putting together newsletters for Nebraskans to provide them the information they needed.
As unemployment rates skyrocketed, the Department of Labor became overwhelmed with unemployment insurance applications, which brought a crisis of confidence and security within the communities I serve. Tens of thousands of Nebraskans were without a paycheck. Access to financial assistance from the state came slowly. And people were trying to work or learn remotely while balancing obligations as parents and caretakers.
With our session suspended, State Senators had no way to effectuate policy change through the Legislature, so my staff and I had to search for other solutions. We were part of daily strategy meetings with advocates in the nonprofit and service community, and we worked together to organize housing assistance funds, provide meals for those most at risk of contracting the virus, expedite and mediate unemployment inquiries, and connect symptomatic Nebraskans to testing resources. We also cooperated with other Senators to urge the Governor to adopt Executive Orders to extend food and housing assistance.
When the Legislature reconvened in July, the majority of State Senators turned their focus toward passing an unconstitutional abortion ban, property tax relief, and corporate welfare. I take issues like tax relief and economic development seriously, but with so many workers and families struggling with the economic and health devastation caused by this virus, those priorities are not appropriate. My colleagues and I brought several amendments to address the concerns constituents raised regarding eviction moratoriums, rent assistance, access to healthcare, worker protections, police brutality, racial inequities, and more. Ultimately, we were unsuccessful in convincing our colleagues to prioritize the immediate, urgent needs facing Nebraskans.
We are asked to learn this lesson time and time again: Local elections matter. 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. Please register to vote, activate your friends and neighbors, and research candidates who will work to advance the causes of justice and equality in our state. I am right there with you, and I will never stop working to ensure that every Nebraskan fits under the umbrella of our state motto: Equality Before the Law.