Lawmakers have concluded their central business for the 2021 session, with plans to return later this year to decide on the redistricting maps. The session turned out to be a productive one overall, with two huge factors making it highly unusual.
COVID protections required significant changes in operations. And senators for the first time in many years had a hefty amount of money — more than $200 million — to devote to new spending or tax cuts.
Speaker Mike Hilgers made sound decisions in managing COVID safety measures, and partner organizations provided invaluable support with virus testing and other protective measures that helped lawmakers and staff members avoid major disruptions. Changed habits — holding all-day committee hearings up front, forgoing social events for lawmakers — helped reduce the COVID risk, which overall was a plus. But those changes also meant that lawmakers had greatly reduced opportunity to get to know each other and build relationships that can have great value over time as senators seek to hone legislation and find constructive compromise and agreement.
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It’s understandable that lawmakers felt almost giddy at the amount of money available for new spending and tax cuts after years of meager revenue growth. The Appropriations Committee — and above all its chairman, Sen. John Stinner — provided crucial guidance.
Lawmakers cut taxes in several regards but rightly tempered their actions by adopting an incremental approach. Future reductions will occur only if monitoring of state revenues confirms that additional tax cuts are affordable. Experience at the Legislature — punctuated regularly this century by bouts of budget crisis — amply warrants such fiscal prudence.
The Appropriations Committee provided reassurance by boosting the state’s cash reserve to more than $800 million, which finally restores it to the level generally recommended by financial analysts.
Among other positives from the session: The budget enabled a much-needed 2% increase in the reimbursement rate for Medicaid providers for mental health, foster care and other services. Stinner put forward an innovative approach to help the University of Nebraska system better meet its long-range capital construction needs. Lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts had broad agreement on $40 million to boost broadband capability. The Judiciary Committee’s package of criminal justice changes, including stepped-up requirements for police and a registry listing officers disciplined for misconduct, was a step forward. The Legislature approved an investigation into the various concerns involving St. Francis Ministries, the child welfare provider for Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
Hilgers and Ricketts helped by agreeing — in contrast to last year, under a different legislative speaker — that lawmakers have adequate time, at the end of the session, to vote on possible overrides of gubernatorial vetoes.
Still, at numerous points this session, ugly partisan clashes erupted, demonstrating the Legislature’s troubling fragility. Partisan Republican power plays targeted individual Democrats, primarily first-term lawmakers, spurring furious political pushback. The ideological gap between hard-shell conservatives and urban progressives continues to grow wider, deepening mutual suspicion and eroding chances for consensus-building. Redistricting always involves political tensions, but if the Republican-majority redistricting committee indulges this fall in maneuvering that consistently favors the GOP, the Legislature will face a severe crisis.
Nebraska’s political culture is at risk because so many state senators — as well as so many Nebraska voters — now view politics as a zero-sum game in which the other side deserves little respect, policy compromise is unacceptable ideological surrender, and the routine resort to political war is justified. Nebraskans need to push back from that national political mindset, which is so steeped in cynicism and outrage, and turn toward a healthier, local, more constructive politics.
A key ingredient for that cultural recovery is state government leadership. Will responsible-minded Nebraskans step forward to help our state heal? That is a central question as Nebraska heads toward next year’s elections. We need positive leadership.