The COVID emergency in 2020 slammed Nebraska with big challenges not only on the health care front but also in terms of the law.
State and local governments found themselves needing to make important responses to the virus even though the laws explaining their scope of authority were far from clear.
What powers, exactly, do Nebraska school boards have in addressing such an emergency? What role does the state’s executive branch have in distributing emergency funds, given that the Legislature is empowered as the central decider on state spending? Should public health authorities be given enhanced authority to make sure they can effectively respond to such a pandemic?
These are important questions, yet Nebraska law currently provides more confusion than clarity on the answers.
The Legislature’s ability to address these and related issues was limited last year, since lawmakers took a protracted recess due to the virus, and there was little time left in the session anyway. So, the 2021 legislative session provides a much-needed opportunity for the Legislature to provide clarity.
Such clarification can help school boards and public health departments understand exactly how far the law empowers them to act. And it’s a fundamental part of Nebraska state government for the law to designate the proper boundaries of spending authority for the executive and legislative branches.
State senators this session also must scrutinize what current state law says about legal liability for government and businesses in pandemic situations, and decide whether any practical adjustments are needed, given the experiences from the COVID pandemic.
Nebraska was caught flat-footed on all these legal questions last year. The Legislature must make sure that doesn’t happen again, should another pandemic strike our state.