January 19, 2023 | View PDF
This year I was elected chair of the Rules Committee. At the beginning of each biennial session of the Nebraska Legislature new rule changes get proposed by State Senators and so it becomes the job of the Rules Committee to sift through their proposed rule changes and decide which ones to advance up to the floor of Legislature for a full debate.
This year we received an extraordinary number of proposed rule changes. We received a total of 58 proposed rule changes this year. By way of comparison, in in the year 2021 there were only 21 proposed rule changes, in 2019 there were 22, and in 2017 there were 27.
The public always gets the opportunity to weigh in on each of these proposed rule changes. So, last Thursday the Rules Committee held a public hearing at the Capitol which began at 1:30 p.m. and finally ended at 10:30 p.m. That's a total of nine hours of testimony on the proposed rule changes.
Normally, a public hearing of this kind would have extended beyond midnight. So, in order to expedite the public hearing in a timely manner, I had to make a couple of important executive decisions as chair of the Rules Committee. First, I had the Clerk of the Legislature group together all of the proposed rules changes according to topic. This way we were able to hear all of the opening remarks by the introducing Senators on that topic before we opened it up for public comment. Then, I limited public testimonies to two minutes. This way we were able to get through all 58 rule proposals and finish before midnight.
While some of the proposed rule changes received no comments from the general public, others received a great deal of public testimony. Those proposed rule changes which the public seemed to care most about included a proposal to remove the opening prayer, a proposal to invite members of the military to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, and a proposal to prohibit firearms in the State Capitol Building.
I proposed six rule changes of my own. Three of those rule changes are particularly noteworthy to the general public. They are noteworthy for their efficiency, transparency, and controversial nature. So, today I would like to take some time to tell you about these three proposed rule changes.
The first one relates to the matter of efficiency. Currently, nine out of the Legislature's thirteen standing committees have even numbers of committee members. When committees have even numbers of members, votes often result in a tie. A tie vote on a bill means that the bill gets killed in committee. Therefore, I prepared a graph for the Rules Committee showing how each committee could have an odd number of committee members so that a vote on a bill should never end in a tie. Because the standing committees meet on different days of the week, the challenge for me was to prepare a graph showing how every Senator could have a committee meeting on each day of the week. My graph accomplished that goal.
My next proposed rule change relates to transparency. I proposed that a video recording of all debates and hearings be made available on the Legislature's website. Many who are interested in the State Legislature are unable to watch debates and hearings in the middle of the day because they have to work. This rule change would enable citizens to watch debates and hearings at a time which agrees with their own schedule. Unfortunately, this rule change would not be able to apply this year for the simple reason that the Clerk of the Legislature would need some time to set it up.
My last proposed rule change was the most controversial. I proposed that the executive sessions of the legislative committees be closed to the media. It is odd that the press is allowed to sit in on closed meetings of the Legislature, but the general public is not. Closed sessions for all other kinds of committees always implies that the media are not allowed to sit in on the meetings. The primary reason for this rule change is because committee members cannot have a free exchange of ideas about a bill when members of the media are present.
For obvious reasons, members of the media showed up to testify against this proposed rule change. According to them, without the presence of the media in the room during an executive session, there would be no transparency and the public would be left out in the dark. However, this problem is rectified by recording each committee members vote on the bill and posting it on the Legislature's website. Moreover, if those testifying from the press were truly concerned about transparency in the Legislature, then they never would have taken a public stance against the proposed rule change to eliminate secret ballots when voting for committee chairs!