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Straight Talk From Steve: Christmas Tree Bills

This year's legislative session has been unlike any other. Because a small group of State Senators decided to filibuster every bill, it has affected the way we do business this year at the State Capitol in Lincoln. In the Army soldiers are taught to improvise in order to solve difficult problems when under fire by the enemy. In the State Legislature, legislators sometimes have to use rules they are not ordinarily accustomed to using in order to get the business of the State done, and that is precisely what has happened this year.

Because of the constant filibustering, there won't be enough time to have a full and fair debate on the floor of the Legislature for every bill that we would like to pass this year. This has caused State Legislators to use the tactic of amending their bills onto other bills. When this is done with several bills, the end product is called an omnibus bill or a Christmas tree bill. It's called a Christmas tree bill because several other bills are hung on it like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

This year we have seen unusually large Christmas tree bills. For example, LB 191 began as a worker's compensation bill introduced by Sen. Halloran of Hastings, but by the time State Senators finished amending the bill, it had 19 other bills amended into it. Similarly, the Revenue Committee has a committee priority bill that will be debated next week with 21 bills already amended into it. While all of these amendments might make for a more colorful Christmas tree, it is not the preferred way of doing the State's business.

Large Christmas tree bills may be the way politicians do business in Washington, D.C., but it is not how business is supposed to get done in Lincoln, Nebraska. Omnibus bills at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. often run more than 1,000 pages in length. Consequently, politicians in Washington, D.C. often don't have enough time to read these bills to know what is actually in them. So, just as former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, once famously said about the Obamacare Act, "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it." Unfortunately, that is exactly what is beginning to happen in the State Legislature. The Revenue Committee's Christmas tree bill that we will debate next week will be more than 130 pages long!

There are serious consequences to passing these kinds of large Christmas tree bills. The biggest problem is that bad bills often get passed by attaching them to a Christmas tree bill, and that is what is happening now in the State Legislature. For example, LB 351 was attached to LB 227, which is now on Final Reading. LB 351 will raise the medical malpractice cap for physicians from $500,000 to $10 million. Because these kinds of expenses seldom ever get absorbed by insurance companies, the extra costs will inevitably get passed down to consumers. So, the result will most likely be significantly higher insurance premiums for Nebraskans who purchase medical insurance policies.

What makes matters even worse is the fact that many of these bills have never even been voted out of committee or had a full and fair debate on the floor of the Legislature. Such is the case with LB 351. By the time State Senators figure out what's wrong with these bills, they've already become law, and that's the problem.

Ideally, each bill should be debated on and voted on according to the bill's own merits. Voting on large Christmas tree bills tempts legislators to compromise on bad bills in order to get one of their own good bills passed into law, and that's not right.

For now, this is the way State Senators are improvising in order to get the business of the State accomplished this year. However, we will need to come back next year with some changes in the rules to ensure that this practice does not continue.


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