Rule Changes Needed
October 19, 2023
One of the questions I get asked a lot about these days concerns how the Legislature plans on changing the rules for next session. The Unicameral Legislature is a self-governing body, and I am the current chair of the Legislature's Rules Committee. That means that any proposed rule changes for next year have to go through me first. So, it is natural that people would want to ask me about rule changes for next year.
What sparks this question by so many people today relates to what happened in the Unicameral Legislature earlier this year. Two bills came up in the Legislature which provoked the ire of Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, causing her to filibuster every piece of legislation. The first bill was LB 626, otherwise known as the heartbeat bill. This bill in its original form would have prohibited abortions after the sixth week of gestation, except that the bill failed by only one vote. The other bill was LB 574, otherwise known as the "Let Them Grow Act". This bill prohibits physicians from administering gender altering procedures on youths under the age of 19. After LB 626 failed, a twelve-week version of the bill was amended into LB 574 and both bills narrowly passed in the Legislature despite Sen. Cavanaugh's endless filibustering.
Sen. Cavanaugh's endless filibustering of all legislation is what has prompted interest in changing the rules for next year. Currently, the Legislature's rules allow for a single state senator to slow down the legislative process such that very little can get done. To counteract this tactic, other state senators began amending their bills into other bills, creating omnibus bills or what are more commonly referred to as Christmas tree bills. With a Christmas tree bill, 30 bills can be passed all at once. Christmas tree bills are not a good way of passing legislation because state senators often end up voting for bad bills in order to get their own bills passed into law. It is much better when bills are voted on separately and considered on the basis of their own merits.
Many state senators ended the legislative session this year feeling very frustrated about the rules. It should never be the case in a democratic Legislature that the will of the minority, or even the will of a single state senator, should prevail over the will of the majority. Democracy implies that the will of the majority should prevail. Unfortunately, small, incremental rule changes over the years have allowed for this kind of single-senator dominance and have led up to the current crisis over the rules.
In order to fix this current crisis over the rules, some major rule changes will be needed for the next session. Major rule changes will be needed because Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh has already threatened to shut down the Legislature again next session due to a carry-over bill that is already pending in the State Legislature. Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha has already promised to make LB 575 her priority bill for next year. LB 575 is also known as the Sports and Spaces Act. This bill would prevent biological boys from participating in girls' sports in K-12 schools, and it would prevent biological boys from using girls' restrooms and locker rooms. So, unless some important changes are made in the rules, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh is expected to slow the Unicameral Legislature down to a snail's pace again next session.
During the interim period I have been exploring possible rule changes. Nothing has been finalized. Any proposed rule changes for next session must also be voted on and approved by the other members of the Rules Committee. Once the Rules Committee passes a set of proposed rule changes, the other members of the Legislature will then have the opportunity to debate those rule changes and vote on them from the floor of the Norris Chamber before they ever go into effect. When the time becomes appropriate, I will share how the Rules Committee intends to change the rules for next year.
Some folks have expressed concern about fighting culture wars in the State Legislature while neglecting the other business of the State. For many Nebraskans, issues such as property tax relief are more important than fighting the culture wars. The answer is not to withdraw controversial bills related to our state's culture wars. Those debates are worth having; instead, the rules of the Legislature need to be changed in order to allow for robust debate over controversial topics without neglecting the other interests of the State, and that will be my goal going forward as the chairman of the Legislature's Rules Committee.