Legislature considers excluding reporters from exec sessions; filibusters, COVID, bill introductions discussed

Speaker Mike Hilgers speaks on filibusters Tuesday (NET screenshot)
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January 12, 2021 - 5:51pm

The Legislature Tuesday considered changes to its rules, including by excluding members of the media from committee executive sessions. Also, senators discussed how they’ll handle filibusters and COVID testing, and introduced bills on subjects including child sexual abuse and abortion.

Executive sessions of the Nebraska Legislature are committee meetings that are closed to the public and not recorded. However, a current legislative rule, which according to the Legislative Research Office was first adopted in 1982, says “Executive sessions shall be open to members of news media who may report on action taken and on all discussions in executive session.” Sen. Dan Hughes told the Rules Committee that can inhibit senators from speaking freely. Hughes said he wants to change that, to produce better legislative outcomes.

In: We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re trying to provide a better outcome by allowing members the ability to speak freely in executive  session,” Hughes said.

Lincoln Journal Star editor Dave Bundy, representing the Media of Nebraska, opposed the proposed rules change. Bundy said transparency is essential for holding the country together.

“Let the people who put you in those seats understand what you’re doing on their behalf, and how you’re doing it, through fully informed news reporting. Conspiracy theories grow in the absence of facts and the absence of access. The last thing that this nation and this state needs right now is that. Don’t tell your constituents that you want to conduct more of their business behind closed doors. You are people of integrity and we know that. And you know that this is the last thing that our representative democracy needs right now,” Bundy said.

By way of full disclosure, NET News is represented by Media of Nebraska. The committee will meet later to consider whether to recommend the rules change. If so, the Legislature as a whole will then debate the change on Thursday, January 21.

The rule allowing media in executive sessions has evolved over time. Here’s it’s history, drawn from a synopsis prepared by the Legislative Research Office:

From the founding of the Unicameral in 1937 through 1954, the rules were silent on the subject of executive sessions and the media.

In 1955, a rule permitted reporters to attend executive sessions of standing committees, but discussions were considered confidential.

In 1961, a rule made votes within executive sessions confidential

In 1971, votes were no longer required to be kept confidential.

In 1972, reporters were also allowed into select committee executive sessions

In 1973, the media were allowed to report committee votes and the votes of indivual seanotrs on any motion.

In 1981, the media were allowed to report on action taken by the committee in executive session.

In 1982, the rule in its current form was adopted, allowing reporting on action taken and any discussion in executive session.

Tuesday morning, Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers outlined how he intends to structure debate when there is a filibuster – that is, extended debate designed to talk a bill to death if there’s not a 2/3 vote to stop discussion and get to a vote. Hilgers said in general, he’ll allow 8 hours on the first round of debate, 4 hours on the second, and 2 hours on the third. He explained his thinking.

“My hope is that this process can take attention away from something that really detracts from good policy, which is concern about process and fairness and equity amongst members; and really put our focus on where it should be which is the issues, the arguments, and getting good policy for the state of Nebraska,” Hilgers said.

The previous speaker of the Legislature, Sen. Jim Scheer, limited debate to 6 hours on first round, 3 hours on second, and 90 minutes on third. And after the first three hours of debate on first round, he required the sponsors of legislation to show they were close to having a 2/3 vote for to stop debate, or proposals would be removed from the agenda and not voted on. Without criticizing Scheer, Hilgers indicated he didn’t think it was appropriate for the current Legislature.

“I think three hours cut off debate on too many issues. It wasn’t enough time for most of the issues we were addressing, or many of the issues that we were addressing here,” he said.

Regarding COVID, Sen. Hughes, who is chair of the Legislature’s internal governing executive board, announced voluntary saliva testing for senators and staff will be offered each week. Hughes said he hopes the testing will start Thursday.

Also Tuesday, senators continued to introduce bills. Sen. Megan Hunt offered a proposal to do away with a requirement that a doctor be present in the room when someone gets an abortion. Hunt said her intent is to remove that requirement for medical abortions, which are carried out by taking two pills a day or two apart.

“Right now the way it works is patients have to go travel to a physician that will prescribe these pills, which especially in rural Nebraska there’s already a lot of barriers to that. There’s physicians who won’t prescribe the medication that’s needed. A lot of times they have to take off work. They have to get child care for the children and families they do have, and they have to come to Lincoln or Omaha or sometimes go to Denver or other states to get this procedure done,” Hunt said.

Although it’s not spelled out in her bill, Hunt says if it passes, patients could consult with a doctor via telemedicine, and then get the pills from a nurse, other medical practitioner, or pharmacy.

And Sen. Joni Albrecht introduced a proposal to require schools teach students in kindergarten through fifth grade age-appropriate instruction about sexual abuse. Albrecht said while teachers are trained in dealing with sexual abuse, students many not understand it.

“This is a way to train the child up early. We don’t want them to be groomed, we don’t want them to be sexually abused, we don’t want them to be uncomfortable and not be able to talk to people because mostly, the younger ones don’t even know that maybe this is inappropriate,” Albrecht said.

Albrecht said parents could choose not to have their children attend those lessons, although that opt-out provision does not appear in the legislation.



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