It's crunch time coming up in the Legislature. Senators have picked their priority bills. And that pretty much determines the major subjects that will be debated for the rest of the session.
Not so long ago - within the last week, in fact - senators were dealing with what some might consider esoterica: how many gallons of beer a company could produce and still be considered a microbrewery, for example. Or what the educational requirements should be for someone to transplant cow embryos.
But in the middle of that debate, Speaker Mike Flood stood up with an announcement that was also part warning. "This is the point in the session where things will change markedly on Tuesday. We will not be back on general file order. We will be on priority bills," he explained.
In legislative-speak, that means no more debating bills in the order that committees send them to the floor. Instead, debate will center on the bills that senators have designated as most important.
Each of the 49 senators has selected one priority, and each standing committee has named two. For a link to the list of priority bills, click here.
The list is chock full of issues that could generate lots of discussion: Should prenatal care be provided to for the children of illegal immigrants? Should photo IDs or other documentation be required in order to vote? Should cities be allowed to raise sales taxes? Should state income taxes or property taxes on ag land be reduced? How much state aid should go to schools?
There are also major proposals dealing with the state's controversial child welfare reform: taking back case management from private contractors, creating a new Department of Children's Services, and toughening requirements for selecting private contractors.
That last proposal was prioritized by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, chaired by Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery. It would require that contracts over a certain amount - the committee is considering $15 million - be justified by a needs analysis. Avery said the proposal would have applied to contracts like the controversial agreements the state made with lead agencies to take over child welfare services. "It certainly would have required the Department of Health and Human Services to do the need analysis and to prove the need to do this. And then of course, that would have been made public because you would have then had to go through the process as outlined in the law," he declared.
Some of the bills are still in committee, so the shape they'll be in when debate begins is still to be determined. The speaker gets to designate up to another 25 bills as priorities. But in spite of the fact that in recent years, priority bills have all been debated, Flood warned senators that's not necessarily the case this year. "With the number of issues we have this year, with the amount of debate that I think will be required, it's possible your bill may not get scheduled. We have a finite amount of time, and on April 12, we're done," he said.
That's the 60th day the Legislature is scheduled to meet this year - and the state constitution says that's the limit, unless four-fifths of the senators say otherwise. But if there's one thing they're likely to agree on from here on out, it's that as Flood said, as of April 12, they're done.