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Nebraska begins 2021 session focused on districting, prison

January 6, 2021 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers kicked off a new session Wednesday with plans to redraw the state’s political districts and promises to minimize the dysfunction that has creeped into the Legislature over the last several years.

The new session began on a cordial note, with newly elected Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers pledging to treat all senators equally and ensure full and fair debate on all measures that come before them.

“I will do everything I possibly can within my power to make sure this place runs smoothly,” said Hilgers, of Lincoln.

Even so, lawmakers will face some contentious debates this year, including their once-a-decade redistricting ritual where they reshape the state’s congressional and legislative districts. They’ll also consider a proposal to build a new state prison to ease overcrowding and measures to address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Nebraska. Gov. Pete Ricketts is expected to push for additional tax cuts.

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Lawmakers also face a great deal of uncertainty with the pandemic’s impact on the economy and state tax collections, said Sen. John Stinner, who was re-elected as chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Stinner said he planned to faster than usual on the budget this year to prepare for a possible economic downturn, even though tax receipts have come in higher than expected so far.

“We have to get a budget to the floor as quickly as possible,” said Stinner, of Gering.

Legislative debates have become increasingly contentious and polarized in recent years as the number of filibusters to block proposals has trended upward. Several lawmakers said they hoped to soften the atmosphere in the coming weeks.

“It’s extremely important that we do our job professionally and in a timely fashion so that we maintain trust with the citizens of Nebraska,” said Sen. Dan Hughes, of Venango, who was elected chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board.

The session is likely to be unusual because of the pandemic, with fewer bills expected at this point and less public access to lawmakers. Lawmakers have restricted who can enter their legislative chamber, requiring reporters to watch their debates from an overhead balcony with a limited view, unlike most years when they’re allowed on the legislative floor.

Sen. Tom Briese, of Albion, said lawmakers should be able to pass many of their top priorities this year if they remain courteous and respect one another.

“There are going to be some ups and downs,” he said. “But I believe that by working together, we’re going to get the work done we were sent here to do.”

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte