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Big issues expected for scaled-back Nebraska session

January 4, 2021 GMT

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers will begin a new session Wednesday that’s likely to be scaled back because of the pandemic, but they’ll still have a lot of big issues to debate, including a proposed $230 million prison and the mandatory redrawing of the state’s political districts.

High on this year’s priority list is the Legislature’s once-a-decade redistricting ritual, a bitterly partisan process where lawmakers redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts and others.

The last redistricting in 2011 drew heated criticism from Democratic senators, who accused Republicans of gerrymandering the 2nd Congressional District encompassing Omaha to make it more favorable to the GOP.

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“Redistricting was extremely stressful and difficult for the senators who were there at the time,” said incoming state Sen. Mike Flood, a former speaker of the Legislature who participated in the 2011 process and is returning to office after an eight-year hiatus. “I can’t imagine anything is going to change.”

The 2011 process also upset some rural lawmakers, who ended up losing a legislative seat because of the dwindling population in western Nebraska and big gains in Omaha’s suburbs.

“That will be a painful process to go through,” said Sen. Tom Brewer, of Gordon, who represents more than 17,000 square miles of remote, western Nebraska — an area larger than the state of Maryland. “We’re going to lose a district, possibly two, out west.”

The officially nonpartisan Legislature will remain solidly Republican for the next two years, with 32 registered GOP senators and 17 registered Democrats. Despite their majority, Republican senators are one vote shy of the 33 needed to overcome a filibuster, which will make it tough for them force through any sweeping changes.

The new session will also usher in eight new state senators, including three who previously served before term limits forced them from office — Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, Mike Flood of Norfolk and Rich Pahls of Omaha. Those three will join veteran state Sen. Steve Lathrop, of Omaha, who returned to the Legislature in 2019 after a four-year hiatus.

Lawmakers will also consider whether to pay for a proposed $230 million prison to reduce chronic overcrowding in Nebraska’s existing facilities. The plan is likely to face questions from some lawmakers about whether it’s the best solution to fix the problem.

The large price tag may also catch the attention of lawmakers who want to use that kind of money for other purposes, such as K-12 schools, health services or tax cuts.

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“Now, people who would like to spend that money on something else will be engaged,” said Lathrop, the chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, who has worked extensively on prison issues.

Sen. John Stinner, the chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said the proposal will force lawmakers to decide which priorities they consider most important.

“If (the prison) is the priority and we move ahead with it, other priorities will get crowded out,” said Stinner, of Gering. “It’s how many dollars you want to put into higher education, or K-12 education. Expanded Medicaid could be one area that gets constrained, or property tax relief.”

Regardless of what happens, Stinner said he hopes to advance a budget out of his committee quickly so lawmakers have time to debate it. He said the state appears to be on solid ground financially and tax collections remain strong despite the pandemic’s damage to the state economy.

Several senators said they expect to see less legislation this year as part of a push to reduce the number and length of committee hearings to minimize the chances of spreading of the coronavirus.

“From what I can tell, we’ll be bringing considerably fewer bills,” said Brewer, who plans to introduce eight proposals — just half of what he sponsored last year.

The number of bill requests from senators is lower than usual so far, according to the Legislature’s Revisor of Statutes. Marcia McClurg, who oversees the office, said her office had received about 750 requests for bills and resolutions as of Friday afternoon. More could come later, but McClurg said she anticipates fewer requests this year — and many of those requests are never formally introduced.

Brewer said he suspects lawmakers will also put a greater focus on bills that have a decent chance of passing, unlike typical years, when they introduce more longshot measures simply to draw public attention to an issue.

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