2020 has brought forth unprecedented challenges across Nebraska and around the world, but you wouldn’t know it based on the priorities of the Nebraska Legislature.
Following a legislative break in mid-March due to the threat of the coronavirus, a lot changed in the state.
Nearly 400 Nebraskans have died from COVID-19, many in meatpacking towns with high minority populations. “Fifteen days to slow the spread” gave way to 10-12 weeks, and now, five months later, many businesses in the state are still unable to function normally.
Violence against minorities is not a new phenomenon in America, but this summer, people across Nebraska attended marches to demand justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Omaha native James Scurlock and many more. And while Omaha and Lincoln saw the biggest marches, the movement was seen across the state, including in the town of Harvard, population 1,013.
One might assume that these issues would be at the forefront of the agenda when the legislature reconvened in late July. Instead, the legislature’s premier achievements in the final 15 days of the legislative session were property tax relief and the passage of an anti-abortion bill.
This is not to say that some senators did not try to address 2020’s more pressing challenges — Sen. Tony Vargas tried to set up a legislative hearing for meatpacking workers to voice their concerns about a lack of COVID-19 protections, but did not receive enough votes.
Sen. Ernie Chambers did get a bill passed requiring law enforcement to take two hours of anti-bias training each year. While the legislation is a good start, Chambers himself called it a “pee-wee” bill, and it is nowhere near the scope of legislation that is needed to enact the change that many racial justice advocates are calling for.
To be fair, many of the items were already listed as priority bills on the agenda before the coronavirus and racial justice movement took center stage. Property tax relief is a crucial issue for many of Nebraska’s farmers and landowners, as Nebraska currently has one of the highest property tax rates in the nation. The 17 remaining days in the session were not nearly enough time to fully address the new issues that arose over the spring and summer.
Luckily, legislators have the power to call a special legislative session for this exact kind of circumstance. The Nebraska Legislature had special sessions in 2008 and 2011 over eminent domain and the Keystone XL pipeline. Surely the events of 2020 are enough for the legislature to reconvene.
Eleven senators sure thought so and on Aug. 25, they launched a bid to meet this fall to address racial justice and COVID-19 protections for meatpacking workers by sending a letter to the Secretary of State.
To be clear, getting enough senators to agree to this special session is a long shot. Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers even admitted that it probably won’t happen.
Although officially non-partisan, the Nebraska Legislature is made up of 30 registered Republicans, 18 registered Democrats and one independent.
Of the 11 senators who launched the bid, nine were Democrats, one was a Republican and one was independent. All 11 also represent either Lincoln or Omaha.
In order for the legislature to reconvene for a special session, at least 33 of the 49 senators, or two-thirds, of the senators must call for it, and soon. The deadline for senators to voice their support is Friday, Sept. 4.
A special legislative session in 2020 may be about as likely as Nebraska beating Ohio State in football, but you can still make a difference by calling or emailing your state senator and encouraging them to agree to a special session. Lincoln Sens. Morfeld, Pansing Brooks and Matt Hansen are already on board, though Lincoln area Sens. Wishart, Bolz, Geist, Dorn and Hilgers have yet to voice their support.
You can find your senator and their contact information by typing your address into the Nebraska Legislature’s official website.
2020 is a year that will be defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and a worldwide racial justice movement. All Nebraskans deserve a legislature that at least addresses these issues before the end of the year.
Brian Beach is a sophomore journalism major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.