Seven weeks, but who's counting?
Forty-nine senators will return to their lawmaking duties Jan. 3 for a 60-day short session. Last week they got previews of the issues their colleagues have been working on.
They learned about funding for schools, 315,542 students across the state that cost $12,856 apiece in the 2015-16 school year, according to Education Chairman Mike Groene.
The state paid $973 million in direct school aid that year. But in adding up other money given to the Department of Education, and for property tax relief to landowners, adult basic education, special education and a list of other requirements, the state spent more like $1.7 billion, he said.
They heard from Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Merv Riepe about child welfare, Heritage Health-managed care for 229,008 Medicaid and children's health insurance recipients, and the state's efforts to combat the opioid abuse crisis, including prescription drug monitoring.
And they digested facts about Nebraska's population trends and the coming needs of the state from the Planning Committee, headed by Sen. Paul Schumacher:
* The state's population is becoming more concentrated in its most populous counties. In 2016, Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy counties had 55 percent of the state's population.
* The population is getting older and will continue to age.
* Nebraskans are becoming more racially and ethnically diverse. Between 2010 and 2016, the state population grew 4.4 percent, but its minority population grew 20 percent. The fastest-growing group — Asian-Americans — increased 42 percent. And the Latino population increased 21.5 percent, while whites increased only 1.1 percent.
Senators learned that adjustments to the $8.9 billion state budget will need to be made. Revenue is projected to fall $173 million short.
And the Department of Correctional Services' continued needs for prison workers and solutions to problems will also take up senators' time in the 2018 session.
Senators will have 10 days at the start of the session to introduce new bills.
And lawmakers will again have an opportunity to make changes in the rules that govern them, which last session caused major disruption when it took 30 legislative days — one third of the long session — to debate proposed changes to filibusters and open voting on leadership positions.
Senators have been served notice they can suggest rule changes until the first day of the session, Speaker Jim Scheer said, and the Rules Committee will have a hearing on those proposals on the second day. Debate on the committee's recommendations will begin on Day 4.
"Could it end up being the same type of mess? I suppose it could," Scheer said.
But his hope is that senators realize that if their pet rules weren't successful last session, they probably won't be this time. And with fewer days in a short session to get something done, they will decide to hold off on pushing their agendas.
With 100 or so priority bills that could surface, time is tight, Scheer said.
"It will be a pretty full session, I suspect," he said.
Scheer says he plans to continue his practice of allowing controversial bills to have three hours of debate on first round to see if they have enough votes to go to the next level. If they don't, they won't come back until the sponsor can say she or he has the votes. That avoids long hours of filibusters that go nowhere.
Last session there were 12 to 14 bills that could have gone the distance to six hours, he said, and still would not have succeeded.
"It served, to me, a valuable purpose. It allowed us to move forward and not get bound up in things that were not going to be successful. But it gave every bill (that made it to first round) at least three hours of time," he said.
And it allowed for pertinent, intellectual discussion that wasn't focused on just how to burn time, he said.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers has often been at the center of extended debate. But Scheer said Chambers was fairly on target in his discussions last year.
"He didn't waste a lot of time," he said. "From my vantage point, it was a pretty decent session last year, that we had really meaningful discussion."
Scheer downplayed the presence of partisanship in the 2017 session, chalking up differences among senators more to differences in philosophies and ideologies.
In looking at many of the bills, he said, you'll always find Republicans voting for Democrats' bills, and vice versa.
"The more-contentious ones that people keep saying, 'That's partisan,' well, maybe so. But it's more ideological," he said.
The medical marijuana bill two years ago, for example, had as many Republican votes as Democratic votes, he said. It wasn't partisan, but it was a pretty ugly debate.
"I view that as philosophical. And those philosophies aren't necessarily unique to a party," he said.
Scheer said Gov. Pete Ricketts has influence, but so do lobbyists and others.
"Those that you may find that vote closely with the governor's recommendations probably ... pretty closely mirror the governor's viewpoints," he said. "If we're going to be honest, I think a number of the senators do very closely align philosophically with the governor."