If we're being honest, and many of us are in Nebraska, the Legislature is not for everyone.
Judging by the Journal Star online stories people read in droves, Nebraskans prefer accountings of arrests, car crashes, misbehaving weather, odd crimes, Husker sports, intriguing cars and their owners. Did we mention Husker sports?
But here's the deal. Your Journal Star statehouse reporters find what happens at Nebraska's Capitol fascinating. We know, however, that like Nebraska itself, it's an acquired taste. Like wanting to know if your representatives are going to ease your tax burden, or change gun laws, legalize medical marijuana or cut funding for higher education.
Following government action is not on everyone's bucket list, we know. But if you're so inclined, if you are interested in what that senator you or someone else elected is going to say next, we're here for you, Nebraska.
— JoAnne Young
What will be the biggest topics in the 2019 Legislature?
The Journal Star's Statehouse reporters have rounded up topics they believe will command attention in the 106th Nebraska Legislature session, which begins at 10 a.m. Wednesday. Here are their predictions:
Property tax relief once again will be a challenging issue as the Legislature struggles to find a filibuster-proof majority of senators who can agree on some package of tax reform.
Built into that challenge is funding and allocation of state aid to schools which, in turn, has a major impact on the state budget.
Gov. Pete Ricketts is expected to weigh in with his own proposals as he did in 2018.
State aid to schools
Senators on an informal study committee this summer dug deep into the history and rationale behind the state's school funding formula.
They learned over time, the Tax Equity and Educational Opportunities Support Act, or TEEOSA, gradually shifted the burden to property taxpayers, leaving some school districts without any state aid.
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who will seek re-election as chair of the Education Committee, said the Legislature needs to move the needle away from property taxpayers in order to create a more equitable formula, and erect guardrails to prevent future shifts.
Tweaking any part of the state aid formula -- several bills will likely be introduced offering changes to various components -- may add more cost to the state, which is already facing a budget crunch.
Expanded Medicaid coverage approved by Nebraska voters in November is likely to spark sharp legislative division over the terms, and perhaps the timing, of state implementation and funding.
Ricketts already has signaled his intention to fund the state's share of costs for expansion of coverage to an estimated 90,000 Nebraskans, primarily identified as the working poor, out of the current state budget.
Medicaid expansion supporters have pointed to the new revenue that will be flowing into the state from collection of state sales taxes already owed for online purchases as one potential source of funding.
Ricketts will be fully engaged with issues in what appears likely to be a conservative Legislature that contains perhaps one or two more moderate, or progressive, voices following results from the 2018 election.
Heading into his second and final term, the conservative Republican governor will be working with a nonpartisan Legislature composed of 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats and one registered nonpartisan.
Sens. Anna Wishart and Adam Morfeld registered a campaign committee -- Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws -- over the legislative interim that could allow voters to place a medical marijuana legalization measure on the 2020 ballot.
The committee would seek a constitutional amendment to give Nebraskans the right to use marijuana for medical purposes.
Wishart is also going to give the Legislature another chance to pass a medical cannabis law, similar to but not exactly like the one she introduced two sessions ago that did not get to a vote.
Meanwhile, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson has issued two memorandums to law enforcement saying it remains illegal to possess, manufacture, distribute or dispense CBD oil.
The Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee of the Legislature recommended in its 2018 report that the state continue to address crowding in its prisons.
According to Nebraska Inspector General Doug Koebernick, the state has one of the most crowded systems in the country, with a population at 157 percent of design capacity. The percentage has dropped slightly because of an increase of 100 beds at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln and a "very slight" decrease in the number of inmates.
Reform bills passed by the Legislature have not had the effect of lowering the inmate population as senators had hoped they would by this time.
Staffing continues to be a problem, with an increase in staff overtime at the prisons more than doubling in four years, Koebernick said in his 2018 annual report.
The committee said that since nearly all inmates will ultimately re-enter the community, "it is vital that those serving time are given an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and gain valuable skills while incarcerated."
The University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved a two-year budget request last August asking for a 3 percent and 3.7 percent increase to the university's state appropriations.
NU President Hank Bounds said the request for $39 million more in state money, if granted, would barely cover the university's rising costs in 2019-20 and 2020-21.
One regent said the $610 million request by 2021 was "deficient compared to (the university's) needs," and one that may lead to tuition increases or further programmatic cuts to balance NU's budget.
NU has made $22 million in cuts toward an existing $46 million budget gap, eliminating 100-plus jobs in the process.
Last year's Legislature approved cutting NU's budget 1 percent -- the third cut to the university's budget in 18 months -- after Ricketts proposed a 4 percent reduction.
Legislature 2019: By the numbers
Senators who represent Lincoln in the Legislature.
Days senators have to introduce bills at the beginning of the session.
New members to be sworn in Jan. 9, including those newly elected and newly appointed.
Women who will serve in the 106th Nebraska Legislature.
Recess days or federal and state holidays off during the long session.
Age of the youngest member of the Legislature, Julie Slama, a law student and press secretary for Gov. Pete Ricketts' recent re-election campaign.
Senators to be sworn in Jan. 9, including incumbents, newly elected and newly appointed.
Senators, out of 49, who have served in the Legislature two years or fewer.
Age of oldest member of the Legislature, Sen. Ernie Chambers, and also the longest-serving.
Days in the long session of the Legislature that begins Jan. 9 and is slated to end June 6.
Compensated lobbyists registered with the Nebraska Legislature. An additional 16 uncompensated lobbyists are registered.
Legislative session to take place 'under construction'
If you're headed to the Capitol to talk to your state senator during this legislative session, you might want to call ahead.
And if you think you know your way around, be warned there have been changes.
An eight-year, $106 million heating, air-conditioning and renovation project kicked off last summer, sealing off the southwest quadrant of the Capitol behind temporary walls where first phase work is taking place.
While the south and west doors remain open, the work has pushed some senators into the tower on floors not accessible to the general public.
Anyone wanting to meet with a senator in the tower should call ahead to schedule an appointment, said Roxanne Smith, the Capitol's tourism supervisor and public-information officer.
Or, visitors can stop at the information desk on the ground floor to request a legislative staff member come down to meet them.
Some shuffling may still happen, however, after the Legislature convenes and committee assignments are doled out, moving some senators into the tower or others back onto the lower floors.
Smith said the final roster and office locations should be published on the Legislature's website — nebraskalegislature.gov — by mid-January.
Construction will also move some committees into the Warner Chamber — the former Senate chamber before the unicameral form of government was adopted — opposite the George W. Norris Chamber for this session.
Hearings for the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee will be in the Warner Chamber on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the Judiciary Committee will meet there Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
The Nebraska Court of Appeals will convene in the Nebraska Supreme Court hearing room while the renovation is taking place.
And the Capitol's cafeteria has moved to Room 1301 inside the east doors, where it will be open weekdays 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Smith said any questions should be directed to the information desk on the ground floor.
— Chris Dunker
Legislature: The reporters and editors bringing you legislative news
The team bringing Lincoln Journal Star readers their legislative news has combined journalistic experience totaling more than 106 years -- which is the number of the session that begins on Wednesday.
JoAnne Young is covering her 13th session of the Nebraska unicameral this year. She also writes about state agencies, and before that, reported on schools, county government and medical news for the Journal Star. She finished sixth out of 10 teams this season in her fantasy football league.
Contact JoAnne at 402-473-7228, firstname.lastname@example.org or @LJSLegislature.
Don Walton is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter who has covered the Legislature during portions of his reporting career, including most recently since 2015. Don is a Husker and Yankee fan.
Contact Don at 402-473-7248, email@example.com or @LJSDon.
Chris Dunker is covering his second legislative session. He also writes about higher education, and has covered school boards, city councils, county government, crime and courts. When Chris is not writing, he keeps busy chasing a toddler and keeping his lawn green.
Contact Chris at 402-473-7120, firstname.lastname@example.org or @ChrisDunkerLJS.
Shelly Kulhanek is the editor for the Statehouse team. She’s been correcting it’s and its for more than 30 years in stories, but she still avoids using the verb lay in all its present, past and future tenses.
Contact Shelly at 402-473-7253, email@example.com or @editorontherun.