The speaker of the Legislature notified state senators Monday he intends to call them back into session beginning July 20 to work on state budget changes, priority bills and property tax cuts.
His decision, Speaker Jim Scheer said, was based on the current belief that the COVID-19 cases will have peaked by that time, and that it will not surge again midsummer as restrictions are gradually loosened.
If everything goes as planned, the session would run through Aug. 13. The plan is to meet two full weeks in July, Aug. 3-6 and Aug. 11-13.
"Please keep in mind that I reserve the right to alter this 2020 reconvening session calendar should it appear best to do so," he told them.
Because there are a number of priority bills to debate in the 17 remaining days, including adjustments to the 2020-21 state budget, Scheer is scheduling late-night sessions, sometimes as late as 10 p.m., except for the last day of each work week.
The state's 2020-21 fiscal year, and the second year of the state's two-year general fund spending direction, begins July 1. But Scheer said changes could still be made via amendments to the budget bills, which would require broad support.
Tax receipts were significantly short of projections for April, mostly because of a delay in income tax filing to July 15, but overall the state was still ahead of forecasts in the 10th month of the budget year.
To provide a safer way to meet, Scheer and Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O'Donnell and others have worked on modifying procedures, based on recommendations by Lincoln-Lancaster County Public Health Director Pat Lopez.
Procedures used in March when the Legislature met for three days to pass emergency COVID-19 funding will be continued. Those included no media on the floor of the Legislature and no notes coming in from the lobby.
Other precautions will include:
* Shields will be installed at senators' desk areas and senators will be spread out across the chamber. Senators normally sit about 5 feet apart in a row of desks, but those behind and in front of them are about 3 feet away. To spread them out, some senators will be moved from the main seating areas to tables under the balconies.
* Coronavirus testing will be offered to senators at the Capitol, and temperature checks will be done for anyone entering the chamber.
* Only staff of a senator whose bill is being discussed will be allowed in the chamber.
* Glass doors between the lobby and the chamber will be locked and senators will enter and exit through two doors at the west end.
* Senators will be encouraged to wear masks, and masks and gloves will be available. The speaker said he intends to wear a mask.
* The chamber will be cleaned each night.
Scheer said a couple of senators are still talking about meeting remotely, rather than returning to the Capitol. That would require a change or suspension of rules.
"I can't tell you whether there is significant interest to change that, or not," he said. "I personally don't think that's necessary, with precautions that we are taking."
On the budget front, the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board meets in July, and would be expected to project lower tax receipts. Those forecasts are used by the governor and Legislature's Appropriations Committee to determine spending for next fiscal year.
The state is also receiving federal relief dollars and state income taxes are due July 15.
"A lot of the questions that are out there will have been answered by the time we're able to meet," he said.
Scheer asked senators to consider how any priority bill would negatively impact the general fund, and any amendments to the bills that would eliminate or minimize that impact.
Gov. Pete Ricketts said at his briefing Monday property tax relief and business tax incentive (LB720) bills need to be the focus when senators return.
With the loss of revenue likely with the pandemic, he said, the state will have to adjust expectations for what the property tax cuts will be. There's not going to be enough money in the near term to do what he thought could be done three months ago.
"However, this is still one of the most important issues that we have here in the state, and certainly it was the most important before the pandemic hit," Ricketts said.
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