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October Legislative Update

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The following update from State Senator Megan Hunt

Dear friends and neighbors,

I wanted to share an update about what’s going on in our office over this interim period as we get ready for the next session. There have been some changes around here and we are full steam ahead for a successful wrap-up to this year as we transitioning into 2021, which will bring many new state senators into the Legislature.

In our office, we have a new staffer, Hanna Murdoch. Hanna is a veteran of state policy work, coming to us from term-limited State Senator Sue Crawford’s office, and with previous experience working for a Colorado State Senator. Her policy expertise includes climate change/environment, healthcare, and economic justice. Her personal interests include outdoor adventures and growing things. She is joining our team as a Chief of Staff and Legislative Aide, leading the research behind our bills for the upcoming session.

We’re starting to get bills ready for next year which means lots of meetings with stakeholders. Two that have been our main focus in the past week include one to lift the lifetime SNAP ban for people with drug convictions, which will remove a major barrier to success for formerly incarcerated people, while reducing hunger for families and children. Last year, this bill advanced from committee unanimously but was filibustered on the floor. (Sidenote: My belief is that lawmakers shouldn’t vote against any public benefits programs until they have had to fill out the paperwork, go through an interview, speak to a case worker learn about the disruptive and bureaucratic recertification process, etc., but that’s another topic.)

The other bill is to create a Youth in Care Bill of Rights, which is designed to inform young people within both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems of their rights and ensure that they can file a grievance if their rights are being abused. After three listening sessions in Fremont, Lincoln, and Omaha, it became clear that youth involved in the welfare and juvenile justice systems in the state did not know about the rights that they were owed by the state, and this bill seeks to remedy that. Main stakeholders at the table include Voices for Children, Nebraska Appleseed, and the Nebraska Children’s Commission. The Department of Health and Human Services has so far been unwilling to meet.

Besides working on new legislation, the bulk of our days consist of constituent services. We are still helping Nebraskans receive unemployment and SNAP benefits they are entitled to from the early part of the pandemic. Many of these Nebraskans have never been system-involved, and many are slipping through the cracks when trying to work with agencies to get their benefits.

Nebraska is, once again, the only state in the country that hasn’t extended federal pandemic food assistance benefits to its people, which ended in July. Governor Pete Ricketts defended his decision not to extend food assistance, saying he was signaling Nebraska’s return to a “more normal life.” Along with many others, I have not stopped putting pressure on the Governor to extend Pandemic EBT benefits. By refusing to take advantage of this federal aid, the Governor is essentially making Nebraska taxpayers subsidize assistance to every state except our own. This is the Governor’s decision, however, and he is firm in his opposition to supporting hungry Nebraskans. I can’t force him to change his mind.

In terms of Legislative fixes for hardships caused by the pandemic, the Governor and conservative wing of the Legislature have blocked many of my policies that could have offered relief, like increasing the tipped minimum wage from $2.13, SNAP for people with drug convictions, ensuring that eligible children aren’t removed from food assistance benefits due to someone in the household being disqualified because of a crime, etc. There’s nothing the Legislature can do out of session to pass new policy, but I encourage you to pressure the legislators who voted against those bills and the Governor. Ask them to support Pandemic-EBT for hungry Nebraskans, and encourage them to support new legislation in 2021 to help Nebraskans facing poverty.

Last Monday I spoke at the Benson Neighborhood Association meeting at Benson Park, and I’m figuring out how to have a few virtual town halls between now and January, when we go back into session. Be on the lookout for an upcoming invitation to my first virtual town hall. Of course, I’m also taking care of my fifth-grade daughter and managing her virtual learning. My hat is off to all parents and educators in Omaha who are dealing with balancing work, education, schooling, and all the challenges of this pandemic.

Next year I am planning to introduce about 20 bills, and many of them may be familiar to you. I don’t think that we need to reinvent the wheel because there are so many basic policy problems that Nebraska has not yet come on board with. As we finalize our legislative agenda for 2021, I will share that with all of you. In the meantime, please reach out to me and let me know what matters to you.
All the best,
Meg

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