Nebraska senators addressed the media and others on a closed virtual press conference Monday about their commitment to assist Nebraskans in several issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
Senators representing several districts shared their focus for the remaining legislative session. Topics included food security, mental and behavioral health, housing, childcare and worker safety.
Sen. Sue Crawford, representing District 45, said the senators will work to find meaningful responses.
"We have all heard from our constituents, directly and in listening sessions for the public, about what they have lost because of the pandemic, and their deep anxieties for the future," she said. "To Nebraskans who are grieving, those who are worried about next month’s rent or this month’s grocery bills, and to our essential workers who keep our communities running: we are with you."
Sen. Michaela Cavanaugh of District 6 described what she learned through listening sessions July 11 and 14 with 15 of her colleagues.
"We heard from Children's Hospital that children's immunizations are down 30 percent and a need for the state to set minimum safety standards that must be provided to employees during the pandemic even if only temporary," Cavanaugh said. "We heard about numerous pieces of legislation that are currently active in the legislature that we should be taking up and giving serious consideration to, and concerns around family leave."
Sen. John McCollister of District 20 said his focus is on feeding Nebraskans. McCollister, who has introduced three SNAP bills since he began in 2015, introduced LB 255 in 2019.
“That bill is on general file and I hope to amend it to LB 327 to expand SNAP at a time when a lot of Nebraskans are hungry,” he said. “It's estimated that 8-11 percent of Nebraskans are food insecure. With the pandemic we are currently facing I'm sure that’s increased.”
McCollister said his bill will allow the gross income allowed up to 185 percent of the federal poverty rate.
“It will dovetail with the pandemic EBT program that was instituted,” he said.
Sen. Adam Morfeld of District 46 hopes to help Nebraskans facing evictions this fall.
“Although Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has allotted funding for rental assistance, it's insufficient to meet the demand,” Morfeld said. “With so many Nebraskans at risk for eviction, the authority to establish eviction moratoriums should be established. Under my amendment to LB 866 cities of any class and villages in the state of Nebraska will have the authority to institute eviction moratoriums in response to public health crises, including COVID-19.”
Sen. Anna Wishart of District 27 said her focus has been on access of mental and behavioral healthcare.
“I’m prioritizing LB 1052, a bill that prevents Medicaid from stopping coverage for people's mental health medications,” she said. “It's very critical that we pass this priority bill this year and that moving forward as a legislature we work on supporting innovative ways to increase access to healthcare, all forms of healthcare, especially mental and behavioral healthcare for those who are struggling during this challenging time.”
Sen. Tony Vargas of District 7 has focused his attention on worker safety, especially in the packing plants.
“They are working too closely on the assembly lines, the employers will threaten them with their jobs if they go public and if they're sick they are encouraged to go to work anyway,” Vargas said. “They're being forced to choose between their health and the health of their coworkers. The consequences of that are dire.”
Vargas said the workers have been classified by the government as essential employees.
“They're treated like they're disposable,” he said. “It's outrageous and it needs to change. Nebraska can and should do more to protect our critical food security infrastructure.”
Childcare is the topic Sen. Megan Hunt of District 8 is focusing on.
“Childcare is already unaffordable for the majority of working parents and supply for childcare has already decreased as a result of the pandemic,” she said. “In robust times, on average low-income working parents would spend an average of a quarter of their income on childcare, compared to 8 percent for higher-income parents. The Childcare Subsidy Program, Title 20, puts childcare costs within reach for parents. Eligibility is set at 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $28,236 annually for a family of three.”
There is not a lot of time left in their session, but it is not a deterrent to the senators.
“Today, we are also committing to the longer road ahead to bring relief and recovery to our constituents,” Crawford said. “We can’t go back to normal. We know that normal — even before the pandemic — was an unsustainable, inequitable reality for too many Nebraskans. We commit to building a better future for the next generation of Nebraskans.”