- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Time is running out for Nebraska lawmakers to address some of the most high-profile issues of the year, and legislative leaders now concede that some priorities probably won’t get debated.

When they reconvene Tuesday, senators will have 11 working days left in their short, 60-day session with contentious issues unresolved: property taxes, medical marijuana and a new Medicaid proposal to provide health coverage to low-income people.

Lawmakers spent much of the session slogging through drawn-out debates on issues including poker, meatpacker ownership of hogs and hunting permit fees.

Part of the slowdown is caused by a dramatic increase in filibusters in the last few years to block legislation. So far this year, senators have filed 13 cloture motions to try to break filibusters, according to the legislative clerk’s office. Senators filed 14 motions last year and nine in 2014, but in prior years the number ranged from one to six.

“This will be remembered as the year of the filibuster,” said Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha. “It’s obviously put a lot of pressure on all of us in the last days of the session.”

Mello said senators aren’t finding as many compromises on bills as they did when he came into office nearly eight years ago, and senators are also mounting filibusters against bills that initially weren’t viewed as controversial.

Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala said the long debates reflect the controversial issues lawmakers have sought to address this year.

“The short sessions are always crazy, and none of them has quite the same flavor,” said Schilz, who leaves office in January because of term limits. “But with this one, we started out with contentious issues. That contention has just kind of percolated through the whole session.”

Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley said he doubts all of the bills designated as “priorities” this year will see debate. Hadley said he’s urging lawmakers to take early “test votes” on bills so senators can see whether they have enough votes to advance them.

Hadley said the Legislature has seen a steady increase in filibusters in the last few years because lawmakers see it as a way to block bills when they’re in the minority. Advancing a bill takes 25 votes in the 49-member Legislature, but breaking a filibuster raises the vote threshold to 33.

“People have decided that it’s a good way to stop a bill,” said Hadley, of Kearney. “If you don’t have 25 votes to stop it, you can filibuster and stop it with 17 or 18.”

Longtime lobbyist Walt Radcliffe said the session has moved “like a glacier” as senators roll from one filibuster to another. Years ago, before voters enacted term limits, Radcliffe said many controversial issues were decided with a simple majority.

“The days of passing a bill 28-21 are gone,” Radcliffe said. “I think you’ve got more polarized positions in the Legislature. People are less inclined to try to reach compromises.”

Under a new policy adopted this year, filibusters generally last up to six hours during first-round debate, four hours before a second-round vote and two hours on a bill’s final reading. First-round debate took at least eight hours in previous years, but Hadley announced that he was shortening the time because filibusters were becoming more common.

Lawmakers have also begun to work longer days, starting at 9 a.m. and staying until at least 7 p.m. most days. Lunch breaks were shortened from 90 minutes to 20. Hadley said lawmakers may have to stay later into the evening as the session’s end nears, but he tries to avoid it because he has concerns about the quality of legislation when senators and their staffs are tired and many of the senators have checked out for the day.

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