Nebraska lawmakers may bar media from closed-door meetings

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A decades-old rule designed to promote transparency and accountability in the Nebraska Legislature could be in jeopardy under a proposal presented Tuesday to a committee of state lawmakers.

The proposed rule change would bar reporters from otherwise private “executive sessions” of legislative committees, where lawmakers discuss and vote on bills. The sessions are closed to the general public, but legislative rules allow reporters to attend them and report what happened.

The rule was created in keeping with Nebraska's one-house, officially nonpartisan Legislature, the only one of its kind nationally. Nebraska's 87-year-old system was the brainchild of former U.S. senator George Norris, who railed in the 1930s against closed-door conference committees as a corrupting force in state politics.

Sen. Dan Hughes, of Venango, said he introduced the measure after getting quoted several years ago in what he believed to be a private, frank discussion with fellow lawmakers. Hughes argued that allowing reporters to hear those deliberations has a chilling effect on senators, including himself, who want to freely exchange thoughts on politically sensitive issues.

“We're not trying to hide anything,” Hughes said in testimony before the Legislature's Rules Committee. “We’re trying to provide a better outcome by allowing members (of the Legislature) the ability to speak freely in an executive session.”

The proposal drew criticism from free-speech advocates and members of the news media, who said changing the rule would undermine public trust and make it more difficult for journalists to report accurately on legislative issues.

“Don't tell your constituents that you want to conduct more business behind closed doors,” said Dave Bundy, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, speaking on behalf of Media of Nebraska.

Bundy said transparency helps fight the kind of misinformation and conspiracy theories that have taken root in national politics.

JoAnne Young, a former Lincoln Journal Star reporter who covered the Nebraska Legislature for 14 years, said discussions that take place in executive sessions provide invaluable context and background for reporters, which helps them inform the public.

Young pointed to the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, which plays a major role in determining how billions of tax dollars are spent each year. During executive sessions, lawmakers review proposals in detail and talk openly about challenges that some of their ideas could face.

“Being able to listen to those discussions helps reporters write accurate stories and keep taxpayers and your constituents informed as to what their representatives are doing here in Lincoln,” Young said.

The closed-door discussions lawmakers have may be difficult to have in front of reporters, but they're important because the issues they address affect potentially millions of Nebraskans, said Spike Eickholt, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. Eickholt said the coverage sometimes helps lawmakers keep tabs on what's happening in other committees.

Committee members also considered a proposal to try to preserve formal decorum in the Legislature following a series of recent, nasty exchanges during public debates.

Sen. Mike Flood, of Norfolk, proposed a rule that would bar senators from speaking on the legislative floor if they disparage another person, use inappropriate language or disrespect legislative traditions when it comes to interacting with others.

Senators who violate the rule could lose their on-the-record speaking privileges for 30 days, if 33 lawmakers approve the punishment. Flood said he was open to changing the numbers and wouldn’t want the rule used as a political weapon, but he argued it should be available for extreme personal attacks.

“It will serve as an important deterrent,” said Flood, a former speaker of the Legislature.

The Rules Committee also heard proposals to change legislative filibusters, require racial impact statements when bills are introduced and other measures. Members are expected to consider the proposed rule changes on Thursday.


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