2019 Nebraska legislative session opens with less turmoil, partisanship than two years ago

January 10, 2019

LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers launched their 2019 session on Wednesday with less acrimony and less partisanship.

The election of new senators to lead legislative committees came in stark contrast to two years ago, when a group of conservative Republicans developed a slate of like-minded candidates and swept the in-house elections, creating partisan wounds that took months to heal in the officially nonpartisan body.

But on Wednesday, the voting tended to reflect traditions of the past, when chairs of committee were elected more on experience and personality than political party.

“I’m really optimistic for the upcoming session,” said State Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, who was re-elected speaker of the Legislature. “What I saw, regardless of (political) affiliation or demographics, were people shaking hands and slapping backs.”

“Everyone felt they had a successful day,” Scheer said, “and that wasn’t the case two years ago.”

Overall, of the 17 major leadership posts, Republicans were elected to 12 of them and Democrats were chosen for five. In contrast, only one Democrat was elected to a chairmanship during the tumult of 2017.

This year, two Democrats from Omaha were elected without opposition to lead key committees. Sen. Sara Howard, who has a background in child welfare issues, won election to lead the Health and Human Services, and Sen. Steve Lathrop, a veteran trial attorney returning to the Legislature after a break due to term limits, won the top spot on the Judiciary Committee.

Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann, a Republican, said that, while he was disappointed with a couple of the leadership races, he saw a “better spirit of camaraderie and fairness” on Wednesday.

More than one senator used the term “mixed bag” to describe who won the leadership elections.

“We have a nonpartisan body, but we elected what I’d call a nice mix of Republicans and Democrats,” said Gothenburg Sen. Matt Williams.

In the major contested races:

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene, known for his outspoken and sometimes gruff style, held on to his post as chair of the Education Committee. But it took two ballots for the conservative Republican to best Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha, a Democrat and a former Millard West High School principal. On the first ballot, neither candidate collected the necessary 25 votes of the 49 senators in the unicameral Legislature.Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan edged Omaha Sen. Brett Lindstrom to head the Revenue Committee, which oversees tax policy. Linehan, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, won the race between the two Republicans, observers said, by using her political skills. She also benefited from her pledge to make progress on the issue of property tax relief, saying that the state’s agricultural producers are facing a “crisis” of low commodity prices and crippling tax bills.Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, a Republican, was elected chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board over Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz, a Democrat. Hilgers touted his experience as a lawyer and in solving problems in gaining one of the Legislature’s top posts. Lawmakers then balanced out the board’s leadership by choosing a Democrat from Omaha, Sen. Tony Vargas, as vice chairman over Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist, a Republican.Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln ousted Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston for chair of the Business and Labor Committee. Hansen is a Democrat and Albrecht is a Republican. Albrecht, a former Sarpy County Board member, was elected to the post two years ago as a first-year senator, which was a break from a tradition of electing experienced legislators to chair committees.Albion Sen. Tom Briese was elected chairman of the General Affairs Committee, which oversees liquor policies, among other things. A Republican, he defeated Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood, a Democrat. Briese, who will be reintroducing a property tax relief plan this session, described the race as a contest between friends.

The 2018 elections delivered what is expected to be a slightly more moderate Legislature this year. Thirty Republicans, 18 Democrats and one independent took their seats in the officially nonpartisan body Wednesday. That’s three more Democrats and two fewer Republicans than the last group.

Before the leadership elections, 13 newly elected or appointed senators and 13 re-elected lawmakers took the oath of office.

The group includes Sen. Julie Slama of Peru, who became the third-youngest state senator in Nebraska history. She is 22 years, 8 months and 1 week old, which makes her just a few months older than former Sens. Steve Fowler of Lincoln (22 years, 4 months, 25 days) and Sam Cullan of Hemingford (22 years, 6 months, 16 days).

Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed Slama to replace Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, who resigned after being elected to the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

During the 2019 session, lawmakers are expected to focus on crafting a state budget, carrying out the voter-approved expansion of Medicaid and debating property tax relief.

The 90-day session is slated to end June 6.

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