AP NEWS
Related topics

Nebraska senators show bipartisan tilt on session’s 1st day

January 9, 2019
1 of 3
Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, newly elected Speaker of the Legislature, left, is congratulated by colleagues, including Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, second right, on the first day of the legislative session in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. During the 90-day session, lawmakers will consider proposals to legalize medical marijuana, change prison-sentencing laws to reduce overcrowding, and expand a tax break to military retirees. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers showed a bipartisan tilt Wednesday as they kicked off a new session, electing senators from both parties to fill leadership positions in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.

The committee leadership votes were a marked contrast from the last in-house elections two years ago, when conservative Republicans claimed nearly all the available chairmanships. Democrats and even some moderate Republicans blasted the 2017 votes as a partisan power grab, while conservatives argued that it better reflected the GOP-dominated state.

This year, Democrats won four of the 14 standing committee chairmanships. Democrats gained seats in the November general elections, signaling that the conservative-leaning Legislature could become more moderate over the next two years.

Speaker of the Legislature Jim Scheer said the first-day atmosphere was notably better Wednesday than it was after the GOP sweep two years ago. He said he’s hopeful it translates into a session where lawmakers are more willing to work together and communicate, even when they disagree.

“If you look at (senators) as they left the floor this morning, everyone was smiling. They were shaking hands. They were slapping backs,” Scheer said. “Two years ago, that was not happening.”

Nebraska’s Legislature is ostensibly nonpartisan, with no formal party leadership and no way to enforce party discipline. But partisanship still creeps into some of the Legislature’s actions.

The Legislature is now composed of 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats and one left-leaning independent. Despite their majority, GOP senators won’t have enough votes by themselves to overcome legislative filibusters.

Sen. Mike Groene, a staunch conservative from North Platte, said the Legislature appears to be more evenly divided than the last two years, when conservatives held more sway.

“The things I want to get done are going to be harder to do,” he said.

Thirteen newly elected and appointed state lawmakers were sworn into office Wednesday, and another 13 who were re-elected began new four-year terms. Scheer, a Republican, was re-elected to his leadership post.

Scheer said he has always tried to act with integrity, fairness and consistency in the position, which he first won two years ago. He said he won’t give special treatment to any one senator and will treat the rare, one-house Legislature with respect.

Gov. Pete Ricketts will be sworn into office for a second term on Thursday.

The new session begins with an expected focus on the state’s budget challenges. Lawmakers face a projected $95 million revenue shortfall in their upcoming two-year budget. They also will consider proposals to legalize medical marijuana, change prison sentencing laws to reduce overcrowding, and expand a tax break to military retirees.

Ricketts has pledged to introduce a new property tax package to address a major concern of farmers, ranchers and homeowners who have seen their tax bills soar over the last decade.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the new chairwoman of the Revenue Committee, said lawmakers need to act this year to help farmers and ranchers “who are close to a crisis.”

Linehan said she hopes to find a plan that can win support from both agricultural and business groups, which have been at odds over tax policy in recent years. Business leaders have pushed for lower income taxes, while farm and ranch groups want to keep the Legislature’s focus on property taxes.

“We’re going to get to work immediately,” Linehan said. But to get enough votes, “you have to have business and ag groups on board. We’re going to have to lock ourselves in a room until we come up with something.”

Lawmakers will spend the first 10 days of the session introducing new bills.

___

Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

AP RADIO
Update hourly