The 106th Legislature has begun and its plate is full

January 9, 2019

Nebraska’s newest youngest state Senator is appointee Julie Slama of Peru. The 22-year-old is a Yale University graduate and fifth-generation Nebraskan who served as Governor Pete Ricketts’ campaign press secretary and a para educator for Auburn schools. She replaces Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse who was elected to the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

According to legislative records, the first youngest member to ever serve in the Nebraska Legislature was Sen. Steve Fowler of Lincoln in 1972. The 22-year-old University of Nebraska senior defeated incumbent William Swanson for the 27th District seat in Lincoln. Four years later, 22-year-old Samuel Cullan of Hemingford defeated incumbent Leslie Stull of Alliance.

In announcing her appointment, Ricketts said “Julie will push for property tax relief, help create policy that supports strong families and work to grow agriculture. She will be a fierce advocate for rural communities and will help bridge the urban-rural divide in the Legislature.”

Interestingly, Fowler also campaigned on tax issues. Swanson was an appointee of Governor Norbert Tiemann and Fowler noted that his opponent favored special interests and backed special property tax bills that favored those groups. He said he was not tied to any special interest groups and would “work for property tax relief for all of the people.”

Fowler spent 11 years in the Legislature and left to work for then- Governor Bob Kerrey as a policy adviser and later as a political campaign strategist and adviser in California. Cullan served two terms and left the Legislature to go to law school. While practicing law, he went to medical school. After graduation, he joined another brother who also had dual degrees in law and medicine and they represent clients who deal with the health care industry.

Tax issues and health care will be on the table as Slama and her colleagues begin their 90-day session, which runs through June. After four years of lip service, Ricketts will likely try to deliver some manner of property tax relief to start his second term. With 30 Republicans in the Legislative chamber – many of them beholden to him for his financial campaign support, he likely feels his odds might be pretty good.

But, there are also 18 Democrats, one independent (the venerable Ernie Chambers), and a few independent minded, maybe even progressive, Republicans. That’ll make for some interesting discussions and challenge Ricketts and the party faithful to do more than pull the strings tighter. They might even have to seek a compromise. Somewhere out there is an on-going threat that the property tax issue could wind up on the general election ballot.

Perhaps a more pressing issue is the voter-mandated expansion of Medicaid coverage for as many as 90,000 of the state’s working poor who have fallen through the cracks. That issue has been debated for at least seven years. Supporters tired of partisan stonewalling and took a decision to the voters who overwhelming approved, thus forcing lawmakers to devise an implementation plan this session.

With receipts lagging behind projections and a flat agriculture economy, the attraction of a U.S. Supreme Court-approved collection of internet sales taxes also demands attention. The governor wants to divert the funds – estimated at $30 million to $40 million a year – to property tax relief. Lawmakers would like to use it to replenish the cash reserve fund, which has been depleted by almost 50 percent during the past four years. There are likely other schemes yet to surface.

That’s a lot facing the new young senator and her 11 first-time colleagues. Here’s hoping they can hit the ground running, agree quickly to a set of rules and actually get some meaningful work done.

J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 20 years.

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