AP NEWS

22-year-old Nebraska state senator breaks stereotypes

April 6, 2019
Republican State Sen. Julie Slama poses for a portrait on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at the Nebraska Capitol Building. (Savannah Blake/Lincoln Journal Star via AP)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Julie Slama is not your stereotypical state senator.

And she may not be exactly what you expect.

Slama is 22 years old; she’s traveled to 31 countries, 20 of which she visited on solo trips.

And while serving long days in the Legislature, she is also going to law school.

A self-described “country girl” who grew up outside Peru and graduated from Auburn High School, she’s a graduate of Yale University, where she majored in political science with an emphasis on international relations that included course work in terrorism, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

Slama, who was press secretary in Gov. Pete Ricketts’ successful 2018 re-election campaign, was appointed to the Legislature by the governor following former Sen. Dan Watermeier’s election to the Nebraska Public Service Commission.

However, despite what others may have assumed, she said she was not prompted or urged by the governor to apply for the legislative opening.

“Two weeks after the election I decided I wanted to throw my hat in the ring,” Slama said during an interview in her 11th floor office at the state Capitol, where she can look out west past Lincoln’s County-City Building and sometimes see the sunset that signals a long day’s march into evening hours.

But she has not seen the sunset all that often: Usually, she has been tied up in lengthy afternoon legislative committee hearings, which finally wound down last week.

Yes, her conservative Republican views match up well with those of Ricketts, she said, but here’s something else that might surprise you: “There will be times when I disagree with the governor.

“We represent different groups of people,” she said. “He represents the entire state.

“Goal No. 1 for me is property tax relief,” Slama said, “and I think we’re going to have to pick out a way to pay for it.”

Ideally, there should be $400 million to $500 million devoted to property tax reductions, Slama said, “and that has to come from somewhere.”

“I have questions if we can cut $400 million to $500 million” from current state spending, she said, “and I will not support a one-to-one shift to other taxpayers.”

That means “cuts and shifts working together” to provide substantial property tax relief, she said, especially for farmers who now are under extreme economic duress and bear the brunt of local school funding in rural Nebraska.

Ricketts supports more modest and incremental property tax relief along with a constitutional limit on future property tax increases and he adamantly opposes any increase in other taxes to help fund more substantial property tax reduction now.

Slama said she has confidence in Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, who is attempting to construct a major property tax reduction package now as chairwoman of the Legislature’s Revenue Committee.

“She is uniquely qualified to put this together,” Slama said. “She is the right woman for the job.”

The committee currently is working on a tentative blueprint that could raise nearly $300 million in new revenue — largely through state sales tax increases — to boost annual property tax relief to more than $500 million a year.

A high noon showdown is looming ahead.

And how is there time for law school?

Slama is enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law and she has been able to attend a couple of classes — one that meets in the afternoon after legislative committee hearings and one in the early morning before the Legislature convenes — while also engaging in researching and writing coursework.

Best estimate is this might take six years if she’s elected to a four-year legislative term in 2020.

Slama will be a candidate in the 1st District, which is composed of five counties in the southeastern corner of the state.

As a result of the mid-term appointment, she’s positioned to have an opportunity to serve 10 years in the Legislature — well beyond the eight years imposed by the constitutional limitation of two elected four-year terms — but Slama isn’t ready to plan that far ahead at this point in her life.

At age 22 — she’ll celebrate her 23rd birthday on May 2 — Slama is the third-youngest senator ever to serve in the Nebraska Legislature.

“But I have not had a single experience where I’ve been treated differently,” she said.

Slama has been an early and active participant in legislative debate and recently guided her bill amending the expectations and requirements for American civics and social studies education in public schools through a series of compromises and to eventual enactment on a 44-2 vote.

“I was incredibly impressed with how respectful everyone was in finding a compromise,” she said. “I was surprised how many people were willing to come to the table.”

And, although she is a Republican serving in the nonpartisan Legislature, she said she has been impressed by a number of Democrats, as well as members of her own political party.

Among them: Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who “has been a great ally” in supporting her bill that confronts human trafficking.

“It has been a real honor to work with Patty Pansing Brooks on that bill,” Slama said.

“As a law school student, every day has been a learning experience,” she added, perhaps especially through her assignment as a member of the Judiciary Committee. “I had to be on my toes every day.”

Like a number of other freshman senators, Slama became an active participant in floor debate almost from the beginning of the legislative session that set sail in January.

“The people of District 1 want someone from Day 1 who will advocate for them and serve them,” she said. “I didn’t come here to just sit back and watch.”

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com