Many senators coming to Legislature fresh off campaign trail
Twenty-one members of the Nebraska Legislature are entering the 2019 lawmaking session in January fresh off the campaign trail, most either re-elected this month or coming in as a first-timer to the office of state senator.
They will come in with vivid memories of talks with voters on the needs for property tax relief, school funding reform and health care.
You can count Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont among those who have spent the past seven months campaigning, though not for re-election to the Legislature. She’s been border-to- border in the state as the running mate of gubernatorial candidate Bob Krist.
Walz was elected to the Legislature in 2016 and will have two more years before she would have to run again for her District 15 seat. Campaigning with Krist was a humbling experience, she said, and opened her eyes to unique needs of Nebraska’s communities and its people.
“I was really glad that I had that opportunity to get out of my little world that I live in in Fremont and really understand the struggles that people are going through all over Nebraska,” she said.
A lot of issues need to be dealt with in the upcoming session, she said, “and I really hope that we can come together this year as a Legislature and move Nebraska forward.”
The Legislature is nonpartisan, but with just 49 members in one house, Republicans and Democrats must work together to get anything done. The past two sessions were known, however, for less cooperation and less ability to move important issues, such as bills dealing with property tax reform and medical cannabis. And they left Medicaid expansion for voters to decide via initiative petition.
At least a dozen bills — some of them significant policy issues — were debated for three hours, then left the agenda forever, because the sponsors of those bills couldn’t show Speaker Jim Scheer they had the votes to get past a filibuster.
Twenty-three priority bills were parked on general file at the end of the session and died when the Legislature adjourned on Day 60. And senators had to request cloture votes 25 times to stop filibusters.
A number of senators said that whether the Legislature was feeling the effects of term limits or something else, the ability to trust fellow senators seemed to have deteriorated.
The new collection of senators coming in January include seven Republicans — nine by the time Gov. Pete Ricketts makes his appointments to fill the seats of Sens. John Murante and Dan Watermeier — and four Democrats (depending on the outcome of Douglas County’s District 10 race). They have expertise in health, local government, farming, small business and the law.
But 30 of them could have two years or less experience in state lawmaking. And just more than a dozen of the 49 have only four years of experience.
In January, senators will also elect new leadership for their committees, and six of 14 chairs of standing committees have left the Legislature, either by force of term limits, failure to be re-elected, or choosing to leave for other elected office. That includes the Judiciary Committee, which handles the most bills each session; the Revenue Committee, which deals with tax reform; and the Executive Board, which supervises legislative services and employees.
As of Friday, 12 senators had sent letters announcing their intentions to seek election to those committees. They are Scheer for Speaker; Steve Halloran for Agriculture; John Stinner for Appropriations; Matt Williams for Banking, Commerce and Insurance; Joni Albrecht for Business and Labor; Robert Hilkemann for Committee on Committees; Rick Kolowski for Education; Kate Bolz for Executive Board; Carol Blood for General Affairs; Tom Brewer for Government, Military and Veterans Affairs; Mark Kolterman for Retirement Systems; and Brett Lindstrom for Revenue.
Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who was originally in the Class of 2007, and sat out four years because of term limits, is a new member that has two terms of experience. The Omaha attorney said Friday he would like to chair the Judiciary Committee. He has professional experience with many of the issues that come before the committee, he said, and served on the committee eight years during his former terms from 2007 to 2015.
He also chaired Department of Corrections special investigative committees, and served as legal counsel for the Corrections committee during one session after he left the Legislature.
“I was a very active member of that committee when I was down there,” he said, working with chairman Brad Ashford and others to make sure bills were crafted in a way that made for good policy, and that details were considered to foresee potential consequences, he said.
During this most recent campaign, he found people in his district were interested in property taxes and public safety, and those are the things he wants to focus on in January, he said.
Lathrop said the changes he’s observed in the Legislature since he left may be the natural evolution of term limits. A large number of senators came in new when he first entered in 2007, just after term limits had kicked in, but they had the benefit of senators still here with 12 to 15 years of experience.
“Those seasoned senators we began with back in (the 2007 session) mentored us and explained what the unwritten rules were and the importance of nonpartisan traditions of our unicameral,” he said. “I would say we also had a particularly talented speaker who was, while conservative, he was also committed to maintaining the institution.”
That speaker was Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk.
Then, committee leaders were chosen because of their skills and the ability to bring people together, vet the ideas of other senators and make sure legislation was put together well, Lathrop said.
Two sessions ago, when leadership was chosen, senators made unprecedented moves to throw out experienced leaders and sweep the chairmanships with conservative members, including electing three first-year senators to lead committees before they had ever introduced a bill or voted on one.
In 2017, they spent crucial time that could have been spent debating bills instead fighting over internal rules.
This week, new senators will go through a three-day orientation to the Legislature. And Thursday and Friday, all members will gather at the Lied Lodge in Nebraska City to discuss upcoming issues and go over state budget information.
Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O’Donnell, who is the longest currently serving clerk of a legislative body in the nation, said the orientation will make the new senators aware of the unique nature of the Legislature, because it is the only unicameral legislature and is nonpartisan.
“This Legislature, in my mind, works best when it works together,” he said.
There will always be differences and significant policy disagreements, he said, but senators have to learn to work together to be successful, and to accomplish the goals they’d like to get to in the session.
“And, frankly, after the past two years, I hope they learn to trust one another,” O’Donnell said. “Because, that was always a benchmark of other Legislatures I worked for.”