Scheer: Smiling senators a good sign for rest of session

January 11, 2019

LINCOLN — To no one’s surprise, state Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk was re-elected speaker of the Legislature during opening day activities Wednesday.

Scheer was uncontested in his bid to serve another two-year term presiding over the Legislature. He was sworn into the position by Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican.

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

The speaker sets the Legislature’s daily agenda, controls the length of debate on individual bills and serves as a public representative for the institution. Speakers also try to broker agreements among lawmakers when the Legislature has reached an impasse.

He’s optimistic about what the 2019 session will hold, especially seeing how smoothly leadership elections went Wednesday.

“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 Wednesday. “Two years ago, that was not happening.”

It was a reference to a partisan power play two years ago when conservative Republicans claimed nearly all the available chairmanships.

This year, however, 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.

Nebraska’s Legislature is officially 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.

One of the outcomes of the changes in leadership this year was that an area state senator — Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, a Republican — lost in her bid to be re-elected as the chairperson of the Legislature’s Business and Labor committee. Instead, that post went to Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln, a Democrat.

Two other lawmakers whose districts cover parts of Northeast and North Central Nebraska were elected to leadership posts.

Sen. Tom Briese of Albion 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

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who is a military veteran, was elected as chairman of the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs committee.

Sen. Mike Groene, a staunch conservative from North Platte who was re-elected as Education Committee chairman, 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.

Among the new lawmakers were Sens. Timothy Gragert of Creighton, Ben Hansen of Blair and Mike Moser of Columbus, all of whom represent parts of Northeast Nebraska in their districts.

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, who was to be sworn into office Thursday, 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.

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Editor’s note: The Associated Press and the World-Herald News Service contributed to this article.

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