Unicameral progress hijacked by partisan politics
I want my nonpartisan Legislature back.
In the end it boiled down to three big things. The budget, property tax relief and corrections. Somewhere along the way, politics got in the way.
The budget was sidetracked by a so-called pro-life provision to regulate Title X funding for women’s health care by eliminating any clinic that also performs abortions. The governor and his Republican supporters on the floor of the nonpartisan Legislature fought to keep it in the bill. That caused lengthy debate that slowed progress on the all-important measure.
Opponents argued, rightly so, that the measure should have been introduced as a separate policy bill. Since it’s in the budget, it will have to be debated and renewed every year with the budget. That opens the door to continuing acrimony and delays.
Appropriations Committee member Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln was one of several who worked to find a compromise in the Title X language, to no avail.
“This budget process has been one of the most painful lessons I have had in my short time as a senator on the growing political nature of our Legislature,” she said.
Property tax relief was sidetracked by a plan from the governor that was fiercely defended by its introducer, Revenue Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion.
It was one of several ideas offered by at least four other senators. Attempts to amend those bills into the governor’s proposal were rebuffed at all turns. Even so, the bill stalled during first-round debate. Attempts to strike a last-minute compromise also failed.
Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell said he was amazed, frustrated and annoyed at the process.
“In the final days we are trying to cobble together some sort of property tax plan. It’ll disappear, we’ll all go home frustrated and nothing will happen again,” he said.
“Voters don’t have any confidence in us anymore,” Kuehn said, “and they shouldn’t.”
Sounds like a man who has decided not to run for a second term and sheds some light on the reason why.
Corrections measures apparently were hamstrung through the process because Judiciary Committee Chairperson Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete switched from the Republican Party two years ago after Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts lashed out at Republican senators for not following the party line.
Ebke registered as a Libertarian. She and Independent Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha are the two outliers in a partisan mash of 31 Republicans and 16 Democrats.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that Lt. Gov. Mike Foley, who regularly presides over the Legislature as the official president, is campaigning against a sitting senator. He has appeared at rallies for and endorsed Ebke’s Republican challenger.
Chambers has criticized Foley for that activity during floor debate this session. Foley is expected to adhere to the Unicameral’s nonpartisan traditions and rules as the presiding officer.
Nathan Leach, the founder of Nonpartisan Nebraska, noted that on March 22 several lawmakers stated that Foley reset the speaking queue (the list of senators to speak) to grant an advantage to one side of an issue, giving members with his political viewpoint more time to speak.
“If true, this would be a gross display of partisan favoritism and has no place in our nonpartisan Unicameral,” Leach said.
In 2017, when presiding on the first day of the session, Foley made an unprecedented ruling that nonpartisan floor ballots for committee chairs are “unconstitutional.”
It took a motion to appeal and a majority vote of the Unicameral in order to stop the lieutenant governor from unilaterally removing a key provision that keeps Nebraska’s Unicameral nonpartisan, Leach said.