Nebraska senators start new legislative session with new faces, new issues to tackle

Published: Jan. 4, 2023 at 6:57 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - With the chamber packed full of families, the Pledge of Allegiance kicked off the 108th Nebraska Legislature with Senator Tom Brewer of Gordon calling it a complete reset.

“We will have a new clerk of the legislature which is the first one in 47 years,” Sen. Brewer said. “So, that’s going to be an interesting change. We’re going to have a new speaker of the house, we’re going to have a new governor, a new lieutenant governor who presides over many of the legislative sessions.”

Embracing a theme of “new,” the session started with swearing in the new and re-elected senators and the selection of Senator John Arch. Arch, of La Vista, said he’s interested in improving communication among senators and dismantling the distrust in politics.

“I am deeply concerned that we strengthen trust in the institution, which is done by our processes and our behavior,” Sen. Arch said.

His peers said all of the new beginnings mean new opportunities.

“It’s really a time to bring in new ideas for Nebraska, and just very, very excited to see what happens,” Fremont Senator Lynne Walz said.

Newly-appointed Senator Beau Ballard, representing Northwest Lincoln, said he’s ready to get started.

“Very excited to get to work, very excited to build relationships with colleagues and for the people in Nebraska,” Sen. Ballard said.

But one senator, Bellevue’s Carol Blood, said she is concerned about all of the new faces and what it could mean for the state.

“Now that we have term limits, there is fast turnover,” Sen. Blood said. “So, we are constantly seeing new people that lack that institutional knowledge. I think it’s going to be actually quite challenging that we have so many new people in so many new positions.”

Blood wants the body to reassess how long senators can serve.

It’s not the only rule up for debate. There’s been talk of Republicans wanting to do away with secret ballots to elect committee chairs, with the goal of increasing transparency.

“I believe in transparency, and I think most of Nebraskans believe in transparency,” Albion Senator Tom Briese said.

Democrats have said the secret ballots are vital to the integrity of the unicameral.

“I believe in secret ballot because it allows people to act on behalf of what they think is best for their constituents as opposed to a particular party,” Sen. Blood said.

Sen. Walz, too, said she supports the secret ballots.

“I think that secret ballots is a way to truly represent the people in Nebraska.”

Senator Julie Slama said she didn’t think that would be a concern.

“49 other state legislatures have more transparency in their chairmanship elections than we do,” she noted. “So, I think that any pressures that those those senators might face are just the hazards of being in politics and being accountable to the voters.”

Secret ballots weren’t brought up in the first session and the discussion on their future will be saved for an official rules debate to be set by the speaker.

That said, secret ballots were used in three committee chair elections. One was the 32-17 vote that seated Glenvil Senator Dave Murman as chair of the Education Committee, replacing Sen. Walz. Sen. Murman said he wants to ensure parents are at the forefront of decision making about students and change the way schools are funded, as he said just 35% of school districts get state equalization aid.

A 2018 study of the state’s education funding formula said the schools that don’t get equalization aid do get other forms of state aid and that their resources exceeded their needs, but Sen. Murman said all students should be valued equally.

“This is unacceptable,” Sen. Murman said.

With committee chairs set, senators will start introducing legislation.

Brewer said one of the first bills to be discussed in the Government Committee will be the newly passed voter ID law. He said they’ve been looking at what states do with similar laws but admitted challenges lie ahead of them.

“I think there may be a requirement for us to provide IDs to folks who don’t have them, because there are some that are actually in that category,” Brewer said. “So, I think having the ability to have a portable ID producing machine that could go to hospitals or to senior homes, locations like that, where they may need the ability to get an ID. I think that ID needs to be paid for by the state of Nebraska that way, there’s nobody not voting because they don’t have the resources to do it.”

Sen. Slama, who helped spearhead the ballot initiative, said mail-in voters are also part of this conversation.

“They’re at the forefront of our attention,” Sen. Slama said. “We’re making sure any applicable laws that we have for this package also apply to mail-in voting.”