Let the legislative session begin!

Friday, 13 January 2017

The 105th Legislature began their work at the state capitol Jan. 4. To say there has been no shortage of excitement is almost an understatement given everything that has occurred in the first few days.

While the regular theme of this column will be to provide information and insight on specific issues being considered by the legislature, for now I want to offer a summary of why the first few days have triggered such excitement. 

Election of Committee Leadership. Every odd-numbered year marks the beginning of a new legislature which occurs over a two-year period. At the beginning of a new legislature (i.e., odd-numbered year), state senators elect various leadership positions, including the speaker of the legislature and the chairperson of the fourteen standing committees that hold hearings on legislation. The speaker of the legislature has important and powerful responsibilities such as determining the daily agenda and determining when legislation will be debated. The chairperson of each committee has similar influence over legislation within their respective committee. 

This year, nearly all of the elected leadership positions went to those who identify as politically conservative or Republican. This was an immediate source of tension for politically liberal or Democrat members of the legislature. 

Introduction of Legislation. The first 10 working days of the legislative session are devoted to the introduction of legislation. Over the course of those 10 days somewhere around 600 pieces of legislation will be introduced. The number of bills an individual senator introduces varies from senator to senator. Some senators may introduce only a handful of bills while others may introduce as many as 30 or 40 bills.

After introduction, each bill is routed to one of 14 standing committees (e.g., revenue, education, judiciary, health and human services, agriculture). The committee’s duty is to provide a public hearing and allow for public input on the legislation. Ultimately, the committee decides whether to advance legislation to the whole body of the legislature.
Where a particular piece of legislation is routed is usually dependent on the underlying subject-matter of the legislation. For example, if a bill is intended to provide tax credits to assist low-income students obtain scholarships to attend private schools, the bill would go to the revenue committee. While a bill’s subject-matter largely controls its direction, there is an executive committee, consisting of eight senators, that ultimately decides where legislation will be directed. Whether a bill is heard by an (un)favorable committee essentially controls its destiny, making this aspect of the process critical.

Robust Debate. As mentioned earlier, nearly all elected leadership positions of the legislature went to politically conservative senators. This caused a ruckus predominantly among politically liberal or Democrat senators. They argued that the bipartisan nature of the legislature was being threatened. In response, it was argued that while senators within the legislature do not identify with any particular political party, as a matter of the structure of the unicameral, it is unquestionable that individual senators and their legislative districts have certain political leanings and attitudes.

Another issue that received attention was term limits and their effect on things like institutional knowledge and respect for written and unwritten traditions. Out of the 49 senators in the legislature, 17 senators are only in their third year of service to the state and another 17 are first-timers to the legislature. This means two-thirds of the legislature has two years or less experience in the legislature. In addition, three newly-elected senators received committee chair positions, which is unprecedented. 

However, it was also noted that while many senators might be new to the legislature, many of them have previously held public office and are familiar with representing constituencies and evaluating policy. In other words, for these senators, this is not their first rodeo, so to speak.

Take-Away Point. As the legislature progresses into this year’s and next year’s session, these opening day dynamics will have an all-important effect on the tenor and tone of the legislature moving forward. Many of the issues identified will be the undertones on many of the issues that play themselves out in the next two years. 

To follow the legislature more closely, go to nebraskalegislature.gov. Stay tuned!