January 7, 2011
The first regular session of the
102nd Nebraska Legislature is on its journey. The ceremonies of
the first day of a new Legislature were on display January 5 at the historic
State Capitol. After opening day, ceremony becomes secondary to the main
business of considering ideas for policy changes and making new laws.
The ceremonies included the swearing-in of 24
legislators—all having the title "senator," given Nebraska’s especially
unique one-house system—who were elected last November. This number, in
effect half of the total of 49 legislators, consisted of 19 incumbents and
five new members. In addition, Senator Dave Bloomfield from Hoskins was
appointed by the Governor last month to fill the District-17 seat vacated by
an incumbent who resigned upon being elected to a county office. The new
first-year class consists of Senators Burke Harr from Omaha, District 8; Jim
Smith from Papillion, District 14; Lydia Brasch from Bancroft, District 16;
Paul Schumacher from Columbus, District 22; and Tyson Larson from O’Neill,
Another first-day task for the new Legislature was
election of leadership positions. More often than not over the years, these
secret-ballot elections have had some competitive, tense moments and
produced some drama. Not this year; the event was pretty much a snoozer.
Almost all of the key positions were filled by the incumbent.
The post of Speaker was returned by unanimous
acclaim to a proven leader, the skillful solon from Norfolk, Senator Mike
Flood. Likewise, Senator John Wightman of Lexington was re-elected Chairman
of the Legislature’s Executive Board. The standing committee chairpersons
are almost exactly the same as they were last year. An exception is the
Health and Human Services Committee. Senator Kathy Campbell of Lincoln was
elected for the chair previously held by an incumbent who did not seek
While the impact of terms limits is still a
discussed and debatable topic, this Legislature was not greatly affected, at
least numbers-wise. Only one of last year’s legislators was term-limited.
Overall, six new members is not a seismic turnover. This Legislature has a
noteworthy amount of continuity.
The 102nd Legislature, like its many
predecessors, will deal with a myriad of difficult and challenging issues.
At the top of this year’s list from the perspective of most observers and
pundits are fixing the projected budget shortfall of nearly a billion
dollars and determining new boundary lines for the congressional and
legislative districts based upon 2010 census data. The budget challenge will
be multi-faceted, drawing numerous other issues into debate and negotiation.
Another issue that has been attracting attention,
probably more than it deserves, involves state- and local-level authority to
enforce Federal immigration laws. At least one legislator has given several
hints that he intends to introduce some form of legislation to help the
federal government do its job, even though that job is tied to a broken
system that Congress has failed to fix. He has claimed that what he proposes
will vary from the infamous Arizona law and will protect against racial
profiling. Given those self-directed parameters, it will be interesting to
see what comes forth.
The legislators won’t be addressing the serious
budget woes without preparation. In fact, the preparation has been
unprecedented. Pursuant to Legislative Resolution 542, adopted last April
13, an ad hoc committee consisting of the Speaker, the Executive Board
chairman and the chairpersons of the standing committees, has reviewed all
programs of state government and each agency’s budget authority.
Each of the 14 standing committees was charged
with a duty to identify potential cuts totaling 10 percent of the total
general fund appropriation for all agencies within the respective
committee’s jurisdiction. The result is a list of ideas—now called the "10%
Options List"—that the committees believe need to be carefully considered in
crafting a new budget that overcomes the projected $986 million shortfall.
The ideas stem from programs and funding that may be amended, reduced or
eliminated. All that careful consideration will take time, especially for
options that require changes in statutes.
A tip of the cap please toward Senators Ben Nelson
and Mike Johanns for voting to ratify the New START treaty, which governs
the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and the Russian Federation. While this
might not have been a hugely relevant or significant matter in the "big
picture," Senator Nelson was on target with his observation that there was
no good reason not to support the nuclear arms reduction treaty.
On the flip side of the Congressional coin, the
fact that all five members of Nebraska’s delegation failed to support the
Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act—the DREAM Act—was
disappointing, to say the least. They refused to take even a modest,
reasonable step toward fixing the broken immigration system. While all five
probably would acknowledge the obvious need for comprehensive immigration
reform, including border security, what efforts have they made to meet that
need? So far, like a lot of their colleagues, they’ve been more a part of
the problem than a solution.
You can contact Jim at the
Nebraska Catholic Conference, 215 Centennial
Suite 310, Lincoln, NE 68508;