2017 Legislature begins with important leadership decisions

Jan. 4, 2017, 5:47 a.m. ·

Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk is the new speaker of the Legislature (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Listen To This Story

The Nebraska Legislature began its 2017 session Wednesday, electing new leadership that could have a significant influence on issues it will confront this year.

As lawmakers gathered at the state Capitol, one of the first decisions was to elect a speaker, who sets the daily agenda and speaks for the Legislature as an institution. Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg talked to his colleagues about how to view the nonpartisan Unicameral.

"You could see urban senators and rural senators. You could see senators with a great deal of experience and senators sitting in these chairs for the first time. You could see conservatives and liberals. I think it’s a fair question that you should ask me ‘What do I see?’" As your speaker, I will see 49 committed, hardworking people," Williams said.

Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, running against Williams, promised to maintain legislative autonomy, while working with Gov. Pete Ricketts:

"We are a separate but equal branch. I will guard our independence. Rest assured that I cannot nor will not be intimidated by anyone or any group. Having said that, the citizens of this state expect all three branches to work together for the betterment of this state. I will work to make sure that this Legislature upholds it’s end of the three-legged stool," Scheer said.

In what have been seen as key votes supporting or opposing Gov. Pete Ricketts’ vetoes in the last two years, both Williams and Scheer voted to override him and increase the gas tax, as well as offering drivers and professional licenses to children brought to this country illegally. Williams voted for repealing the death penalty, while Scheer voted to keep it. In the race for speaker, Scheer defeated Williams 27-22.

Sen. John Stinner of Gering, running unopposed, was elected chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. Stinner, who has a background in banking, referred to the state’s nearly billion dollar projected shortfall over the next two years.

"Over my business career I’ve worked through some very sharp, deep recessions. I’ve walked the floors, trying to rethink, reposition, reprioritize my organization. I can tell you it’s no fun. And we have no fun in front of us, either, with our current budget situation, and we’re all going to be challenged. But I can also tell you that cycling out of it, we were more focused, we were more efficient, and we were more effective," Stinner said.

One of the potentially most consequential elections saw Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte defeat Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln for chairmanship of the Education Committee. Baker has spent his career in education and is a former superintendent of the Norris School District; Groene, a sales manager from North Platte, is a tax-and-spending hawk.

In his nomination speech, Groene criticized the existing formula Nebraska uses to decide which school districts get state financial aid. Rising ag land valuations in recent years have led rural school districts to rely more on property tax and not state income and sales tax dollars. "When the citizens of 175 of 245 school districts receive no portion of their income and sales taxes back through equalized state aid to schools, that injustice must be corrected," Groene said.

Several chairmanship elections featured registered Republicans against registered Democrats, and in those cases, the Republican won, with Sen. Merv Riepe defeating Sen. Sara Howard for Health and Human Services, Sen. Joni Albrecht defeating Sen. Burke Harr for Business and Labor, and Sen. Dan Hughes defeating Sen. Rick Kolowski for Natural Resources. There are 32 Republicans, 15 Democrats, one Libertarian and one independent in the officially non-partisan Legislature. candidates run for senator without party identification listed on the ballot, and in the past, members of the minority party have won a significant number of committee chairmanships. Last year, a Democrat chaired 4 of 14 standing committees; this year, there will be only one Democratic chairman – Sen. Justin Wayne on Urban Affairs. Wayne defeated Sen. Sue Crawford, also a Democrat. Here is a list of the new committee chairs from the Associated Press:

Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft for Agriculture Committee

Sen. John Stinner of Gering for Appropriations Committee

Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha for Banking, Insurance and Commerce Committee

Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston for Business and Labor Committee

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte for Education Committee

Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill for General Affairs Committee.

Sen. John Murante of Gretna for Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee

Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha for Health and Human Services Committee

Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete for Judiciary Committee

Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango for Natural Resources Committee

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward for Nebraska Retirement Systems Committee

Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion for Revenue Committee

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson for Transportation and Telecommunications Committee

Sen. Justin Wayne for Urban Affairs Committee

Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln for Rules Committee

Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse for Executive Board

In one setback for a Republican Party priority, an attempt to require an open vote for the Rules Committee chairmanship was defeated, 29-19. Aside from the policy arguments for and against them, open elections are generally seen as increasing the strength of the majority party; secret ballots as increasing the chances of a minority party member to win.

Wednesday afternoon, Ricketts announced he would unveil plans to close a gap of $276 million in the current fiscal year budget on Thursday. The governor said he would leave funding for state aid to schools from kindergarten through high school, as well as special education, untouched.