2021 Legislature Begins With New Leaders, Facing Daunting Challenges

Jan. 6, 2021, 5:36 p.m. ·

Chief Justice Mike Heavican, right, swears in Sen. Mike Hilgers as speaker. Senators were sworn in for their terms at their desks. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Legislature began its 2021 session Wednesday, electing new leaders and talking of challenges that lie ahead.

As Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican got ready to swear in the new and newly reelected senators, he signaled the 2021 Legislature wouldn’t look like other years, with COVID-19 precautions still in place.

“Normally we would have you come down to the front, but we’re not going to do that this year. Please stand in your cubicle and remain standing until I call all of the names. Then I will read the oath and ask you to respond ‘I swear or I affirm.’

That accomplished senators moved on to elect new leaders. Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln was the only candidate for Speaker. In a speech before the vote, Hilgers talked about the situation facing Nebraskans and their leaders.

“The truth is, colleagues, we face incredible challenges here. We are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic – a pandemic that has taken far too many lives of Nebraskans, that has led to economic devastation for family and businesses and disrupted industries. It has also taken away something that is fundamentally human: Our ability to be around one another. The ability to attend a wedding, to go to dinner together, to socialize, to see our family, to see loved ones, to go a football game. To go to funerals,” Hilgers said.

Hilgers said the Legislature will have to set a two-year budget and confront questions about what to do with the state’s prison system, plus other concerns.

“How do we re-grow and re-ignite greater Nebraska? How do we create better jobs and higher-paying jobs in north Omaha? How do we make Nebraska a more attractive place for young people to stay and raise their family?” he asked.

But he said the state’s unique, one house, nonpartisan Legislature is a good tool to address complicated challenges.

“When this place works right there is nothing like it in the country. And there’s another reason why this place is special. Unlike every other legislature that I’m aware of in the country, this is not a place where just a couple of people – majority leader, minority whip, a small set of leaders – get to decide what bills are introduced, what gets amended, what gets passed. When this place works right every single one of us (in the) smallest legislative body in the country has a say. And it makes a lot of sense to me, because that’s the only way that the voices of each part of our communities will be heard here,” he said.

Hilgers promised to do his best to make sure the Legislature works right.

Senators then elected committee chairs. One high profile contest saw Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont defeat Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who has chaired the committee for the last four years. Groene has stirred controversy with blunt-spoken email exchanges with constituents and attempting to redistribute state school aid and limit school spending increases. That’s often put him at odds with school groups, a fact he alluded to in his nomination speech.

“Some will falsely claim I do not work well with the lobby of the education establishment. The truth is, I always work with the lobby. We may not always agree,” Groene said.

Walz, a former teacher, promised to offer a contrast.

“I rise today to say I think it’s time for new leadership on the Education Committee. After two years as vice chair, it is my firm belief that we would benefit from a new perspective that is proud of the accomplishments of our education system, yet wants to help facilitate opportunities and advancements in our schools,” Walz said.

Groene and Walz tied with 24 votes each on the first secret ballot. Walz then won, 25-23 on the second. Her victory came despite the fact that she is a Democrat and Groene is a Republican. While the Legislature is elected on a nonpartisan basis, 32 of its members are registered Republicans and only 17 are Democrats.

Such crossing of party lines did not happen in another contested race, as Sen. Ben Hansen, a Republican from Blair, ousted Sen. Matt Hansen, a Democrat from Lincoln, to head the Business and Labor Committee.

Most of the elections for chair, like the speakership, had only one candidate. But even in some of those, candidates acknowledged tough challenges ahead for lawmakers. Sen. John Arch of La Vista, elected chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, framed them as opportunities.

“The opportunities come in the form of difficult questions, unfortunately, such as ‘Are the people in our state getting healthier, given the amount of resources we are applying? If not, what can we do to see improvement?’ Arch said.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, re-elected chair of the Revenue Committee, said the state’s tax system, which last underwent a complete overhaul 54 years ago, needs reworking.

“Our tax code resembles a 1967 used car, of which pieces of every other vehicle built since then have been attached. We need a tax code you don’t have to be a certified public accountant to grasp. We need a tax code that treats all Nebraskans fairly. We need a tax code that generates enough revenue to provide the services Nebraskans rightly expect, but also appreciates that hard work, ingenuity and talent should be rewarded,” Linehan said.

Senators will begin submitting new policy proposals Thursday, kicking off 10 days of new bill introduction.