2023 Legislature opens with talk of unity, hints of battles

Jan. 4, 2023, 4:56 p.m. ·

Chief Justice Mike Heavican swears in new and newly-reelected senators (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Chief Justice Mike Heavican swears in new and newly-reelected senators (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature began its 2023 session today/Wednesday with talk of unity but hints of battles yet to come.

On this first day of the session, senators’ main piece of business was to elect a new speaker and committee chairs. Sen. John Arch of La Vista, the sole candidate for speaker, said that in an era of distrust of politicians, senators need to remember they have common goals.

“We would almost certainly be unanimous on many desired outcomes. Some examples, excellent education for every student, equal justice under the law, a motivated and well educated workforce, equal opportunity to improve lives, good stewardship of taxpayer dollars. My point is that we have a starting point for healthy relationships. If we don't forget our agreement on the ultimate goals. Our debate then becomes the best way to achieve those goals,” Arch said.

There were contests for only three of the 14 standing committee chairmanships. On Education, former teacher Sen. Lynne Walz, a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, said she wanted to continue in the job.

“I've worked to build coalitions with all those who are impacted in our education system, and I will remain committed to building those bridges. My work as chair is anything but over. And I can assure you that I will continue to pursue legislation to restructure our school finance model and ensure true property tax relief,” Walz said.

Walz was opposed by Sen. Dave Murman, a Republican and a retired farmer who has called for an investigation into what he says is the Department of Education’s promotion of critical race theory. Murman called for an emphasis on core subjects.

“Our K-12 education must hammer down on the basics: Reading, writing, math, science, history, and an appreciation of the God-given rights this nation has preserved for them. They must recognize the world's flaws and sins of the past, while having a hopeful and bright outlook for days yet to come - for the promise that is America,” Murman said.

Murman defeated Walz 32-17. That’s the exact breakdown of Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, although because the election was by secret ballot, it’s impossible to say if anyone crossed party lines.

In another contested race, Sen. Suzanne Geist defeated Sens. Tom Brandt and Mike Moser to chair the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee. Brandt called for less reliance on existing telecommunications companies to expand broadband; Moser called for issuing bonds to speed expressway construction.

Geist, who is also running for mayor of Lincoln, said the state has great opportunities to expand broadband, but needs to make sure it’s also maintained.

“We do have a once in a lifetime opportunity that's going to present great numbers of money to the state. However, we have to answer the question with the industries that will be involved with this: How are we going to maintain this broad network that the money is going to come in?” Geist said.

Geist also advocated more creative financing such as that used to speed up construction of Lincoln’s South Beltway, which some maintain is the equivalent of bonding.

One uncontested race was for chair of the Judiciary Committee. Despite the lack of opposition, Sen. Justin Wayne alluded to difficult decisions ahead for the committee he’ll chair.

“We have a overcrowded prison system one of the worst in the country. My approach to criminal justice reform is very simple. We have to be smart and conservative on crime, not just tough on crime. This body knows we cannot build our way out of our prison situation. So it's going to take this entire body to come up with a solution,” Wayne said.

So far, the Legislature has not appropriated money to build a new, 1,500-bed prison proposed by outgoing Gov. Pete Ricketts, with critics including Wayne arguing sentencing needs to be reformed.

One issue senators avoided Wednesday was whether to continue to elect committee chairs via secret ballot, or whether to hold open elections. Supporters of the change say it’s important for transparency. Opponents say it will increase pressure for party-line votes and erode the nonpartisan nature of the Legislature. Running for Rules Chair, Sen. Steve Erdman, a Republican and a supporter of open voting, promised a quick resolution of the issue when it comes up:

In: The rules are to be completed by the 12th Day which is January 20. That's our goal, and so we need to move forward to get the rules done, and I hope it doesn't become like it did in ’17 when it took us 28 days. I know it won't because we can figure out how to do this efficiently and quickly,” Erdman said.

Erdman was referring to 2017, when senators attempted to change the rules to limit the ability of a minority to block bills with a filibuster. That fight took nearly half the session before supporters abandoned their attempt. Like bills, proposed rules changes can be filibustered; unlike bills, there is no cloture motion allowed to cut off debate.

Sen. John Cavanaugh, a Democrat who lost the Rules Committee chairmanship to Erdman, alluded to that when asked about abolishing secret-ballot elections.

“I would expect that that debate would carry on as long as necessary,” Cavanaugh said.

It was a short answer about what could become a very long debate.