Senators stand around, talk — and form relationships

Jan. 24, 2023, midnight ·

Senators (from left) John Cavanaugh, Jana Hughes, and Tom Brandt chat Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Publiic Media News)
Senators (from left) John Cavanaugh, Jana Hughes, and Tom Brandt chat Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Publiic Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature is gearing up for some heavy lifting on tough subjects, like school finance and taxes. But in the meantime, senators have been meeting these last few days, mostly just to stand around — and talk.

If you’ve watched the Nebraska Legislature the last few mornings, you’ve seen a lot of senators standing around, talking.

They’ve been attending public hearings of their committees in the afternoons. But the morning meetings for all senators have been what’s called “check-in” days.

That’s when senators show up, push their green voting light to show they’re there, and don’t do much else. That ritual is a way of making the day count toward the Nebraska Constitution’s limit on the number on legislative days.

It only takes a majority – 25 of the 49 senators – to check in, and that’s often been the past practice – once enough show up and push their buttons, the meeting is done.

But these last few, Sen. John Arch, the new speaker of the Legislature, has been holding the Legislature in session longer, with really no business to transact, so senators have been – well, standing around and talking. On the legislative floor, there’s a continuous burble – the indistinct sound of a dozen or more conversations going on at once.

Arch said there’s a reason behind his scheduling things this way.

“I think the beginning of the session is extremely important for the building of relationships. Those are the relationships that you’re going to use later on, to work on bills — to find compromise, to find some common ground.

“We’re all people, and it’s necessary that those relationships form. But you’ve got to have time for that,” Arch said.

Sen. Jana Hughes says when she was campaigning last year to join the Legislature, it was all about building relationships with constituents, businesses, schools, and the like. Now, in the nation’s smallest and only one-house Legislature, the practice is more focused:

“And it pivots to now, I need to make relationships within the body. Because I’m one of 49. And so, that has been an impetus for me,” Hughes said.

As you look around the ornate George W. Norris legislative chamber these mornings, you’ll see the occasional grouping of political opposites standing next to their leather-clad chairs, just chatting with each other.

But Arch, a registered Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, says his motive goes beyond encouraging people to talk across party lines.

“It’s not just for maybe people that have opposing views on different issues, but it’s also for the new senators. The new senators need that time to form relationships with each other, because they’re in a class together, as well as then to form relationships with more senior members,” he said.

Hughes, one of those new senators, said she wasn’t aware this was anything new. But she said the procedure works.

“I think that does lend itself well, then. When we’re on the floor and we’re kind of stuck there, if you will, go talk to somebody and see what’s going on with them. That’s how you get to know people,” she said.

And she said it’s great to have the chance to use those relationships to shape what happens in the state.

“We have something really special here in Nebraska. It’s small, it’s one house. I myself, one of 49, can really make a difference… and I don’t think we as Nebraskans realize how fortunate we are,” she said.

The casual check-in mornings come to a halt, at least temporarily, Wednesday, when Gov. Jim Pillen gives his first State of the State speech and unveils his budget proposal.

Pillen has already revealed some of his intentions, including sweeping plans for greatly increasing state aid to schools while at the same time cutting taxes. That has Rebecca Firestone of the Open Sky Policy Institute raising questions.

“When we do the math of the education package, and line it up with the tax packages that are also being debated, the cost of all of those packages together comes close to $2 billion, which is almost equivalent with our budget surplus of $1.9 billion. So we have some questions about the long-term sustainability of this package,” Firestone said.

But Sen. Rob Clements, chairman of the Appropriations Committee that will work on Pillen’s budget proposal, said he’s gotten reassurances.

“I’ve spoken with the governor’s staff about the effect of his proposals… his proposals are not using up all of the surplus,” Clements said.

The question of what goes in the budget and what stays out will be hashed out between the governor and the Legislature over the next few months.


Editor’s note: You can watch Gov. Pillen’s State of the State speech Wednesday morning at 10 central on Nebraska Public Media World TV, streaming at nebraskapublicmedia.org, or listen on Nebraska Public Media Radio.