Hello, Sen. Arch and members of the Executive Board. My name is Heidi Uhing, and I’m the public policy director for Civic Nebraska. I’m speaking in opposition to LR2CA.
Having reported on the Legislature for 15 years, I saw firsthand how the rules and traditions of the body can preserve nonpartisanship. It leaves room for each of you to be making your own decisions on each issue. That’s what your constituents want from you. This independence is intended to allow you to best serve your district, while producing a more thoughtful policy that serves the state as a whole, without the pressure of national party interests that overlook and overshadow local policy needs.
Most importantly for civic engagement, every bill introduced receives a public hearing – not just those introduced by senators of the same political party as the committee chair. Every senator has the chance to make the case for their bills, and, significantly, the public is afforded the opportunity to voice their opinions on every single one. This is how Nebraskans serve as the Legislature’s “second house.”
One of Norris’ primary motivations for doing away with a bicameral is the benefit of no longer needing a conference committee to reconcile differences when the two chambers of a bicameral Legislature pass different versions of a bill. With a unicameral system, he said, “every act of the Legislature and every act of each individual must be transacted in the spotlight of publicity.”
In Nebraska prior to 1937, the appointed six-member committee met in secret, and members’ votes were not public record. Norris said these committees had too much power and could easily be influenced by lobbyists. Once a bill came out of the conference committee, it could not be changed — only approved or rejected. Today, under our unicameral system, lawmakers propose amendments and debate them openly on the chamber floor on the public record.
The argument in favor of conference committees was that they prevented hasty legislation, but the unicameral system has safeguards against this possibility. Nearly all bills must have public hearings, at least five days must elapse between a bill’s introduction and its passage, and bills may contain only one subject. This session is an excellent indicator of how bills can be prevented from passing too hastily.
Another notable aspect of nonpartisanship is on display when senators elect their internal leadership positions for speaker and committee chairs using a private ballot. This allows senators the autonomy to vote for leaders they believe are most qualified to serve in those roles rather than who is most politically powerful. Otherwise, senators might be pressured to vote for a senator simply because they belong to the same political party. With only 49 members in the body, this helps preserve relationships, which is so important to having a productive session.
Finally, this bill would nearly double the number of Nebraska lawmakers. Aside from the logistical question of where in this building you would fit another house of the Legislature and their staff — and how much that would cost — it’s worth noting Sen. George Norris’ opinion on the matter: He equated two houses of a Legislature to two boards of directors at a bank. This structure is not only redundant and inefficient, but it creates an adversarial relationship between two dueling bodies that only increases rancor and scapegoating.
I think we can all agree that we’d like to see less of that.