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Capitol Correspondent - Legislature session includes 2005 leadership elections

Legislature session includes 2005 leadership elections

By Jim Cunningham
Capitol Correspondent

The first session of the 99th Nebraska Legislature has had a relatively quiet, smooth beginning.

After electing their leadership on opening day, the 49 legislators settled into a typical early routine, one focused on tweaking the operating rules some and introducing new bills.

Leadership elections had no particular intensity or drama, except for that associated with the dislodging of the 10-year incumbent chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Roger Wehrbein of Plattsmouth.

He lost on a 27-22 vote to Sen. Don Pederson of North Platte, the incumbent vice-chairman of the committee. Pederson announced his desire to move up after Wehrbein initially expressed interest in seeking to be elected Speaker. When Wehrbein made a late change in favor or retaining his prior post, Pederson was already a committed candidate, with more than enough support among his colleagues.

Although the circumstances were not quite the same, Wehrbein's loss brought to mind a scenario of several years ago when the veteran chairman of the Legislature's Revenue Committee, Sen. Cal Carsten of Avoca, failed to win re-election by a vote or two. The loss devastating and dispiriting for the highly respected Carsten. It seemed to take him a full session, and perhaps even longer, to regain his assertiveness and passion for the process.

Everyone is different, so it probably won't be that way for Wehrbein, but now he also faces the reality of term limits ending his current service when this Legislature finishes in 2006. That has to be kind of a double whammy, yet no one should doubt that Wehrbein will handle it with class and integrity.

All other leadership posts were filled with little or no surprise. In fact, the chairpersonships of 11 of the 14 standing committees were filled by unanimous acclamation of the legislators.

The only position still not formally decided after eight legislative days was that of president of the Legislature, which the state constitution ceremonially assigns to the lieutenant governor. As the Legislature returned from the weekend and the Martin Luther King holiday, word was still pending – but not for long – from soon-to-be-Gov. Dave Heineman as to his pick to fill that position.

As of the time of their three-day recess, legislators had introduced 546 bills and 22 proposals for constitutional amendments. There were still two days remaining in the official bill-introduction period, so the number will grow, most likely past 800 for bills.

Upon introduction, the Legislature's Executive Board, acting as a referencing committee, assigns every bill to a standing committee. Except for a limited number of inconsequential, "clean-up" measures, every bill introduced must be given a public hearing. The respective committee chairperson schedules the bills assigned to his or her committee.

This week – with more than 100 bills on the schedule – marked the beginning of the public hearings, which take place at the State Capitol in Lincoln. This exemplifies how the pace at the Legislature picks up steam rather quickly. Some of these bills have been in print, or have been available on-line, for barely a week.

Over the years, some have suggested that the process should be modified so the Legislature would meet for a limited number of days each December, specifically for the purpose of introducing bills, and then return in January to launch the process. Now is the time in a session when that does not seem to be all that bad of an idea.

As mentioned here in the past, one factor affecting this Legislature is that 20 of the current senators will not be seeking re-election because of term limits. The reality of term limits is no doubt on the minds of most legislators. It's also on the minds of legislative staff and lobbyists as well. That's to be expected. It's human nature.

Already, as of the first eight days of this 2005 session, four resolutions proposing constitutional amendments on the subject of term limits had been introduced in the Legislature.

All seek a vote of the citizens at the general election in November 2006. With LR3CA the term limit provisions would be terminated Jan. 1, 2010. LR5CA proposes to repeal the provisions and replace them with provisions for recalling state legislators. LR14CA calls for the repeal of the term limit provisions. And LR16CA proposes to expand the current limit of two consecutive terms to three consecutive four-year terms for terms beginning after Jan. 1, 2001.

Along with numerous other subjects, those proposed constitutional amendments will be interesting to monitor.

We look forward to using this space in the weeks ahead to analyze and comment upon a variety of bills pending before the Legislature. Right now, the important priority is to try to keep on top of everything that is being proposed.

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