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Eleven new members begin terms

The 103rd Nebraska Legislature will begin its first regular session Jan. 9 at 10 a.m. at the State Capitol in Lincoln. Forty-nine legislators will participate in a public-policy process that will last for up to 90 legislative days, likely extending into early June. It is the longer of two regular sessions for this Legislature. A session of up to 60 legislative days will follow in 2014.

The 49-member Unicameral, unique among all the states, will include 11 members elected to office in November who were not part of the preceding Legislature.

New members are Dan Watermeier, Syracuse, District 1; Bill Kintner, Papillion, District 2; Sara Howard, Omaha, District 9; Ernie Chambers, Omaha, District 11; Jim Scheer, Norfolk, District 19; Jerry Johnson, Wahoo, District 23; Kate Bolz, Lincoln, District 29; Rick Kolowski, Omaha, District 31; Al Davis, Hyannis, District 43; Sue Crawford, Bellevue, District 45; and John Murante, Gretna, District 49.

All but Kintner and Chambers, who defeated incumbents, are replacing incumbents prohibited from running for re-election due to term limits.

Fifteen incumbent legislators won re-election in November. The remaining 23 seats are held by legislators who have completed just half of their current four-year terms.

As anyone who follows the Legislature knows, Chambers presents a unique situation. He isn't really a new legislator; not really a senator-elect. He brings with him 38 years of service in the Unicameral. He was term-limited at the end of 2008 and sat out four years as required by law. With his election victory in November, he became the first term-limited legislator to return.

On the new session's first day, after participating in the pomp and ceremony, the 49 senators will elect their leadership for the next two years. Due primarily to term limits, several prominent positions are open, without incumbent leaders returning. These positions include speaker of the Legislature and chairpersons of these standing committees: appropriations, banking, commerce and insurance, natural resources, revenue and transportation and telecommunications.

In addition, the incumbent chairman of the education committee, Sen. Greg Adams from York, has announced his intention of seeking the speaker's post. If that happens, as is likely, then the education committee also will need a new chairperson.

In the first year of a new Legislature, the senators' foremost responsibility is to develop the state's spending plan, for the ensuing biennium. In this situation, that's the period of two fiscal years running from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2015.

The budget process starts in essence with Gov. Dave Heineman submitting his program-by-program spending recommendations to the Legislature. The Appropriations Committee will spend the next 10 weeks or so pouring over the numbers and conducting public hearings. Ultimately, the committee will present its recommendations to the full Legislature. Once passed, the package will go back to the governor for possible line-item vetoes and then back to the Legislature for potential veto overrides.

There will be many other issues throughout the 2013 session, some routine, some fairly controversial and some hotly contested. For instance, issues stemming from implementation of federal health care reforms, such as expanding eligibility for Medicaid coverage, are ripe for debate.

On the way toward requiring the states to cooperate in this, the federal law got tripped up by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the federal government can't make the states do it.

Without a mandate, but the option, and quite a bit of incentive through a plan of considerably higher federal financial participation, should Nebraska do the expansion anyway? Is it the right thing to do? A showdown looms over the idea.

Regrettably, an effort is probably going to be made, urged on by Heineman, to repeal the fundamentally pro-life and fiscally-prudent policy of providing medical-assistance coverage for prenatal care for the unborn children of impoverished pregnant women who are themselves ineligible due to unauthorized immigration status. The federal Children's Health Insurance Program, which pays nearly three-fourths of the cost, considers an unborn child the same as any child in relation to eligibility.

Those who oppose the coverage based on the bogus claim that it is an immigration issue cannot defend such a harsh view of the unborn child. If the woman was not pregnant, there would be no need for prenatal care. It's the pregnancy - the presence of the unborn child - that substantiates the policy. Thirty legislators did the right thing in enacting it over Heineman's veto last year. Any effort to reverse that decision deserves no traction.

Another issue among many that will receive attention will be the Legislature's response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for those under the age of 18 convicted of murder violate the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Jim Cunningham is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at jrcncc@neb.rr.com.

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