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Dear friends and neighbors,
Failed Trump-supported Gubernatorial candidate Charles Herbster’s new political action committee is leading the highly partisan effort to scrap a fundamental pillar of our nonpartisan Unicameral: the unique system of electing committee chairs by secret ballot. Secret ballots allow lawmakers to base their votes on their own convictions and the needs of their districts, rather than taking orders from a political party. George Norris, who first advocated for the unicameral system, said that such a body would allow senators to concentrate on local interests without being influenced by national party lines. National party lines, he argued, often have little to do with local government.
Our legislature is not partisan. But it is personal. And that is what makes it unique and effective. There are 49 of us, each of us can introduce as many bills as we want, and each of us can designate our own personal priority bill. Any of us can speak on a bill and offer whatever motion or amendment we would like to on that bill or topic. This arrangement provides for meaningful representation of our constituents in government. We need not filter things through parties or outside forces like egotistical billionaires who are unable to get elected.
We also elect our leadership on a personal basis, in order to maintain some sense of civility. A function of the secret ballot is that if a candidate for a committee chair is not elected, that person need not brood and dwell on it and retaliate against their colleagues throughout the session by looking at the vote score. In other words, the secret ballot is a very pragmatic, yet important feature of our system of electing leadership. There’s always a way to forgive a colleague, move on and continue with the business of the state, instead of in-fighting, partisan or otherwise, within the body.
This is probably news to Charles W. Herbster and his lobbyist, longtime GOP staffer Rod Edwards, but even a casual observer of the legislature would know that most of the committee chairs were not even contested last session.
This proposed change is not about transparency. It’s about dismantling our Unicameral. Legislators are elected as chairs of committees not because of loyalty to a party or their political pedigree. They are elected because of their expertise and familiarity with the committee’s subject matter, the legislative rules, or both. They are elected because they have the ability to facilitate a public body in a meaningful way that lets all sides of various issues be heard and weigh in on policy. They are elected because they are leaders among their colleagues, even those of differing political viewpoints. They should not be elected because Charles Herbster says that they are a ‘good senator.’
If the legislature considers rule changes, tradition, prerogative, and the historical authority of the legislative branch provides that the legislature should actually weigh its merits. And perhaps other elected officials’ opinions may be considered, but the shortsighted and selfish motivations of a perennial self-funded candidate should not be. After all, no one has thought it wise to actually elect Charles W. Herbster to any office, ever. And since he has never been elected to anything, he’s never been elected to serve in the legislature. Of course, he has no understanding or appreciation for our rules, procedures, traditions, or the way that we do things there.
While I suppose money can buy you things like presidential appointments to show committees, along with staff and lawyers to defend yourself against sexual battery lawsuits, they should not be able to buy rule changes in our very unique unicameral government. This is not to say that the legislature should not consider the peoples’ opinions of who we represent when deciding what our rules should be. But, I for one, am not going to be bullied by political hitmen with an arbitrary late September deadline to sign onto some silly pledge.
I encourage my colleagues to reject that effort for what it is: an effort by Charles W. Herbster to try to be politically relevant. He’s never been in the legislature, to my knowledge he’s never even appeared and testified before a committee of the legislature. I don’t think he has any kind of knowledge of our legislative rules, procedures, or traditions. He is simply trying to heckle his way onto the stage of politics in the state.
Voting to eliminate secret ballots means voting to change our legislature into something partisan. Voting to change our system to majority and minority. This rule change does not promote the public interest and it does not promote transparency in the furtherance of the public interest. I took an oath to represent the people of my district, not to represent a party. I am proud to be for this nonpartisan institution and I am committed to protecting it.
As a mom, I know firsthand that the decision about whether and when to become a parent is one of the most consequential life decisions we make. That’s why I believe so strongly that Nebraskans should have the freedom to make their own choices about what is best for their lives and their families, including decisions about abortion care.
Put simply, decisions about reproductive health care aren’t mine to make. They belong to Nebraskans, not the government.
Abortion is safe and legal in Nebraska, but lawmakers who are opposed to those rights have added layers of medically unnecessary barriers that make the procedure harder to access than it should be. These barriers fall hardest on Nebraskans who are financially struggling, most often young Nebraskans, rural Nebraskans, and Nebraskans of color.
Every time I speak with local health care professionals who provide abortion care, I hear a similar story: Barriers related to cost and travel are taking decisions out of Nebraskans’ hands, risking their health, and sometimes putting them on track to be pushed into poverty or further into poverty. Although abortion is a right, some Nebraskans effectively don’t have access, so the right means nothing to them.
This is unacceptable, but not unsolvable. In the 2022 legislative session, my colleagues must join me in expanding access to care rather than joining the stampede of other state legislative bodies that are tripping over themselves to take away people’s rights and tie doctors’ hands.
Many Nebraskans don’t know about our medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion care until they or someone they love is in need of abortion care. For example, currently, you must purchase an optional rider from your private insurance if you need abortion care coverage in most situations. This can result in unexpected bills totaling thousands of dollars. Legislation I’m introducing this session could change that.
I’m also seeking an end to Nebraska’s inexplicable and unnecessary ban on telehealth for medication abortion. Omaha World-Herald readers may have seen the announcement that the Food and Drug Administration is permanently authorizing medication abortion by mail. This is an exceedingly safe two-pill procedure legal in 31 states, but state law currently denies telehealth options to Nebraskans by requiring them to be in the same room as a provider, even if it’s just to swallow a pill and go home. A bill I introduced last year, LB 276, would repeal this requirement and bring abortion care in line with every other treatment offered in this state. It is important for all Nebraskans, but especially those in rural communities who cannot access care close to home.
Finally, we need to recognize that given the safety of abortion care, many duties that are performed by physicians can also be safely done by our skilled licensed advance practice registered nurses, certified nurse-midwives, and physician assistants. I will be introducing a bill modifying requirements to allow these practitioners to better support patient access.
I hope other state senators will join me and the majority of Nebraskans who support these measures and will reject any proposal that would add new restrictions.
The common theme with all of this is that a patient’s health should drive medical decisions, not politics. These issues belong between Nebraskans, their families, and their doctors. We must trust Nebraskans to make the right decisions for their personal circumstances with the guidance and support of medical providers they trust. I believe that to my core and I know I’m in good company. According to the Pew Research Center, most Nebraskans oppose outlawing abortion.
None of us can walk in each other’s shoes. Nebraskans believe in respecting others’ privacy, dignity, and bodily autonomy. We need to shop shaming and stigmatizing and start doing better to ensure every Nebraskan and their rights are respected.
We must do better, and I believe that we can.
Megan Hunt of Omaha represents District 8 in the Nebraska Legislature.
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