NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE

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Sen. Rick Kolowski

Sen. Rick Kolowski

District 31

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Last day of session
June 5th, 2013

It is officially the last day of session. 90 days have flown by! Here is a great editorial on this year’s legislature.

World-Herald Editorial: Legislature adapts to an era of flux

 Other than two state senators who also served before voters approved term limits, the “old timers” in the current Nebraska Legislature have held office only since 2006 and are nearing the end of their final terms.

With the 2013 session ending today, it’s a good time to look at some of the key lessons for future state senators in the term-limits era. Drawing on our observations and interviews with lawmakers, three key lessons are apparent:

>> Churning. The dynamic at the State Capitol is fundamentally changed because the two-term limit produces regular turnover in the Legislature’s membership, ideological makeup and policy knowledge of individual lawmakers.

>> Need to adapt. To deal with the recurring turnover, the Legislature is adopting new habits.

>> Attitudes. Nebraska can’t afford for the Legislature to bog down in congressional-style indecision and stalemate. That means lawmakers need to approach their work with the appropriate vision and energy, plus a willingness to engage in compromise.

Term limits pushed out 10 lawmakers last fall, and the 2014 elections will push out 17 more, including the legislative speaker, six committee chairmen and the chairman of the Legislature’s Executive Board.

The 2012 elections, notes State Sen. Galen Hadley, produced a significant increase in the Legislature’s number of moderate swing votes — this, in a body that already de-emphasizes partisanship and promotes independent-mindedness. Sen. Amanda McGill says the Legislature this session was led by an “independent, moderate majority.”

But with term limits now taking a bite every two years, expect to see fluctuations over time in the ideological mix at the State Capitol.

In this new era, lawmakers tend to be in leadership positions, such as committee chairmen, for only a short time. Says Speaker Greg Adams, who stepped into the Legislature’s top leadership post in January and is term-limited next year: “You no more than get your feet on the ground than you’re gone.”

In response, the Legislature has begun an ongoing effort to prepare its next set of leaders. Freshmen lawmakers, in a major break from the past, are being encouraged to engage early on.

Two committee vice chairmanships this year went to freshmen (Sens. Jim Scheer at Education and Dan Watermeier at the Legislative Performance Audit Committee). The Legislature specifically voted to require that the new special commission studying Nebraska’s tax policy include two freshmen senators.

Mentoring of freshmen has taken on greater importance. Freshman Sen. Sue Crawford says the chairpersons of two of her committees (Sens. Kathy Campbell at Health and Human Services and Mike Gloor at Banking, Commerce and Insurance) have done an excellent job in mentoring her about procedures and effectiveness at the committee level.

With each new wave of freshmen elected, the Legislature needs to help newcomers understand the habits and values that help things run efficiently and produce significant legislation for the state.

Glibness and partisan swagger may win cheers on the campaign stump, veteran senators emphasize, but once elected, a senator needs more than that to prevail in debates and pass legislation. That includes attention to detail, a depth of knowledge on issues, preparedness and the ability to reach out and communicate with colleagues of all philosophical stripes.

When a legislator isolates himself in a small political circle and fails to develop relationships with a breadth of colleagues, says Sen. Bill Avery, he undermines his ability to get things done.

Adams, the legislative speaker, also emphasizes the need for communication. One of the key questions he asks lawmakers about their proposals is, “Did you sit down and talk to the other side?”

Lawmakers also need a breadth of vision, Adams says. They’re state senators, he says, and if the Legislature is going to avoid stalemate on divisive issues such as state aid to K-12 schools, lawmakers must look to what’s best for all of Nebraska. Sound policy-making at the Legislature often comes down to a sense of balance, he says.

“It requires you to step up to a different level and look with a broad perspective,” Adams says.

Veteran senators readily acknowledge that with term limits, there are benefits to having fresh eyes look at issues and existing laws. At the same time, they say, it’s important to draw on the institutional memory of legislative staff and lobbyists.

With regular turnover, the temptation to reinvent the wheel is understandable, says Sen. Bob Krist, but “knowing the history of how the state got where it is is as important as having the fresh idea” on individual issues. “It helps you avoid the pitfalls.”

Lawmakers, Adams says, need to understand how to draw on the knowledge of lobbyists and staff — but then step away and exercise their own judgment. It’s a key ingredient of leadership, he says.

In this new era, the lineup of lawmakers will change and the philosophical makeup will fluctuate. But the principles that make for a well-functioning, forward-looking Legislature need to endure.

It will be the duty of each new group of lawmakers to safeguard those principles and carry them into the future.

PUBLISHED WEDNESDAY, JUNE 5, 2013

 

Sen. Rick Kolowski

District 31
Room #1018
P.O. Box 94604
Lincoln, NE 68509
Phone: (402) 471-2327
Email: rkolowski@leg.ne.gov
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