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As the only one-house state legislature in the nation, Nebraska’s legislative branch of government functions very differently from the other 49 states. Senators are elected on a non-partisan basis, with open primaries advancing the top two candidates regardless of their party affiliation. With no “majority party” or “minority party” structures established in the legislative rules, political party registration does not play any official role in the internal organization of the Legislature, its committees, or its leadership.
Having only a single chamber based solely on population fundamentally changes the political dynamic in Nebraska compared to other rural states. Despite agriculture being the largest industry and economic driver of Nebraska, lawmakers outside of Douglas, Sarpy, and Lancaster counties are a minority in the legislative process. It is expected that the number of seats representing greater Nebraska will shrink by two in the redistricting following the 2020 census. Without a geographically based chamber, like the senate in most states, to balance the population based chamber, there is less incentive to cooperate on legislation of common interest to the state as a whole. The legislative paralysis on funding for rural schools and the Ag land property tax crisis demonstrate the practical reality of a single, population based legislature.
The structure, both operationally and electorally, of the other two branches of Nebraska state government also differ from many other states across the nation. In other states some agency directors are elected on a statewide partisan ballot. Most notable is the election of the Director of Agriculture in our neighbor Iowa. Constitutional officers also vary. For example, the state of Kansas does not have a State Auditor.
The widest variation in the executive branch among the states is found in the office of the Lieutenant Governor. In Nebraska the Lieutenant Governor is selected by the candidate for Governor before the general election and the two appear together on the general election ballot as a ticket. Nebraska is one of only six states that follow that process.
Five states, including Wyoming, do not have a Lieutenant Governor. In Tennessee and West Virginia the office is filled by the president of the state’s Senate, who is elected by the state senators from among their own. In 18 states the Lieutenant Governor and Governor are elected separately, allowing for the possibility of members from different parties or political adversaries to be elected to the two roles. In eight states, the Lieutenant Governor is selected by voters in a separate primary election rather than selected by the gubernatorial candidate, and then the two run jointly as a ticket during the general election. Seven states require the Lieutenant Governor candidate to be selected prior to the primary election and appear on the ticket with the gubernatorial candidate. In four states, including South Dakota and Iowa, the Lieutenant Governor is selected by the major political parties at their state convention rather than through a primary or gubernatorial selection process.
Within the judicial branch, the “Nebraska way” is not universal. In Nebraska a judicial nominating commission advances a slate of nominees to the Supreme Court. The Governor selects a justice from among those on the list. The six associate justices are appointed based on geographic districts, while the chief justice, a position held for their entire tenure on the court, is drawn from a statewide pool. In contrast, the Supreme Court justices in a number of states are elected by popular vote of the electorate. Some are based on party registration, others on a nonpartisan ticket. Within the court, terms in office, term limits, and age restrictions vary widely from state to state.
Learning from the successes and challenges of other states is helpful to improve the effectiveness of Nebraska government. It is all too easy to get caught in a closed mindset, assuming the way things are done in Nebraska is the only way. Periodic assessment of what is working well and a clear-eyed assessment of what is not is essential to the democratic process.