LINCOLN — Expect a less turbulent launch of the 2019 session of the Nebraska Legislature than 2017, a first day that one senator called “a sneak attack.”
Still, there could be some surprises as state lawmakers begin their 90-day session Wednesday. Thirteen new senators will be sworn in on the first day. Then lawmakers will move on to the gritty task of electing leaders of its various committees — powerful positions that can determine whether certain proposals advance or die.
There’s always a little bit of drama and some close votes for leadership positions. But in 2017, emotions ran hot after a bloc of conservative senators elected a slate of new committee chairs, tossing aside more experienced, and more moderate, Republican candidates and all but one Democrat. Three first-year senators were elected to leadership posts in a break from a tradition that only seasoned lawmakers hold such positions.
Before term limits were adopted by voters in 2000, freshman lawmakers rarely spoke during floor debate in their first year, much less ran committees.
In the end, legislative committees were led by 17 Republicans, one Democrat and one Libertarian in what some described as a reflection of the Legislature’s conservative majority and what others termed an improper partisan coup in the officially nonpartisan body of 49 senators.
Lawmakers and other observers say they don’t expect such turmoil on Wednesday because the balance of power has shifted to the moderate middle. Still, they say, don’t be shocked if the secret votes for legislative leaders bring some surprises — and some last-minute candidates.
“I don’t see quite the drama I saw two years ago,” said State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha. “The surprise element is fairly gone, although it’s likely a couple of candidates will pop up.”
State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg said he hasn’t seen the arm-twisting and intimidation employed before the 2017 votes this year. “There’s been attempts this time, but they have not been successful,” he said.
The 2019 Legislature will consist of 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats and one independent, which is two fewer Republicans and three more Dems than in 2017.
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, a leader in the conservative wing of the Legislature, said it appears that the moderate middle has gained some power from the recent election. That group of senators always decides who gets elected, he said.
“We’ll have a vote (Wednesday), and whoever wins wins,” Groene said.
One top race, said to be too close to call, is for leading the Revenue Committee. The contest is between two Republicans, Sens. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha and Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn. The committee reviews tax policy, and the election will set the course for which property tax relief proposals get favored treatment.
There’s also suspense over who will be elected to chair the Education Committee. Groene, a Republican and an outspoken advocate of reduced government, is the current chair and has caught the ire of the state’s powerful teachers union, the Nebraska State Education Association. Groene’s opponent is Sen. Rick Kolowski of Omaha, a Democrat and a former Millard Public Schools principal who is seen as an ally of the union.
Another race pitting a Republican against a Democrat is for the head of the Executive Board, the panel that reviews all proposed constitutional amendments, oversees internal ethics and policies, and decides which bills are heard by which committees. Two senators from Lincoln are running: Kate Bolz, a Democrat who’s served six years, and Mike Hilgers, a Republican in the middle of his first term.
Seven committees have only one candidate, including the high-profile panels of Judiciary, which handles subjects such as abortion and the death penalty, and Health and Human Services, which oversees the state’s social programs.
The lone candidate to head Judiciary is Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a trial lawyer and a key mediator in controversial legislation during eight previous years in the Legislature, 2007 to ’15. He’s back after sitting out for four years because of term limits. He defeated incumbent Sen. Merv Riepe in November.
Lathrop, a Democrat, said he wouldn’t be the first senator to gain a leadership post after returning from a break. Then-Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha was elected chair of the Judiciary Committee when he returned to the Legislature in 2007 after serving from 1986 to 1998.
Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, a Democrat, is the lone candidate to head Health and Human Services, a post she sought unsuccessfully in 2017.
Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, who is running unopposed for re-election as chair of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, said he was surprised that no one has challenged Lathrop and Howard so far. That could change on Wednesday, though Judiciary and Health and Human Services are seen as two of the most time-consuming leadership posts in the body.
Most senators said the leadership fights back in 2017 hurt relationships and trust in the body, though Friesen said it’s wise to have a short memory when serving in Lincoln.
“You can’t hold grudges here,” he said. “With 33 votes to get anything done, you need help, and you need help from both sides of the aisle.”
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.