(Neb)-Busy First Day For Unicameral Listen
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The Nebraska legislature opened its 2017 session yesterday morning, formally seating the senators elected in November including 17 newcomers.
Among them are Steve Erdman of Bayard, who succeeds term-limited Ken Schilz of Ogallala for the 47th District seat once held by his son Phil Erdman, and Tom Brewer of Gordon, who defeated incumbent 43rd District Senator Al Davis of Hyannis.
The members also elected a new speaker to succeed term-limited Galen Hadley of Kearney and the result was one of the closest votes in recent years as Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk edged Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg 27-22 in a secret ballot.
Scheer pledged to collaborate with all senators and the other branches of government while preserving the Legislature's independence.
As speaker, he will control the daily agenda, work to resolve conflicts among lawmakers and serve as an ambassador for the one-house, nonpartisan Legislature.
The senators are also elected committee chairs and 48th District Senator John Stinner of Gering, a retired CPA and banker, was elected as chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. He was the only senator to apply to head the Appropriations Committee.
Stinner recounted his hard work and worries when leading his company through deep recessions, then compared it to the $900-million dollar budget shortfall facing this year's legislature and urged his colleagues to use the shortfall as an opportunity to focus their spending priorities even more than in the past.
Lawmakers broke with tradition, electing 3 freshmen senators as committee chairmen. Longtime observers said it was the first time in at least 40 years that many new senator had been given a chairmanship, much less 3 of them.
Justin Wayne of Omaha will lead the Urban Affairs Committee, Joni Albrecht of Thurston will chair the Business and Labor Committee, and Mike Hilgers of Lincoln will chair the Rules Committee.
The bulk of the chairmanships went to conservative senators with new Revenue Chairman Jim Smith of Papillion told the Lincoln Journal-Star it continued the tone seen in the November election. New Education Committee Chairman Mike Groene of North Platte agreed, telling the paper it "reflected the mood of the state.
The vast majority of the chairmen are Republicans, although the Unicameral is officially non-partisan, but GOP leaders failed in their attempt to have open votes on chairmanships instead of the legislature's traditional secret ballot.
After passing on a chance to challenge the practice during the adoption of temporary rules for the votes at the start of the session, backers of the change asked for a roll call vote on the last chairmanship - saying the state constitution requires open votes on everything.
Lt Governor Mike Foley, as president of the Unicameral, ruled the motion was in order, but was then overruled on a 29-19 vote. Some of those voting against Foley and Kuehn said the constitutionality issue raised separation of powers problems while others warned that the move was a threat to the nonpartisan nature of the Legislature.
Longtime lobbyist Walt Radcliffe told the Journal-Star he thought the attempt had further polarized the Legislature and that "the level of contentiousness has risen considerably." Radcliffe said it will be far more difficult for senators to reach a consensus than in previous years unless they can find incentives to mend fences.
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