Sometimes we hear basic questions or misunderstandings about governance in Nebraska. This page is intended as a primer for anyone looking to get involved in the political process and in need of basic info.
On January 3, 2018, the Nebraska Legislature begins the second year of the two-year session. This year’s session will only last 60 working days, ending in April. A lot of contentious policy will be debated in that time.
Nebraska Representatives in Federal Government
US Senate and House of Representatives
Nebraska sends two senators to the US Senate and three congressmen to the U.S. House of Representatives. Each senator is elected by a vote of the whole state, and congressmen are voted on by congressional district. Our current US senators are Ben Sasse (R) and Deb Fischer (R). Fischer is up for reelection in 2018 and Sasse is up in 2020. Our current representatives are Jeff Fortenberry (R – District 1), representing Lincoln and other areas in the east, Don Bacon (R – District 2), representing Omaha and much of its suburbs, and Adrian Smith (R – District 3), representing much of western Nebraska. All three are up for reelection in 2018.
Nebraska is one of only two states that split their electoral college votes for more proportional representation. We gave one electoral college vote to Obama in 2008. An effort is underway among Nebraska Republicans to turn us into a “winner takes all” state to eliminate proportionality and avoid giving a vote to a Democratic candidate.
Nebraska State Government
The state government is comprised of three branches: 1) executive (governor and lieutenant governor, as well as secretary of state, attorney general, state auditor, and state treasurer, all of which are elected positions), 2) judicial, and 3) legislative.
Governor Pete Ricketts, who was elected in 2014, is up for reelection in 2018. Among his many alarming actions as governor Ricketts has muddied the separation of powers, most notably by using his personal fortune to bankroll a ballot initiative to reinstall the death penalty after his veto of an abolition bill was overridden by the legislature, and by funding extreme rightwing senators to replace more moderate conservatives he could not bring to heel in the legislature.
The legislative branch is the Unicameral. It is unique in the nation in that it is a single house legislature (other states have two houses) and nominally nonpartisan. This results in a relatively simple and transparent legislative system compared to other states. The state is divided into 49 districts, each of which sends a senator to the Unicameral–that’s it. Forty-nine senators in a single house legislature. The senators serve four-year terms and are limited to two consecutive terms. Term limits were put into law in 2004 by racists in the Unicameral annoyed by the popularity of Ernie Chambers, who has handily won every one of his races for the legislature since he was first elected in 1970.
Because the Unicameral is nonpartisan, primaries are open. That means that anyone who files as a candidate runs in the same primary race, and the two with the most votes proceed to the general election regardless of party affiliation (which is unstated on the ballot). It’s not unusual in some districts to have two candidates who identify with the same party run against each other in the general election. For this reason primaries are particularly important–if you don’t vote for someone who represents your basic values in the primary, you could find two people with abhorrent political views running as the only two options in the general.
The state pays its senators a paltry salary of $12,000 a year–a sum that ensures that almost anyone running for a spot in the legislature is affluent enough to have a primary income source other than their job as senator. One notable exception to this is Ernie Chambers, who lives off these poverty wages, takes no campaign contributions, and has no party affiliation.
Though this system has its faults, it has resulted in a simple, transparent, and cost-effective legislature that historically has been more open to citizen participation than many other states. It has also led to moments of rare cooperation among people from different political affiliations because senators have historically not caucused. One recent example of this cooperation was when a coalition of religious conservatives and liberals voted to abolish the death penalty. (The death penalty was reinstated after Governor Ricketts personally bankrolled a ballot initiative.)
How Legislation is Created
The legislative process in Nebraska is fairly simple. A senator proposes a bill and it is assigned to one of several standing committees. Those committees hold public hearings during which they schedule discussion of different bills. The public is invited to attend these hearings and present testimony on bills.
The committee decides to vote a bill to the floor for debate, vote a bill down, or fail to vote on a bill, which holds it in abeyance. If the bill is voted to the floor, it goes through three rounds of debate and voting. It can be voted down or filibustered at any one of these rounds. If a bill does not pass through all rounds of voting by the end of the two-year legislative session, it dies and must be reintroduced as new legislation if its proponents want to try again.