Nebraska Lawmakers Preserve Secret Committee Chair Votes

Nebraska lawmakers on Thursday rejected a new effort to require a public vote when they choose legislative leaders, despite a push from some conservative senators who cast it as a matter of transparency. Lawmakers voted 30-19 against the motion to change the Legislature’s internal rules that allow for committee chairs and the speaker of the Legislature to be elected through a secret ballot.

Supporters of the 50-year-old system say it minimizes the influence of partisanship in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, allowing lawmakers to elect the person they consider most-qualified for the job without pressure to vote for a member of their own party. The unusual practice has allowed Democrats to claim some chairmanships, even though they’re heavily outnumbered by Republicans in the Legislature. “This proposal is less about transparency and it is absolutely about dismantling this unicameral” Legislature, said Sen. Mike Flood, of Norfolk, a Republican and former speaker of the Legislature.

Flood said the rule change could eventually backfire on Republicans or be used to minimize the influence of rural senators, whose numbers are dwindling and are expected to decline further this year after legislative redistricting. “In 20 years, this place could be full of Democrats and we’ll be on the other side and we’ll rue the day that we did this,” he said. Critics counter that the system encourages backroom deals and vote-trading from senators who are trying to win a chairmanship. They also say it violates the Nebraska Constitution, which calls for all votes to be public. Lawmakers debate the issue every two years, after new senators are elected. “Transparency breeds trust, secrecy breeds mistrust,” said Sen. Steve Halloran, of Hastings, a Republican who proposed the rule change.

Even so, some GOP senators said they didn’t want to be pressured into voting the party line when their independent judgement tells them otherwise. “I didn’t take an oath to represent Republicans in this (Legislature), I took an oath to represent the people in my district,” said Sen. Mark Kolterman, a Republican from Seward. Kolterman said roughly 70% of the voters in his district are Republican, but he also feels obligated to represent Democrats. “It shouldn’t be about who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican,” he said. “It’s should be about who has the best qualifications to lead.”

But Sen. Mike Groene, of North Platte, said it’s disingenuous to pretend that partisanship doesn’t play a role in the Legislature. Groene, a self-described conservative populist, railed against “country club Republicans” who strike secret deals with Democrats to win chairmanships. “You can talk about partisanship all you want, but it exists,” said the former Education Committee chairman who recently lost his chairmanship to a Democratic lawmaker. “If you want to dream it doesn’t exist here, you go right ahead. But out there in Nebraska, it exists.” Lawmakers also backed away from an effort to bar the media from “executive sessions,” where members of a legislative committee discuss bills and vote on bills that have been presented to them. The meetings are closed to the general public, but reporters are allowed to attend them and report on what happened. The senator who proposed the change argued that allowing reporters to listen has a chilling effect on lawmakers who want to have frank discussions. The Legislature’s Rules Committee took no action on the idea, however, and no one introduced the proposed rule change in Thursday’s debate.