17 state senators pledge to end secret ballot for legislative committees, Herbster PAC says

Defenders of nonpartisan approach say push is GOP power grab

By: - September 12, 2022 10:03 am
NE legislative chambers

Nebraska’s unique one-house Unicameral Legislature. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Seventeen of Nebraska’s state senators have signed the first pledge pushed by Charles Herbster’s new political action committee: to scrap the Legislature’s unique system of electing committee chairs by secret ballot.

Republicans have sought that change for the nonpartisan body. 

Historically, shielding votes for committee leadership process from public view has allowed senators in the majority party, Republicans, to select leaders from the minority party, Democrats, to lead committees.

If the vote were public, conservatives have argued, fewer Republican senators would risk the political price of supporting a Democrat to lead the Judiciary or Urban Affairs Committees, as happens now.

The list of senators signing onto the pledge from Herbster’s Nebraska First PAC include three of his vocal supporters: Steve Halloran of Hastings, Steve Erdman of Bayard and Tom Brewer of Gordon. 

Current state senators who signed the pledge to make committee votes public: Joni Albrecht, John Arch, Bruce Bostelman, Tom Brewer, Tom Briese, Rob Clements, Robert Dover, Steve Erdman, Suzanne Geist, Ben Hansen, Steve Halloran, Mike Hilgers, Mike Jacobson, Kathleen Kauth, Lou Ann Linehan, John Lowe and Dave Murman.

The list also includes four senators who supported Jim Pillen in the gubernatorial primary — Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, Joni Albrecht of Thurston, Suzanne Geist of Lincoln and John Lowe of Kearney — as well as Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers, who remained neutral during the primary. He is running for Nebraska attorney general.

Since losing the primary, Herbster has not endorsed Pillen, a hog producer and veterinarian who faces Democrat Carol Blood in the general election.

Herbster, who owns agribusinesses in several states, provided the seed money for the Nebraska First PAC. 

Linehan said she and many of her colleagues support the change to public balloting on votes for committee chairs. The gubernatorial primary is over, she said, and Republicans are focused on the future.

“This is the right policy,” Linehan said. “You should have to stand by your votes.”

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn
(Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Local political scientists and longtime observers of the Legislature have argued that the push to remove secret balloting for committee chairs is not about transparency but is an attempt by the state’s dominant political party, the GOP, to assert partisan control of the body.

The 49-member Nebraska Legislature, unlike Congress or statehouses elsewhere, does not have a structure for partisan discipline to be enforced by a party whip.

Senators in political parties still exert pressure on their colleagues with speeches and statements, but the structure reduces the ability to punish senators who stray from the party line.

“These are George Norris reforms that are critical to the operation of a one-house, nonpartisan Legislature,” said Paul Landow, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “You cannot get along without them.”

Eighteen candidates for the Legislature this November also signed onto Nebraska First’s “transparency” pledge. All but one are Republicans. 

The other is Tyler Cappel, a Libertarian running against State Sen. Dave Murman of Glenvil in Legislative District 38. Murman also signed the pledge. 

District 38 is one of four where both general election candidates signed the pledge. The others are District 40 in northern Nebraska, District 42 in the North Platte area and District 48 in the Panhandle.

PAC spokesman Rod Edwards said he plans to follow up with people he’s not heard back from, including Democrats. The deadline to reply is Sept. 29, he said.

The first absentee ballots will be mailed to voters in early October. Edwards has said the group will let voters know who signed the pledge and who didn’t.

“Transparency in voting should be a nonpartisan issue,” Edwards said. “We believe voters support transparency and will support candidates who do, too.”

One of the PAC’s main goals is to push legislative candidates farther to the right.

The PAC pulled back from its original goal to have senators and candidates sign a second pledge, to support a so-called “constitutional carry” bill, a measure that would allow Nebraskans to carry a concealed handgun without a state permit or background check.

Edwards said senators and others told the PAC they would need to see the bill’s language before signing onto a pledge. Brewer introduced a permitless carry bill during this year’s legislative session. It fell two votes short of passage.

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.