Nebraska state senators elect new leaders on Day 1, put off fight over secret ballot voting

In contested races, Murman replaces Walz as Education Committee chair, and Geist claims Transportation post

By: - January 4, 2023 2:57 pm
swearing in

State senators, elected or re-elected in November, take the oath of office Wednesday from Mike Heavican, the Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — State senators put off until later a fight over legislative rules, then spent the first day of the 2023 session on Wednesday electing a new speaker and leaders of legislative committees.

The day opened with the possibility of a session-paralyzing debate over whether a tradition of electing chairs of legislative committees by secret ballot should be changed to an open vote.

But lawmakers, without debate, adopted temporary rules that include the voting by secret ballot.

The issue will almost assuredly come up later this month when senators will adopt permanent rules, but those rules won’t go into effect until the 2025 session.

secret ballots
State senators tally votes taken Wednesday by secret ballot for a race for a legislative committee chairmanship post — which might become a thing of the past in the Nebraska Legislature if conservative senators get their way. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, one of several senators who signed a pledge to end secret balloting, was elected chairman of the Rules Committee and said that he wants proposals to change the rules by Friday.

“Someone will bring it up,” Erdman said of ending secret votes.

A group of veteran senators had been pushing to avoid a divisive floor fight on the first day — a fight that could have led to a weeks-long filibuster that would have blocked any other legislative action. But it might only mean that fur will fly later this month.

28 potential votes

Erdman said he thinks there are 28 senators who will vote to end the secret ballots. That is enough to pass a rules change, but it’s short of the 33 needed to end a filibuster that could block the rule change.

Erdman said he wants the permanent rules adopted by the 12th day of the 90-day session, which would be Jan. 20.

The idea of ending secret ballot votes for committee chairs has been  pushed in the past by some conservative senators, but it got an extra boost this year when Charles Herbster, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor, elicited pledges from senators to end the practice.

Despite the lack of a vote on secret ballots, conservatives in the 49-seat Unicameral did chalk up a couple of victories Wednesday.

The vote was 32-17 for Murman, a Republican, over Walz, a Democrat who was once the party’s lieutenant governor candidate. The vote exactly mirrors the number of Republicans and Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.  

Murman wins Ed chair

One was the election of Sen. Dave Murman, a farmer from Glenvil, to chair the Education Committee. He defeated Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz, a former teacher, who had held that post the past two years.

State Sen. Dave Murman, at the podium, called for a legislative investigation of the Nebraska Department of Education this fall. He was joined by, from left, State Sens. Myron Dorn, Steve Erdman, Steve Halloran and Robert Clements. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Murman, in his nomination speech, cited a Bible passage and said he supported school choice and making parents “the foremost decision maker” in their child’s education.

Murman has been critical of the Nebraska Department of Education for “promoting” comprehensive sex education standards on its website — a charge department officials denied.

Sex ed policy sparked outrage from some

In recent years, the State Board of Education sparked outrage from some parents and Gov. Pete Ricketts for its proposed new sex education standards. Critics said that the proposed standards were not age-appropriate and that parents should handle that issue, while advocates maintained that the standards would better prepare young people for the complex realities of life. The effort was recently halted.

In another contested leadership race, Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist easily outdistanced Sens. Tom Brandt of Plymouth and Mike Moser of Columbus to head the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee.

Geist, a Republican, is running for mayor of Lincoln against incumbent Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, the state’s highest ranking Democratic elected official. Chairs of legislative committees get access to more political donors and often get more publicity, and both would tend to aid Geist in her mayoral race.

The election of Erdman as chairman of the Rules Committee over Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh would also tend to make it easier to adopt rules changes, such as ending secret ballot votes.

State Sen. John Arch of LaVista
State Sen. John Arch of LaVista, the new speaker of the Legislature
(Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Wednesday also saw the uncontested election of LaVista Sen. John Arch as speaker of the Legislature. He replaces Mike Hilgers, who was elected to the post of Nebraska attorney general.

‘Healthy relationships’

Arch, in his nomination speech, pledged to promote “healthy relationships” and “healthy communications” between senators, saying that would help attack the growing distrust in governmental institutions.

Brandon Metzler, a 29-year-old lawyer from Omaha, was elected Clerk of the Legislature replacing Patrick O’Donnell, who retired after serving 45 years as clerk. O’Donnell was the longest serving clerk of a state legislature in the country.

Leadership selections

State senators elected to chair legislative committees (* denotes re-elected to that post):

Executive Board: Tom Briese, Albion

Agriculture: *Steve Halloran, Hastings

Appropriations: Robert Clements, Elmwood

Banking, Commerce and Insurance: Julie Slama, Sterling

Business and Labor: Merv Riepe, Ralston

Education: Dave Murman, Glenvil

General Affairs: John Lowe, Kearney

Government, Military and Veterans Affairs : *Tom Brewer, Gordon

Health and Human Services: Ben Hansen, Blair

Judiciary: Justin Wayne, Omaha

Natural Resources: *Bruce Bostelman, Brainard

Retirement Systems: Mike McDonnell, Omaha

Revenue: *Lou Ann Linehan, Elkhorn

Transportation and Telecommunications: Suzanne Geist, Lincoln

 Urban Affairs: Terrell McKinney, Omaha

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.