After more than eight hours of debate, state lawmakers approve committee appointments

By: - January 9, 2023 6:09 pm
Nebraska State Capitol Building

The Nebraska State Capitol Building in Lincoln. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — After more than eight hours of sometimes rancorous debate over two days, state legislators on Monday approved the committee assignments for the 2023 session.

The 40-7 vote came after several Democratic senators in the Nebraska Legislature criticized the process of picking committee members as defying tradition and past practices.

They also said the selection was preordained by Republican senators who are seeking to ease the passage of some conservative bills by packing committees with supporters.

The delay in approving the committees was seen as a sign that many issues in the 2023 session will see difficult debates and that hard feelings were arriving early in the session, which began last week.

State Sen. Jen Day of Gretna (Craig Chandler/University Communication)

State Sen. Jen Day of Gretna said she was told prior to the committee selections that conservatives were aiming to remove her from the Legislature’s Education Committee where she had served the past two years. She said her incumbency on the committee was ignored, in defiance of past practices.

The Education Committee is expected to be a hotspot for major priorities of new Gov. Jim Pillen — priories such as school choice and changing state aid to K-12 education that have been blocked in the past.

‘Not favorable’

“I’m not favorable to the types of policies they want to move out of that committee, so they replaced me with someone who was,” Day said.

But Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, who headed the 2nd Congressional District caucus that guided the committee assignments from that district, said other factors were at work.

Linehan, who sits on the Education Committee, said that with the election of Sen. Dave Murman, of the 3rd Congressional District, as chair of the Education Committee, the 2nd District lost one of its three seats on the eight-member committee. So someone had to be dropped off from the Omaha area, she said.

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

While Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney was departing the committee, it was decided to fill his spot with a fellow Omaha senator, Justin Wayne, because, Linehan said, Wayne had more seniority in the Legislature and because the state’s largest school district, Omaha, deserved a seat on the committee.

Wayne also defended the decision, saying it was personally important to him that the Education Committee continue to have a person of color on the panel because of the state’s achievement gap between the state’s Black and white students.

Wayne, a Democrat who formerly served on the Omaha Public Schools board, has been a supportive of school choice in the past. This year’s  Education Committee as a whole is seen as more friendly to that issue, as well as to changing state aid.

Follow ‘custom, tradition and practices’

The extended debate was led primarily by Omaha Sens. Megan Hunt and Machela Cavanaugh, along with Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad.

State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln  (Courtesy of ACLU Nebraska)

Conrad, a lawyer, argued that the Legislature was required to follow “custom, tradition and (past) practices” in choosing members of legislative committees, but that hadn’t happened.

Critics of the committee choices said they should be balanced by geography and political party, and not packed to get a particular policy result or cater to a new governor. The best policies, they said, are crafted in committees that offer a wide range of opinions on issues, and that ends up avoiding longer, more rancorous debates by the full Legislature.

Hunt said Democrats were “steamrolled” by Republicans in the committee selection process. She said that wasn’t necessary given that the GOP has a 32-17 majority in the officially nonpartisan Legislature.

“When you streamroll procedure, you’re not going to get away with it easily,” Hunt said.

The long debate over whether to recommit the committee assignments or approve them led to several procedural maneuvers, including votes to reconsider votes and an effort to suspend the rules. But in the end, the committee appointments were confirmed.

Rules changes submitted

The rancor did result in one change. The Rules Committee, which is considering 52 proposed rule changes — an unusually large number — moved its public hearing on the proposals from Tuesday to Thursday to give senators more time to review them.

Among the proposed rule changes are one expected to generate sparks: Hastings Sen. Steve Halloran has proposed to do away with secret ballot voting for committee chairs.

Another proposed change that is bound to be controversial is one from Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman to bar the news media from attending and reporting on executive sessions of committees, where decisions are made to advance or kill bills. George Norris, the founder of the state’s unique, one-house Unicameral, railed against closed-door conference committees — which are used in the U.S. Congress – as corrupting forces in politics.

Another proposal, from Sen. Michaela Cavanaugh, would ban firearms in the State Capitol except for the military and law enforcement officers. A couple of years ago, some gun rights advocates openly carried high-powered rifles in the Capitol and into a committee hearing, which is not prohibited.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation, a member of the Nebraska Hop Growers and a volunteer caretaker of Irvingdale Park in Lincoln.