It is time for Nebraska to amend legislative term limits

January 9, 2023 3:00 am
Nebraska State Capitol Building

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

Twenty-two years ago, Nebraska voters passed term limits for the Legislature. Those term limits took effect in 2006 – and looking back in time, it can be safely said that Nebraska’s term limit experiment has been a solution to a problem that simply did not exist. (Prior to term limits, the average tenure of state senators was between five and six years.)

When the new Legislature convened on Jan. 4, 2023, 16 new members joined the 49-seat Unicameral., due mostly to term limits, with one being elected to another office. On top of that, in 2024, another 15 will be term limited. That means when the Legislature convenes in 2025, over three-fifths of the decision making body will have no more than two years of legislative experience. This has been a reoccurring storyline since term limits were implemented 16 years ago.

We constantly put ourselves in a position with limited historical knowledge of the state’s most important issues and the rules that need to be followed, and forcing senators with limited experience into leadership positions.

Clearly, the losers here have been Nebraskans themselves.

Term-limit supporters argue that many other states have term limits. This is true, but no other state has term limits with a Unicameral Legislature. In other states with term limits, a term limited member of the House of Representatives can run for a Senate seat and vice versa. This process allows legislatures in other states to maintain some historical perspective and knowledge of important issues.

No well-run business that is managing several billion dollars’ worth of activity arbitrarily dismisses key members of their management team or their board of directors after they have worked there only eight years. Whenever possible, their knowledge and skills are retained for a smoother, more effective operation.

In addition, term limits have a negative impact on the balance of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. In more than three decades of working with the Legislature as an association executive, I never met a state senator who did not want to do the right thing for his/her constituents and the state of Nebraska.

Most would admit that they did not know “everything about everything,” but they still wanted to learn as much as possible before casting a vote on an issue being debated. For sake of discussion let’s say a newly elected state senator did not know a great deal about agriculture issues, and a vote on one was approaching. The logical thing might be to seek information from the State Department of Agriculture which is a part of the executive branch of government with a director appointed by the governor.

There could be a scenario for virtually every state department. Personally, my philosophy has been in concert with all of our recent governors, but there still should be a balance of power among the different branches of government.

In a perfect world, Nebraska’s term limits would be repealed. I doubt the voting public would go that far. A workable compromise would be to extend the limit for the Legislature to three four-year terms as opposed to the current two four-year terms. This would allow newly elected senators more time to learn and prepare themselves to move into the various leadership positions within the Unicameral. If an elected official is not living up to promises and expectations, they are still subject to the ballot box every four years, just as the system was intended to work.

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Barry Kennedy
Barry Kennedy

Barry Kennedy, who lives in Lincoln, served with the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry for over 31 years. He was president of the chamber before retiring in 2018. Before joining the chamber in 1987, he managed several statewide political campaigns.