Nebraskans voice concerns, skepticism of reverting to a bicameral Legislature

Proposed constitutional amendment would also make legislative elections partisan

By: - March 9, 2023 5:42 pm
Floor of the Nebraska Legislature

The floor of Nebraska’s unique Unicameral Legislature. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A hearing Thursday on a proposal to end Nebraska’s one-house legislative system drew all but one opponent, disputing claims it could benefit representation.

Legislative Resolution 2CA, proposed by State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, would return Nebraska to a bicameral Legislature, with 63 representatives elected by the people and 31 senators, each representing three contiguous counties. He did express interest in maintaining 49 representatives based on current legislative districts.

Erdman introduced an amendment to his resolution Thursday clarifying that senators would be selected by senator appointment committees. County boards in each of the senate districts would select one board member for the committee.

Steve Erdman
State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

LR 2CA would also provide that voters select legislators in partisan elections and that legislators internally select committee chairs and officers via open ballot, a long-fought rules change sought by conservatives.

However, much of Thursday’s testimony focused on the bicameral proposal.

“I think a people cannot be long free or, nor ever happy, whose government is in one Assembly,” said John Adams in 1776, who Erdman quoted to the Executive Board.

“A single Assembly is liable to all the vices, follies and frailties of an individual,” Adams continued in his “Thoughts on Government” writing. “Subject to fits of humour, starts of passion, flights of enthusiasm, partialities of prejudice and consequently productive of hasty results and absurd judgments.”

George W. Norris is viewed as the father of the Unicameral for encouraging Nebraskans to adopt the one-house change in 1934. Nebraska’s Legislature became a Unicameral in 1937. Norris also supported the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provided for the direct election of U.S. senators.

The constitutionality

Jeanne Greisen was the only person to testify in favor of Erdman’s proposal, although 42 letters were submitted in support.

Greisen said Nebraska has been meeting the definition of insanity, repeating a process and expecting different results year after year.

“When the government doesn’t work for the people, then the people need to do something to take back their government,” Greisen said. “And maybe that’ll happen in a different way, but, in the meantime, this is a great bill to change things because clearly, this is not working.”

Some have criticized Erdman’s proposal as unconstitutional, as it would violate one person, one vote. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized in a 1964 case that state senate districts must have roughly equal populations.

But Erdman is confident his proposal would provide voters an opportunity to review the system, adding that something is not “generally” unconstitutional until the courts rule that way.

The legacy of George Norris

Randy Stramel, a representative with the Norris Institute in McCook, said the institute approved a resolution against Erdman’s proposal.

Senator George Norris is honored with a statue outside the Norris House in McCook, Nebraska. (Nathan Leach/Nonpartisan Nebraska)

Stramel said that, contrary to Erdman’s contention, the bill would not increase rural representation. Instead, he said, the change would increase only the number of politicians. 

He added that a bicameral body could complicate rules, decrease the resources and time available to legislators and centralize power in political parties.

Stramel was one of 13 people testifying against the proposal. In addition, 38 letters were submitted opposing the measure.

Bruce McDowell of McCook said Norris would likely be “twisting in his grave” at Erdman’s proposal, which is not the first attempt to change the one-house structure.

Erdman said only five senators live west of Kearney — Brian Hardin, Erdman, Mike Jacobson, Teresa Ibach and Tom Brewer — and their districts are composed of 37 counties. Erdman’s proposal could add at least 12 legislators west of Kearney.

Adding 31 senators, at an annual salary of $12,000, would carry a price tag of $372,000.  There would be additional costs for legislative staff wages and other administrative costs.

More senators could also lead to more legislation for residents to track, McDowell said.

‘Unique, independent and practical’

Wes Dodge, president of Represent Us, an anti-corruption organization with an Omaha chapter, said the discourse in the current session with State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha threatening to filibuster any bill that reaches the floor would be duplicated in a two-house Legislature.

Dodge said the “special” system in Nebraska has been effective and reduces redundancy.

Natalie Hahn testifies against changing the Nebraska Legislature from a Unicameral to a bicameral Legislature on Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“We’re Nebraska nice. I don’t think we should be Nebraska compliant and do what other people want us to do,” Dodge said. “Let’s do what we can to keep us unique, independent and practical.”

Chloe Fowler, associate executive director of Nonpartisan Nebraska, said she was a page for the Executive Board in the previous session. There, and on the floor of the Legislature, she said, she watched unlikely senators work together.

Natalie Hahn, whose family has farms in Polk and Merrick Counties, said senators need to remember that Nebraska’s system is a “gem” and a “treasure” to the rest of the world. She said that when she’d bring international visitors to Nebraska as part of her work with the United Nations, they’d be most in awe of the Unicameral.

Hahn also called for senators to remember the words at the south entrance of the Capitol: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.”

“Let us ensure the watchfulness is based on local needs, particularly independence and brilliance for all Nebraskans,” Hahn said.

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.