Magazine article State Legislatures

Term Limit Tenacity Pays off in Nebraska

Magazine article State Legislatures

Term Limit Tenacity Pays off in Nebraska

Article excerpt

The Legislature and the over have battled over term limits for the past decade in Nebraska. The voters won, and term limits will soon go into effect in the only state with just one chamber. Observers fear that the legislative branch will be severely hobbled.

Leaders of Nebraska's one-house, nonpartisan Legislature have undertaken an ambitious task. They are looking for ways to preserve institutional memory after 2008, when the last members of the current, 49-member body will be term-limited out of office.

Doug Kristensen, before leaving the post of speaker last month to become chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, directed the legislative staff to begin compiling a record of issues and procedures. The idea was to provide a repository of information to spare future legislators from having to "spend five or six years figuring out where we have been."

This reflects a concern of leaders about a term limit amendment that, when fully implemented in 2007-2009, will strip the legislative branch of veteran lawmakers, custodians of an oral legislative tradition.

The potential damage in Nebraska will be compounded by the lack of a second legislative chamber. In other states, a term-limited representative might seek election to the Senate, thereby keeping her knowledge at work in the legislative branch. Nebraska has no "other chamber." It will be eight years and out.

Political scientist Robert Sittig, a leading authority on the unicameral Legislature, contends that the term limit concept will hit Nebraska harder than it will hit other states. To him, the ideal legislative body has one-third careerists, one-third newcomers and the rest in between. But under term limits, Nebraska will have a Legislature composed of half newcomers in their get-acquainted first term and half lame ducks, forbidden to run again--freshmen and sophomores with no juniors and seniors.

Nebraska's one- to two-day orientation for new senators may have to be expanded significantly to give them more information up front. There is also a concern about the talent pool. Will qualified people run for an office that offers no opportunity to seek a long and productive career? Senator DiAnna Schimek, chairman of the Committee on Government, Military and Veterans' Affairs, predicts that staff experience will diminish as new legislators bring in new staff members.

Consideration is being given to having committee staffers work in a central agency rather than being hired by individual committee chairs in order to provide more security for long-time professional staff members.

Senator Schimek says the Legislature has already felt the negative effects of term limits even though no one will be officially term-limited until the 2006 election.

"Incoming legislators are less patient about moving into committee leadership positions," she says. "There is less respect for the traditional view of listening and learning while preparing for leadership."

This has led to a legislative climate that, in the view of Schimek, is "less cooperative, more competitive."

Schimek also blamed term limits for an unusually large number of uncontested legislative races in the 2002 elections-26 of the 49 districts are electing a senator this year, but in 11 of those districts the incumbent is unopposed. Schimek theorizes that potential opponents, knowing that this is the incumbent's last election, decided to wait for an open seat in 2006.

Schimek drafted a bill to give the voters a chance to revisit the 2000 amendment but decided against introducing it. "The timing wasn't right," she says. She holds out the hope that the public will turn against term limits when it sees the damage it causes the legislative process.

Certainly the voters were warned of these and other negative consequences. Organized opponents at one time or another during an eight-year Nebraska campaign included the AFL-CIO, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Nebraska Democratic Party and Common Cause. …

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