Sen. Laura Ebke

Ebke

Courtesy photo

Laura Ebke hasn't pulled the trigger yet, but Nebraska's Libertarian state senator is on course to seek re-election next year.

Ebke is one of a kind, an independent — and conservative — state senator who abandoned her politically secure party designation as a Republican after Gov. Pete Ricketts called out by name a number of state senators who are Republicans for not supporting him or the GOP on issues considered by the nonpartisan Legislature.

She doesn't know if the governor will be coming after her in the 2018 election as he did with endorsements and financial support that helped torpedo the 2016 re-election bids of three incumbent state senators who were fellow Republicans but had voted to override several of his vetoes.

Ebke says the fact is she agrees with Ricketts on a majority of issues, but she does not march in lockstep. She makes up her own mind.

"I try to analyze issues independently," the Crete senator said during an interview in her first-floor office at the State Capitol.

"Ultimately, I am a libertarian, big L and all," she said, fundamentally supportive of less government and lower taxes, but determined to confront urgent or unresolved issues and ready to accept the responsibility that "you've got to pay the bills."

Ebke voted to override the governor's vetoes of legislation to repeal the death penalty and to grant young DACA immigrants the right to earn licenses to work in the state, but she also cast votes to sustain his veto of a gas tax hike and against a motion designed to scuttle his proposed tax reform package earlier this year. 

If decisions are going to be made strictly on a partisan basis, she said, "it's too easy to quit thinking."

"We ought to engage our brains and think independently," Ebke said. 

"As some of my colleagues have said, some of us came here to be a state senator, not a Republican state senator."

That's the premise that helped create Nebraska's unique nonpartisan, one-house legislature, Ebke said.

"I think we don't want to be like Washington," she said.

Ebke says she believes her constituents in the 32nd Legislative District in Southeast Nebraska, which includes Fairbury and Crete and parts of Lancaster County, spilling into Pioneers Park, generally accept her change of party identification.

When she explained it in a remarkably candid message to her constituents posted on Facebook, Ebke received more than 100 responses, only three or four of which were negative.

The general response, she said, was: "That's OK, we knew that's what you were."

"I think it's been a net positive," Ebke said, "but how it turns out, I don't know."

That revealing Facebook letter last year talked about "immense pressure" in the Legislature to vote the Republican way that sometimes borders on "near bullying." 

"As a Republican, the pressure to vote with the Republican governor is significant," she wrote.

In 2014, Ebke won her first-term bid by 161 votes in a tight election that kept her up until 2 a.m.

Ebke holds an important leadership position in the Legislature, serving as chair of the Judiciary Committee, which traditionally confronts a huge workload of bills and is the lead committee in dealing with ongoing prison reform.

Her committee visited all 10 of the state's prisons this summer, is sharply focused on parole and probation reforms, and feels the added pressure for results created by a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state over conditions in its prison system.

Ebke describes her contacts with the governor as "limited."

"He'll say hi when we meet in the hall," she said.

Ebke believes the Legislature "became more partisan" this year when senators elected a slate of Republicans to fill virtually all of the leadership positions with strong help from this year's freshman class of senators who are Republicans.

"My class tended to be a little more independent-thinking," she said.

Ebke said she does believe there needs to be some change in the Legislature's filibuster rule, which currently requires the votes of at least 33 senators in the 49-member body to end a minority filibuster of legislation.

That was an issue that divided Republicans and Democrats this year, with outnumbered Democrats attempting to hold on to minority rights accorded by the current rule.

"My gut says 33 is an awfully high bar," Ebke said, "but I don't know what the right number is. It's frustrating if you're trying to get something passed and you get 32 votes matched against five no votes."

Senators "at least should have to go on the record," she said.

However, Ebke said, she hopes the Legislature won't resume the filibuster standoff that dominated the first one-third of this year's 90-day legislative session in 2018 when the Legislature will be confined to a 60-day session.

Ebke's legislative priorities next year will include a bill to institute widespread occupational-licensing reform and she is hoping to see a breakthrough in prison reform progress that will result in a decline of population in Nebraska's overcrowded prison system.

Ebke, who teaches health care policy at Doane University and has long been a government scholar, notes political parties, operatives and incumbent officeholders will be particularly focused on next year's legislative elections.

Senators elected in 2018 will participate in redistricting congressional and legislative districts following completion of the 2020 federal census. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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