Don Walton: Legislature shares 2014 election spotlight

2013-06-23T20:00:00Z 2015-11-10T17:21:22Z Don Walton: Legislature shares 2014 election spotlightBy DON WALTON / Column

Battles for an open Senate seat and the governorship will occupy center stage in 2014, but make room in the spotlight for next year's legislative races.

Suddenly, the Legislature is where the action is.

Obviously, of course, the choice of Nebraska's next governor will be huge. 

And hopefully someday soon, Congress will reclaim its role as a vital and functional branch of the federal government, centering on the needs and best interests of the country rather than on partisan battles that seek political advantage.

All the polls and surveys tell us that the American people have written those guys off for now. 

Gov. Dave Heineman's decision not to accept a Senate seat -- which virtually was his for the asking in 2014 -- reflected somewhat of a similar judgment.

But Heineman's decision also was based on a desire to complete his governorship without the distraction of a Senate campaign and remain centered here when he is done.

Unlike the Senate, or the House, the legislative system works in Nebraska. 

Senators talk to one another, debate, argue, negotiate, compromise, more often than not reach agreement on tough issues that really need to be resolved even though there are sharply opposing views.

Nebraska has a legislative system in which you actually can work together and get things done. Imagine that.

And in the past couple of years, it seems to me, the Legislature has reclaimed its power as an equal branch of state government, no longer dutifully falling in line with the governor's wishes.

During the past legislative session, Nebraskans saw robust debate between conservatives and a loose and fluid coalition of moderates and liberals, with conservatives ultimately determining that they needed to resort to filibusters to stave off majority support for legislation to expand Medicaid coverage and repeal the death penalty.

That may have been a Washington-style tactic, but it demonstrated in a dramatic way that there's room for more than one political point of view in Nebraska's Legislature now, and no governor or party or political ideology commands it. 

The genius of George Norris is reflected even more in the non-partisan aspect of his legislative model than in its one-house feature, although the latter also is important in making the legislative process far more transparent and accessible to citizens. 

A single house, of course, also eliminates the two-house conference committees that wield undue, and often secretive, power.

In Nebraska, the Legislature matters.

And, recently, it has mattered even more.

Seventeen legislative seats opened by term limits will be on the 2014 ballot. 

The results of those elections may tip the balance on key issues, and determine whether there continues to be a robust reflection of all views as opposed to a dominant political philosophy or ideology.

Nine of those seats are held by senators who are Republicans, seven by Democrats, one by a registered independent. More Republican-held seats are at stake.

But, in terms of this non-partisan Legislature, that kind of assessment is a little misleading.

After consulting with a trusted observer of the Legislature, let's classify three of those term-limited Republicans as identifiably moderate senators based on their voting records. 

Add those three, plus the independent, to the seven Democrats and you'll find 11 of the 17 term-limited seats at stake next year are held by the moderate-liberal grouping of senators who held enough power this year that conservatives decided they had to turn to the filibuster to get their way on a couple of big issues.

So, it is clear that power could shift after the 2014 votes are counted, especially when you also consider there are moderates among the seven incumbent senators who are eligible to seek re-election. 

Better make room in the 2014 political spotlight for those legislative elections. The political parties already are; they're actively recruiting candidates and targeting legislative districts. 

And be sure the gubernatorial candidates have a big stake in the outcome.

But once elected, the winners will be free agents.

If you want to describe how Nebraska's unique legislative system ought to work, and usually does, perhaps Sen. Russ Karpisek hit the nail on the head last week in an interview with the Wilber Republican.

"I'm really not on anybody's side except mine and what I think the majority of my constituents want," he said.

And when it comes to a bill he's particularly interested in, Karpisek said: "I want to sit down with people on both sides of the issue and work something out."

That's a foreign language in Washington.

Finishing up:

* Chuck Hagel, during his response to a question posed by a member of the audience at UNO last week: "I know a lot of smart people I wouldn't want near power."

* C'mon, of course the N belongs on the arena to mark the location of Nebraska's home basketball court. There would be no arena if the Huskers weren't playing there.

* Deb Fischer's Washington office has been moved into the stately Russell Senate Office Building. History echoes through those halls.

* Lots of legislative realities and political motives involved in crafting bipartisan immigration reform, but couldn't we spend that money on an electronic fence in unfenced areas rather than physically walling off our country?

* Hey, Rod Bates: Job exceptionally well done.

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or

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