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Looking at the political dynamic in 2016 Legislature
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Looking at the political dynamic in 2016 Legislature

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The 2016 legislative session that begins Wednesday arrives with political baggage attached.

Can't check this luggage; it's carry-on.

But that's always the case for state senators, particularly so during election years, and the political element is even more of a factor in years when an incumbent governor is seeking re-election.

In 2016, it looks like all incumbent senators who are completing their first terms -- or appointed tenure -- will be seeking re-election. All but two already have filed as candidates.

Although Gov. Pete Ricketts is not on the ballot after a single year in office, he's got his own political skin in this year's legislative game.

Ricketts experienced a dramatic first year dealing with the Legislature, one that created some polar-opposite results and perspectives.  

Big veto battles lost in the spotlight with fireworks lighting up the legislative sky; priorities won largely off center stage in legislative committee rooms and executive chambers.

This legislative session that begins Wednesday at 10 a.m. is the 60-day short version that occurs in even-numbered years. It's scheduled to adjourn on April 19, a month after winter has turned into spring.

All 14 incumbent senators whose terms will expire -- and who haven't reached their two-term limits -- are expected to be on the 2016 ballot  A dozen have extensive voting records to extol or defend; two senators will be facing voters for the first time with a more limited legislative history.

Sen. Nicole Fox of Omaha and Sen. David Schnoor of Scribner were gubernatorial appointees.

Fox has yet to cast a vote, having been appointed by Ricketts following adjournment of the 2015 session. She succeeded Jeremy Nordquist, who resigned to become chief-of-staff for Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford in Washington.

As a registered Republican who represents a heavily Democratic district that encompasses a broad swath of South Omaha and downtown Omaha, Fox faces a political challenge as she maneuvers her first legislative session.

The 7th District field of challengers already includes former Sen. John Synowiecki and Tony Vargas, an Omaha school board member whose Latino roots are a match for heavily Latino South Omaha. Both are Democrats.

Senators are elected on a nonpartisan ballot and the fact of life in the Legislature is that they do act independently outside of party control. However, both political parties take into account a legislative candidate's voter registration and positions on issues in deciding whether to provide campaign resources that can help them get elected.

The 2015 legislative freshman class provided a classic reminder that any effort to predict voting patterns or partisan behavior based on party registration or political affiliation is foolhardy. 

New senators largely defined as conservative Republicans assessed issues with independent eyes and produced some startling results.

Sixteen of the 30 votes cast to override the governor's veto of legislation repealing the death penalty were cast by registered Republicans. And seven of those were freshmen senators.

Senators who are Republicans also helped provide the muscle needed to override vetoes of legislation to increase the state gas tax and to grant driver's licenses to young undocumented immigrants who primarily entered the country as children and who are protected from deportation by President Barack Obama's executive action.

Those veto override votes presumably could become issues in some of this year's legislative races. 

Three of the votes cast to override the death penalty repeal and four of the votes to override the gas tax increase were cast by senators who are Republicans and seeking re-election this year.

Sens. Al Davis of Hyannis, Tommy Garrett of Bellevue and Les Seiler of Hastings voted to override the death penalty veto. Davis, Seiler, Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk and Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo voted to override the gas tax veto.

Both of those veto override motions corralled just enough votes to override the governor's objections.  

With Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump stirring the pot on illegal immigration, the driver's license vote might be a more isolated political issue. That veto override was approved on a commanding 34-10 count.

There will be politically significant votes this year on issues including expansion of health care coverage to the working poor financed predominantly by federal Medicaid dollars, proposed tax reductions, unresolved prison reform and sentencing reform issues, authorization for the use of medical marijuana and perhaps some appropriations decisions.

And there could be a couple of issues looming that are important to the political parties. Efforts may be in the works to revive proposals to return to a winner-take-all distribution of Nebraska's five presidential electoral votes and to require voters to present photo IDs.

The winner-take-all proposal, which would end Nebraska's system of awarding three of its five electoral votes to the presidential winner in each of the state's three congressional districts, was trapped in 2015 by a filibuster. 

That bill may have renewed political significance now in view of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's recent remarks in Omaha taking aim at Nebraska's 2nd District vote this year.

The photo-ID bill was shelved by a motion in the midst of a filibuster, but both bills remain on the floor of the Legislature and could be freed for consideration by a senator's designation as his or her priority bill.

This also could be a significant political year for Ricketts.

The 2015 legislative results created two competing scenarios.

* The governor had an unsuccessful first legislative session because he couldn't sustain his vetoes on hot issues.

* Or, the governor had a successful first year because he won his priorities, including a sharp reduction in the growth of state government spending and a healthy boost in property tax credits, accomplished along with legislative approval of a beefed-up executive team.

The 2015-17 budget framed by the Legislature's Appropriations Committee was such a match for the governor's priorities that Ricketts decided to forgo a single item veto.

The governor's second-year legislative performance will be watched and weighed by friend and foe. It could help determine whether this year will begin to set the stage for a successful re-election bid far down the road in 2018 or prompt others to begin to consider or plan a challenge.

Even a Republican primary challenge.

"I hope, and think, it will be a better session with the governor," Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley of Kearney said.

"He really ran into a buzz saw. No question about that. But it was not personally aimed at him. He happened to be governor when those issues came up."

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

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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