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Senators used words like this to describe the 2018 legislative session: Frustrating. Rough. Deterioration of trust. No tax reform.

Many senators agreed that the session wasn't — pardon the cliche — all that, and a bag of chips. 

Senators introduced 469 bills, and 107 became priority bills. 

Of those bills, Speaker Jim Scheer said 12 or 13 were debated for three hours and then left the agenda forever, because the sponsors of those bills couldn't show him they had the votes to get past a filibuster.

Twenty-three priority bills were parked on general file at the end of the session and died when the Legislature adjourned on Day 60. 

Senators had to request cloture votes 25 times to stop filibusters. Seventeen of those votes were successful. 

And they left a last-gasp flurry of 24 bills — with final reading on the last day of the session — for Gov. Pete Ricketts to sign or veto, with no recourse for lawmakers.  

The Legislature serves a dual purpose, said Sen. Jim Smith of Papillion, who is leaving in January after two terms. Those are to pass good legislation and to do no harm. 

"... when (people) say nothing got done, I would say that we avoided harm," he said.

But there were moments of action in the 60-day session. 

Senators passed a balanced budget, as required, after starting another year with less revenue than needed. They did away with some red tape and regulation of occupations and professionals. And they passed a package of bills to deal with the opioid addiction crisis, bills that Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell said were strong, positive steps that maintained Nebraska as a leader on that crucial issue. 

"We're not being reactionary for a change. We're being proactive," he said.  

But no tax reform. No debate on Medicaid expansion. And no medical marijuana policy decisions. 

Many senators were at maximum frustration at the lack of progress in addressing the property tax issue; they never had a significant, deliberative discussion about it, said Kuehn. Bills stayed in the Revenue Committee too long and the larger group of senators didn't get to talk about the pool of options. 

Filibuster frustration 

On the issues that didn't make progress, some senators put the blame on Scheer's three-hour filibuster policy for initial debate. 

"I'm reflecting on that," the speaker said. "I don't know that it was as bad as people thought, and it's probably not as good as I think. It's probably somewhere in between."

Kuehn, who served one term and will not run for a second, said he hopes senators take a serious look next year at filibuster procedures, to deter the de facto two-thirds majority required for so many bills, and to preserve the filibuster for protecting the rights of a minority group of senators, when needed, on a handful of measures. 

Scheer defended the policy, saying splitting the six hours normally given a filibuster in half gave senators time to work out problems, make changes and negotiate a compromise. 

And in some cases, that took place, he said. Not every controversial bill failed. 

Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete stood out this session as one who put a priority on finding compromise for more-controversial bills, such as a proposal for more transparency and accountability for the State Patrol and an occupational licensing bill.

Senators may not be paying enough attention to how to forge consensus and work with people on legislation, she said. 

"Working a bill and trying to find compromise is so important," Ebke said. "You can't just bully your way through on things."

Too many bills?

Scheer and others said it's likely that too many bills are being introduced. Over this Legislature's two sessions, senators brought forward 1,136.

Scheer didn't mention names, but 14 senators introduced more than 30 bills over the two years of the 105th Legislature. Four surpassed 40 bills and one of them — Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne — introduced more than 60. 

Those with 41 to 47 bills over the two years were Sens. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, Burke Harr of Omaha and Mark Kolterman of Seward.

Wayne introduced 63 bills and two constitutional amendments in that time, with 41 of those offered in the 2018 session. Six passed, but one was vetoed and another delivered to the governor Wednesday.  

At what magic number do a senator's bills become unmanageable, Scheer asked. How do you negotiate and work that many bills in that short period of time?

Wayne, who just completed his second session after being elected in 2016, said he took the approach that he would introduce all the bills in these first sessions that he wants to work on in his four years, and potentially eight years, in office. 

If he starts working on them now, he will figure out who he needs to work with and how to get them passed, versus introducing a new set of bills every year and starting from scratch, he said. Frequently, it takes several sessions to get bills passed. 

"All those bills are bills I can reintroduce every year and hopefully check them off as we get them passed," he said. "With term limits ... I think it's important to get the conversation started this year."

Less trust 

Along with frustration, factor in distrust.

A number of senators said that whether it's term limits or something else, the ability to trust fellow senators has deteriorated. 

Kuehn said he had colleagues look him in the eye moments before a vote, and promise a yes or a no. And then the vote board showed a different result. Vote counting is almost impossible, he said.  

He's not sure if it's reflective of the electorate, the political climate or just a new breed of senators. 

"But that trust has to be re-established if we're going to move forward on substantial policy issues," he said. 

Scheer said senators who promise a vote and then change their minds may not view themselves as being "bad actors." They may have reasons for the change, such as finding out more information. 

"Part of what we're missing is the follow through after you tell somebody something. Then you at least have the obligation to let them know that you have changed your mind," he said. "And I don't think that happens a lot of times."

A broader view

Nebraskans are watching. Senators said they are continually surprised at how many people tell them they tune in on NET. They see the good and the bad of what's going on in the chamber. They know when talk veers from policy, and into the more personal attacks, said Harr. 

"And that's disappointing," he said. 

Smith said the past two years are not the ones he will look back on as his best of eight. There's a more-pronounced divide in senators' vision of what the state should be and what their responsibilities are as representatives. 

More of them should take a broader view that they are there to serve the whole state, he said, and not just pledge allegiance to their districts and themselves.

Nebraska has to compete against neighboring states. The path forward for the state is growth, Smith said. 

"We have to put more emphasis on what it's going to take to expand our economy," he said. "And not just the rural economy." 

A smaller new crop of senators will come to Lincoln next year, at least eight, but perhaps more depending on the outcome of elections. 

Senators say they have high hopes things will improve with the new session.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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