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The number of filibusters this session that needed a vote to stop them was record-breaking.

Twenty-four. The highest number ever. 

"It has been very difficult," Speaker Galen Hadley said last week. 

It was astounding, really, by any measure when compared to previous years. The next highest number was last year's 13, which was also a record-breaker, by one.

The momentous trend skyward started in 2012, coincidentally when Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers returned to the Legislature. But you can only blame it on Chambers indirectly. 

"I want to make it absolutely clear that I don't blame Sen. Chambers for this increase in filibusters," Hadley said. "But as he has always said, he's a good teacher.

"Newer senators are really learning from the master." 

The idea of a filibuster is to protect the minority party from the majority party running roughshod over them. 

But in recent years, Hadley said, senators have gone from trying to protect the minority to just trying to stop a particular bill.

"I think we're becoming more of what I would call a 33-vote legislature," Hadley said. "If a bill has any significant opposition, that opposition is going to require the body to get 33 votes to pass the bill."

That is concerning, he said, if it becomes more and more common. "We're just going to have tougher times getting things done," he said. 

Before 1992, no permanent rule existed that allowed for cloture motions, which are made to stop a filibuster and vote on a bill. But in 1991, after two sessions of long debates on abortion bills, the Rules Committee put forth a change to limit debate. 

It allowed for eight hours at all three stages of debate, and 12 hours on appropriations bills before a priority cloture motion could be brought. 

Then-Sen. Don Wesely of Lincoln opposed the rule, saying he was proud the Nebraska Legislature had never taken the step to shut off the voice of the people. When you limit debate, he said, you limit ideas. And stretching those ideas into something workable could take hours, even days of discussion.

Then-Sen. Scott Moore said if eight hours of debate wasn't enough to form a legitimate idea, senators needed to hone their skills.

"I happen to think it's wrong when a very, very small minority of two to three people can hold this body up and keep things from happening," he said in debate on the rule change.

Lincoln Sen. Chris Beutler also favored the rule change. Without it, he said, the Legislature would be at the whim of the minority.

Previous to the rule change, senators were allowed to file a motion to suspend the rules and move to advance a bill without further debate. But it could only be addressed after all amendments that were filed were debated. And it was really no rule at all, Beutler said, in the hands of someone set on killing a bill.

Chambers opposed the rule change, saying extended debate could be used to make a bad bill better. And Sen. Brad Ashford said he was vehemently opposed.

"It's an open process, and we should talk and we should talk and we should talk, if need be, about issues that are important to the people of this state," Ashford said.

The rule change passed on a 29-12 vote, without a filibuster, although not because it wasn't suggested.   

And the eight-hour requirement was removed from the rules in 2002.

For three years after the cloture rule for filibusters was instituted, their use remained low. And until last year, they averaged about four a year, with a low of one and a high of 12.

This year, 18 bills and one resolution for a constitutional amendment were filibustered, five of them twice. Nine of those bills ultimately passed, 10 failed when 33 votes could not be mustered. 

The speaker announced before the session that first-round debate would be limited to six hours, rather than eight. He saved the Legislature 16 hours of debate time with the decision. 

But he said he would be loathe to reduce the number of hours on second and final debates. 

His goal to allow all priority bills to see debate and resolution was not successful. Four that made it to the floor didn't reach a vote. They were bills dealing with referrals to licensed acupuncturists; dental assistants and dental hygienists; car insurance; and experimental drugs.

Despite the hours of filibuster time taken, the Legislature was able to get some important things done, passing legislation that will have a long-term effect on the state, said longtime lobbyist Walt Radcliffe.

Those included Omaha area learning community funding (LB1067, Sullivan), the roads infrastructure bank (LB960, Smith), the wind energy bill (LB824, McCollister) and a less-heralded but nonetheless important Niobrara River management plan (LB1038, Davis). 

Those included Omaha area learning community funding (LB1067, Sullivan), the roads infrastructure bank (LB960, Smith), the wind energy bill (LB824, McCollister) and a less-heralded but nonetheless important Niobrara River management plan (LB1038, Davis). 

"That's quite a bit of stuff," he said. 

And yes, some things didn't get done: Medicaid expansion, winner-take-all presidential electors.

"I think not doing Medicaid will have a lasting effect on Nebraska, I do, in a negative way," he said. 

Many state legislatures have some type of rules to limit debate or limit the time each senator can speak on a bill. 

Most of the 10 states surrounding Nebraska don't use the filibuster much to stall debates or block passage of a bill, according to information from the Council of State Governments. 

Nebraska seems to be unique among these middle-of-the-country states. 

Hadley's advice to the next speaker: Explore whether the time for each round of a filibuster is right, or even if he or she wants to have set hours, and whether 33 votes is the right number to stop debate. It takes only 30 to override a governor's veto. 

Radcliffe said he remembers a telephone deregulation bill in 1986 that passed on a 25-24 vote. 

"You couldn't pass anything 25-24, you couldn't pass something 29-20 today," he said.  

"I don't think filibusters are a terrible thing. I just think it needs to be contained a little bit."

About eight years was spent on the dental hygiene bill, that didn't get a vote, Radcliffe said.

"That's just too bad that that much work went into something they didn't get to," he said. 

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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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