Nearly half of Nebraska’s state senators will be forced out of office this year by term limits. But unlike their counterparts in other states who face the same fate, in Nebraska they can’t turn around and run for office in the other house. The reason is simple: There isn’t one.
Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral form of government. Its 49 state senators, who represent roughly 35,000 people each, comprise the entire legislative branch of government. The unique structure was implemented in 1937, and Nebraskans point to it with pride as a more efficient way of going about the people’s business.
When it comes to term limits, however, it means that politicians can’t skip from the House to the Senate, or vice versa, when forced out. Term limits were approved by 56 percent of Nebraska voters in 2000 following a citizen petition drive. The law bars senators from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms, but they could return after sitting out one term.
Opponents of the Nebraska law say it will hobble the Legislature next year as 20 freshmen — 40 percent of the entire body — struggle with trying to learn the lawmaking process. Those leaving served a combined 239 years, including the current speaker of the Legislature and nine who lead committees.
“You, in effect, have decimated an entire branch of government,” said state Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, an outspoken term limits opponent and the longest-serving lawmaker in Nebraska history, currently in his 36th year.
If Nebraska is anything like Colorado, one of the first three states to pass term limits in 1990, lawmakers will spend more time reinventing the wheel as they unknowingly pursue proposals that have been tried and rejected in the past, said Diane Rees, a lobbyist for the past 30 years in Denver.
Living under term limits for state lawmakers in Colorado has resulted in a near total loss of institutional memory and an increase in the power of staff and bureaucrats, Rees said.
“Term limits are disastrous, and everyone who’s involved in the political process knows it,” she said.
Similar concerns about increased power not only for staffers and bureaucrats but also lobbyists and the governor’s office are frequently mentioned as term limits loom in Nebraska.
The unicameral system relies on having experienced people in office, because there isn’t a second house to balance things out, Chambers said. Under term limits, new senators will be easily swayed, tricked and outmaneuvered by those with other interests, he said.
“Where do you go for advice? Well, you go out in the Rotunda, and there’s about 350 guys out there paid to give you advice,” said Jack Gould, spokesman for political watchdog group Common Cause of Nebraska. “It’s going to be difficult for them to separate themselves from the influence of the lobbyists.”
Balderdash, say term limit supporters.
“This argument has always been made that this will empower the lobby, and there’s only one group that hates term limits more than politicians — and that’s lobbyists,” said Paul Jacob, spokesman for U.S. Term Limits.
If anything, Nebraska’s unique structure will only increase the number of fresh faces in the statehouse, because they won’t be able to skip between the houses, Jacob said.
There’s already evidence that may be happening. There are 83 candidates for 20 open seats this year, which compares with 55 candidates for 25 seats up for election in 2004.
“The fact that you have a lot of people trying to do something doesn’t necessarily speak to the quality,” said Chambers, who added that he can’t think of a single positive outcome of term limits.
The affect on a unicameral government wasn’t emphasized during the term limits campaign six years ago, but in private, supporters frequently mentioned the forced removal of Chambers as a reason to vote for the amendment.
“Their stupidity behind the whole thing lies with the fact that I can’t be there forever, and it’s a mistake to dismantle a branch of government because of one man,” said Chambers, a silver-tongued firebrand known for provoking the status quo with his eloquent and extended discussions on a variety of topics not always associated with the issues at hand.
As the state’s only black lawmaker, Chambers has made a name for himself championing the causes that others typically shy away from in Nebraska, including vociferously speaking out against the death penalty, pursuing disciplinary charges against judges and “defending the downtrodden,” as his official legislative biography states as his occupation.
“We see in Nebraska hostile white people dictating whom black people cannot elect to represent them,” said the 68-year-old Chambers. “It shows once again that democracy to black people is a word that means mockery.”
In Florida, where term limits have been in effect since 2000, “electoral politics becomes really more of a shell game” as politicians move from one house to the other, said Matt Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor.
“I think it will be substantially different in Nebraska, because they can’t jump from one to the other,” Corrigan said.
Lawmakers in states with term limits are moving from one house to the other in “staggering numbers” compared to before the limits were enacted, said Jennie Drage Bowser, who tracks state-level term limits issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
They are also more frequently running for other local and statewide political offices, she said.
“The Legislature has become a rung on the career ladder because of term limits,” she said.
Floridians like the idea that politicians won’t be in office for a long time, but they are concerned about other issues that have cropped up related to the influence of money and lobbying power, Corrigan said.
The general feeling among the people in Colorado is that term limits have been successful, Rees said.
“They’re not informed enough to understand that they can get rid of anybody at any election,” she said. “Term limits nationally is part of the dumbing down of America. I think that’s part of the denial of the need to be involved in the democratic process.”
No state has enacted term limits since Nebraska did in 2000. The 14 other states with limits in place for state lawmakers enacted them between 1990 and 1996. The first laws were passed by voters in 1990 in California, Colorado and Oklahoma. Eighteen other states subsequently adopted term limits, but courts threw them out in Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, and legislatures in Idaho and Utah repealed them.
A legal challenge to Nebraska’s term limits law is pending before the state Supreme Court after it was thrown out earlier this year in district court.
Meanwhile, the Legislature continues to struggle with how best to prepare.
In 2003, a constitutional amendment was proposed in the Legislature to give Nebraska two legislative houses in order to counter the affects of term limits. The measure was killed in committee and has not be reintroduced.