Published Monday    June 1, 2009
Term limits' impact viewed as largely positive

LINCOLN Nebraska's first legislative session with all short-term lawmakers didn't go as badly as term limits opponents had feared.

And term limits supporters saw changes that give them hope for the future.

Both said the 2009 Legislature was different from those that went before, when state senators could stay in office as long as they were willing to serve and voters were willing to re-elect them.

Now lawmakers can stay in office no more than two consecutive terms, or eight years. Voters imposed term limits with a constitutional amendment in 2000.

"It's better than I thought it would be," said Don Wesely, a lobbyist, former state senator and term limits opponent. "The state got very lucky both with this freshman class and the one two years ago."

Having highly qualified people serve as senators counterbalanced some of the effects of inexperience, he said, because they brought a depth of knowledge to the job.

Among the 16 senators elected in 2008, for example, were a former hospital administrator, two bankers, some business owners, a former university administrator and several who had held local office.

Now he and Doug Kagan, chairman of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, are optimistic that lawmakers will hold the line on state spending and taxes more than their predecessors.

"I think we're going to have to wait until we're out of the recession and see if their fiscal behavior is going to change in general," Kagan said. "What we're hoping for from the new senators is real comprehensive tax reform."

The time needed to learn the ropes in the Legislature was among the more noticeable differences in this year's session.

Senators elected two years earlier found themselves teaching new lawmakers about the Legislature's formal rules and its informal norms.

That included letting one freshman senator know he was out of line when he proposed a controversial amendment to an illegal immigration bill. The proposal had not been considered at a public hearing.

"We had kind of a rocky start," said Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln.

Avery, a former political science professor, said the traditions of an institution are important to continue because they help it function. He said new senators are catching on with time and are developing a pride and loyalty to the Legislature as an equal branch of government.

Many credit Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk with helping keep the body running smoothly despite its members' inexperience.

"He puts it all on his back and he carries it," said Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber.

While studies in other states suggest that term-limited legislatures see a decline in civility, some said the Nebraska Legislature may have had an excess of civility this year. They note that lawmakers advanced the $6.92 billion state budget without debate and in less than a half-hour at the second stage of consideration.

Sen. Tom White of Omaha said he missed the vigorous debate of his first two years with the legislative veterans. He hopes that next year the new lawmakers will feel more confident questioning and disagreeing with colleagues.

Others noticed the willingness of first-year senators to dive into debate this year, in contrast to the days when freshmen were expected to listen and learn.

With term limits, the governor and lobbyists also had to develop relationships with new senators.

Several observers said lobbyists had to work harder because they could no longer rely on their usual go-to people and had to spend time getting to know the new senators and their positions on issues.

"Lobbyists have lost a lot of power with these term limits," Groene said.

There's less agreement on whether Gov. Dave Heineman gained or lost power with term limits.

Karpisek said the governor had to work harder, just like the lobbyists. Wesely said new senators gave more deference to the governor.

Term limits will claim more senators next year, while those first elected in 2006 will have a chance to seek a second term. Flood said he's confident about the Legislature's resilience.

"As long as you trust the ballot box, I think the Legislature will be well-served," he said.

World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.