Update, December 1, 2015, 6:00 p.m.: Due to a correction to the data in another state, Nebraska’s rank has changed to tied for 9th overall.
Nebraskans are almost as proud of their unique legislative tradition as they are of their Cornhusker football tradition — perhaps more so in recent years, as the former arguably has fared better than the latter.
The state’s nonpartisan, single-house legislature, only 49 members strong, was legendary legislator George Norris’s brainchild, approved by Nebraskans in 1934. He sought to limit partisanship and create a more efficient lawmaking body.
In many respects, he succeeded: although the Unicameral is dominated by Republicans in one of the nation’s reddest states, lawmakers are relatively free to vote their consciences, rather than follow a party line. For example, legislative leaders are elected through a public vote of their fellow lawmakers, which has resulted in a fairly even party split of committee chairs, and all bills get a public hearing and, with a single chamber, a fairly straightforward path to action.
But other circumstances that have evolved over the decades might give Norris pause. There are no revolving-door laws governing former elected officials’ employment after they leave office. Term limits tend to give more power to lobbyists as the institutional memory of the Legislature. A wide-open campaign-finance system favors the wealthy or those with access to the wealthy.
It’s a mixed bag reflected in a score of 67 — a D+ — for Nebraska in the new State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. The score actually ranks Nebraska tied for 9th in the nation.
It’s a drop from the B- Nebraska received in the 2012 report, good for 5th in the nation. But the two scores are not directly comparable due to changes made to improve and update the questions and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.
State budget process
As for individual categories, Nebraska ranked No. 1, with a score of 97, for its state budget process, in which many of the strengths of the unicameral system are on display. The governor’s office works more closely than in most states with the Legislative Fiscal Office throughout the process, partially because of requirements in state law but also stemming from the Unicam’s nonpartisan organization, which makes it much easier for, say, a Republican governor to negotiate with a Democratic committee chair.
Citizens have easy access to state budget information, as updated details are posted online in a timely fashion throughout the process. The Appropriations Committee holds public hearings at which any citizen can testify before it votes on the budget document. Typically, the committee’s budget goes to the full Legislature on a unanimous vote.
“The nature of the job is that wherever they are on the political spectrum, they end up being moderates,” Mike Calvert, director of the Legislative Fiscal Office, said of the committee.
“They can’t move anything if they don’t work across party lines,” said Gavin Geis, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska.
Political financing, revolving doors and conflicts of interest
Elsewhere in the Center’s report, the assessment wasn’t nearly so rosy. For instance, Nebraska received an F for Political Financing and a D- in Legislative Accountability.
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and in a separate case, the Legislature scrapped its Campaign Finance Limitations Act and, with it, all limits on raising and spending funds in statewide elections. The result: in 2014, gubernatorial candidates spent 600 percent more than they did in 2010, according to an analysis by Common Cause Nebraska. Spending by legislative candidates was up 135 percent, and 23 of the 25 races were won by the candidate who spent the most.
Candidates must report donations to their campaigns, but only if they exceed $250.
Nebraska is one of 17 states with no “revolving door” law that mandates a cooling-off period before elected officials leaving office can become paid lobbyists. Hence, it’s not unusual for someone to be hired as a lobbyist the moment he or she leaves office and to parlay legislative experience into a big payday. That’s appealing given how little state lawmakers, limited to two terms, are paid — $12,000 a year, which can be changed only by constitutional amendment.
Nebraska also has a weak conflict-of-interest law that requires state senators to report potential conflicts but not to recuse themselves from voting.
Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale said these factors can combine to create some “very warped relationships.”
For example, in some cases, he said, state senators “have been hired in- effect by special interest groups to be government affairs officers or public information officers. They’re not doing anything. They’re basically spending six months as a state legislator.”
Electoral Oversight, access to Information
Nebraska got a solid B in the category of Electoral Oversight, ranking 2nd among the states. The secretary of state oversees elections and has a long-standing tradition of competence and impartiality. Although Gale is a staunch Republican, his deputy in charge of elections, who has served even longer, is a Democrat.
“No matter how cynical people may become about government, they want to know that elections are clean, transparent and honest,” Gale said.
By contrast, the Cornhusker State received a 58, or F, in Access to Information — good enough, stunningly, to tie for 8th. Although the state’s open-records law is based on federal law, it carves out some exemptions that are broader than in many states’ — most notably in its limits on access to investigative records, said Shawn Renner, a Lincoln attorney who represents media clients.
Geis said every legislative session seems to bring an effort to restrict open meetings or public-records laws, so far largely unsuccessful, but the effect, Renner said, is “we tend to play defense” rather than propose loosening restrictions.
The ‘second house’
George Norris argued that even with one chamber, Nebraska’s Legislature would be subject to checks and balances by the executive and judicial branches and, ultimately, the citizens of the state, often referred to as the “second house.”
In 1912, Nebraska became the first state to adopt a ballot-petition process that allows citizens to gather petitions to put matters to a popular vote. Most recently, in 2014, after the Legislature declined to pass a minimum-wage hike, supporters got the matter on the ballot and it was approved by voters.
In 2016, voters will decide another critical issue. After Nebraska’s Legislature this year voted to repeal capital punishment, supporters of the death penalty gathered enough signatures to put reinstatement of that law to a vote. That’s how things are done here—and Cornhuskers seem to like it that way.