After approving changes, lawmakers adopted their permanent rules Jan. 15. The rules of the Legislature govern the legislative process and generally are adopted at the beginning of each session.
Among the changes brought forward by the Rules Committee was a proposal to allow the State-Tribal Relations Committee to designate a priority bill consistent with the committee’s jurisdiction and with approval of the bill’s principal introducer. The change was adopted on a 41-2 vote.
Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, chairperson of the State-Tribal Relations Committee, said the change would allow lawmakers to prioritize a measure related to Native American issues without using one of their personal priority designations.
A priority designation generally indicates that a bill will be considered ahead of other bills at each stage of debate.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers opposed the change, saying it would give the State-Tribal Relations Committee power that other non-standing committees do not have. In addition, he said, if an issue is important enough to the committee, an individual senator should be willing to use a priority designation to support it.
“If something can be done already, why attach an additional appendage onto our rules and process?” Chambers said.
Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha supported the proposed change, noting that it would not be unprecedented.
“[State-Tribal Relations] is a special committee—much like the Performance Audit Committee, which has a priority designation,” he said.
A second approved change prohibits the division of the mainline budget bill and most related bills.
Under the current rules, senators may request that a bill be divided into its component parts, with each component considered separately by lawmakers. The change proposed by the Rules Committee would have prevented division of the mainline budget bill, deficit bill, capital construction bill, constitutional officers’ salary bill and the funds transfer bill.
Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, chairperson of the Appropriations Committee, supported the change. He noted that the mainline budget bill contains over 1,000 line items, and said dividing it could entirely disrupt the work of the Legislature.
Senators still are allowed unlimited opportunities to offer amendments to the state’s proposed budget, Mello said.
Chambers suggested removing the constitutional officers’ salary bill from the committee’s proposal, noting that it has not been challenged in the past.
“Nobody has attempted to divide this salary bill—leave it alone,” he said, adding that the Legislature’s rule book should be as sparse as possible.
The Chambers proposal was adopted 39-0, and the underlying rule change was adopted 35-8.
A proposed change that was killed Wednesday by the Rules Committee on a 5-0 vote was offered again in a proposal put forth by Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner. The proposed change would have required a roll call vote to elect the speaker of the Legislature, chairperson of the Executive Board and leadership of the 14 standing committees.
Currently, these votes are conducted by secret ballot.
Kintner said all votes that lawmakers cast in a one-house legislature should be open to public scrutiny, including leadership elections.
“If we’re going to have the people be the second house … they need to have the ability to see what we’re doing and to hold us accountable,” he said.
Crete Sen. Laura Ebke agreed, saying the unicameral system requires a counterweight to the actions taken by senators. That counterweight is the citizens of Nebraska, she said.
“The second house can’t do its job if we cast secret ballots,” Ebke said.
Omaha Sen. Bob Krist opposed the change. He said using a secret ballot to elect legislative leadership does not adversely impact transparency. All votes on public policy and every word that is said in committee and during floor debate is a matter of public record, he said.
“Everything else we do is transparent,” Krist said.
Sen. Tanya Cook of Omaha also opposed the proposal. The selection of committee chairs is the same as choosing officials in a traditional election, she said, and should not be a matter of public record.
“The secret ballot is how we vote in the United States,” Cook said.
The Kintner proposal was defeated on a 12-33 vote and the rules were adopted 34-8.