Lawmakers adopt bill intro cap, retain secret ballots for leadership roles

Following consideration of more than a dozen measures over five days of debate, lawmakers ended their discussion Jan. 19 of proposed changes to the permanent rules that govern the legislative process.

Senators adopted two changes last week that originally were brought to the Rules Committee by Speaker John Arch of La Vista. One limits how frequently certain motions can be filed during debate and another expands the use of cloture motions — a tool used to cease debate and force a vote on bills and resolutions.

The second change allows lawmakers to offer cloture motions on procedural items as well, such as gubernatorial appointments and committee reports.

Secret ballots

This week saw consideration of several proposals of a more contentious nature. The first, originally brought to the Rules Committee by its chairperson, Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, would have required roll call votes to elect the Speaker of the Legislature, chairpersons of the 14 standing committees and other leadership positions on the Executive Board.

These votes currently are cast by secret ballot. Erdman said a public vote would ensure that Nebraskans know where their elected representatives stand and who they support for leadership roles.

“In my district, I have yet to meet a person who said they want us to vote in a secret ballot,” he said. “Maybe your district is different, but I think every vote that we cast here should be open and transparent.”

Erdman said secret ballots encourage vote trading and can erode trust when senators don’t keep their word after indicating who they will support in leadership elections.

Sen. R. Brad von Gillern of Elkhorn echoed those concerns in his support of the proposal. Secrecy in politics is never beneficial, he said, and when members feel betrayed after leadership votes it leads to hard feelings that can damage relationships.

“The system we have today is ripe for conflict,” von Gillern said.

Plymouth Sen. Tom Brandt disagreed. Secret ballots for legislative elections have worked well for nearly 90 years, he said, and candidates who lose leadership elections will have hard feelings either way.

If votes are public, he added, those senators would have even more incentive to “keep score” and more ammunition to seek retribution against colleagues who voted against them.

“I’m kind of in the camp of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,’” Brandt said.

Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, also speaking in opposition to the proposal, said “party bosses” have tried for decades to end the secret ballot as a way to pressure senators into party-line votes for leadership positions.

“This is nothing new … this is a perennial [attempt] to undermine the integrity of a nonpartisan unicameral Legislature and inject partisan intimidation, coercion and control into this proud body,” Conrad said.

The proposal was defeated Jan. 18 on a vote of 26-16. Thirty votes were needed.

Bill limitations

A proposal brought to the Rules Committee by Blair Sen. Ben Hansen to limit the number of bills that senators may introduce in a single legislative session was amended and adopted Jan. 19.

The proposal originally would have limited senators to 14 bills and would have allowed an additional priority designation for members who introduced five or fewer. Hansen offered an amendment, adopted 32-9, to raise the limit to 16 per senator, increase the number of committee bills from eight to 10 and remove the second priority designation.

A second Hansen amendment, adopted 26-8, raised the cap to 20 bills per senator starting with the 2025 legislative session.

Hansen said lawmakers broke a record in 2024 for the number of bills introduced in a biennium at more than 1,400. Especially in a 60-day session, he said, time constraints and the requirement that every bill receive a public hearing means that many proposals will never make it to the floor for debate.

Speaking in support of the proposal, Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha said a limit on bill introduction would encourage senators to prioritize measures that are “truly important.” Many smaller, technical proposals that currently are introduced as stand-alone measures could be packaged as committee bills under the proposal, she said.

“Having restrictions is not a bad thing,” Kauth said, “and if it makes us think about what it is we’re going to introduce and prioritize, it’s better.”

Lincoln Sen. Eliot Bostar opposed the change, saying there are other ways to address the current strain on legislative resources. He suggested that lawmakers instead consider restructuring the standing committees to more evenly distribute the Legislature’s workload.

Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha agreed. He also noted that the proposal placed no limits on the number of bills that the governor can have introduced on his or her behalf. Among the unintended consequences, he said, would be an incentive to combine ideas into more complicated legislation that is more difficult for senators and Nebraskans to understand.

“This will stifle conversations,” Cavanaugh said. “It’ll silence some of our constituents. It’ll prevent those of us that have many ideas — see many problems that need fixing — from addressing all of those problems, or attempting to address them.”

Lawmakers approved the amended rule change on a vote of 31-15.

Other changes

Earlier in the week, senators approved a number of rule changes aimed at streamlining debate and codifying existing legislative practices, all but one of which were brought to the Rules Committee by Arch.

The first proposal attempts to prevent members from delaying a bill by making motions on Enrollment and Review amendments. E&R amendments are cleanup changes made by bill drafters between rounds of debate.

The change specifies that such amendments are not debatable, amendable or divisible and that they must be adopted before consideration of any other motions or amendments to the underlying bill when on select file.

Last session, Arch said, senators filed motions and amendments to E&R amendments as a way to engage in additional debate and delay consideration of underlying bills. Having an up or down vote on E&R amendments prior to other considerations will help ensure that debate is focused on substantive issues, he said.

Several senators expressed concern that making such a change in response to actions taken last session was not an attempt to solve a problem with the current rules but rather was meant to punish those who tried to delay consideration of legislation they opposed.

Conrad acknowledged those concerns as well as the fear of “overcorrecting” after last session, but said she approached Arch’s proposals from a pragmatic standpoint. Given some of the other “radical” proposals forwarded by the Rules Committee, Conrad said, she was committed to making a good faith effort on smaller changes that could strengthen the institution.

Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh expressed concern that, under Arch’s proposal, an attempt to correct faulty E&R amendments on a bill that is being filibustered could be buried under a flurry of other motions and amendments and never be addressed.

The proposed change was approved on a vote of 34-6.

Lawmakers approved another change, also offered by Arch, that allows for the introduction of committee amendments immediately following the introducer’s opening statement and prior to consideration of any other amendments or motions.

Arch said committee amendments often fundamentally alter or even replace an underlying bill.

“If that committee amendment doesn’t get up on the board — not fully debated, but at least introduced — then you’re not even debating the right bill,” Arch said. “You’re debating an old version of the bill.”

The change, he said, will allow senators to have all the information they need to proceed with floor debate and ensure a vote on committee amendments in circumstances when cloture is invoked.

The change was adopted on a vote of 33-6.

Another proposal originally brought to the committee by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne requires that a vote to suspend the rules of the Legislature be recognized as a separate vote from any subsequent motion for which the rules are suspended.

Wayne offered an amendment — that mirrors a bill he introduced this year — that would have limited state agency directors and their designees to providing only neutral testimony at public hearings on proposed bills. Allowing agency heads to testify for or against bills amounts to an executive branch “veto” before a measure is even considered by the full Legislature, he said.

“They should only be able to provide technical clarification,” Wayne said.

Several senators echoed that concern, including Bennington Sen. Wendy DeBoer, but she said she could not support the amendment because it had not had a public hearing before the Rules Committee.

The amendment was defeated 17-23. A second amendment offered by Cavanaugh to prevent a vote to suspend the rules from being used to amend the permanent rules also was defeated 12-30.

The underlying Wayne rule change then was adopted 38-2.

Technical proposals

Lawmakers also approved a number of technical changes brought by Arch.

The first, adopted 35-1, requires that a bill introducer submit a statement of intent to the appropriate committee chairperson at least three calendar days prior to the bill’s hearing. The previous deadline was 24 hours prior to the hearing.

Another change clarifies that two bills that are not part of the budget package brought forth by the Appropriations Committee — the state claims bill and a measure to adjust judges’ salaries — will be taken up immediately following consideration of the budget bills on each round of debate.

Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney offered an amendment to require that capital construction bills concerning the state Department of Correctional Services instead would be referenced to the Judiciary Committee.

He said Nebraska has one of the worst prison systems in the country and that the state agency overseeing it should have to defend requests for funds to build new prisons in front of a committee of subject matter experts.

The amendment failed on a 13-23 vote. Following the 10-23 rejection of a second amendment from Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart — which would have clarified that members of other committees could participate in Appropriations Committee hearings in a nonvoting capacity on such issues — lawmakers adopted the Arch proposal 35-1.

Under the previous rules of the Legislature, a bill could be removed from consent calendar — a shortened version of debate reserved for bills deemed noncontroversial by the speaker — if three senators submitted objections in writing prior to the expiration of 15 minutes of debate on the measure.

Lawmakers voted 35-2 to approve a change from Arch to raise the required number of senators to five, and to require that objections be submitted prior to the bill being read at each stage of debate.

Two other technical changes also were approved.

The Legislature adjourned for the week without discussing three more proposals offered by Erdman, including one that would have altered policy on media access to committee executive sessions and another that would have changed how the required number of votes needed for a successful cloture motion is calculated.

Additional debate on proposed changes to the permanent rules is not expected to be scheduled this session.

Bookmark and Share