A Republican advantage in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature will shrink on Wednesday once newly elected state senators are sworn in, as lawmakers prepare for looming battles over taxes, spending and a proposal to expand Medicaid
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A Republican advantage in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature will shrink on Wednesday once newly elected state senators are sworn in, as lawmakers prepare for looming battles over taxes, spending and a proposal to expand Medicaid.
The Legislature will convene with 11 freshman lawmakers - nearly one-fourth of all members - which will give Democrats a net gain of two seats. The new balance will feature 30 Republicans, 17 Democrats and two independents.
Nebraska has long bucked traditional party politics, with lawmakers often forming coalitions by issue, geography or pressure from constituents. Republicans still outnumber Democrats nearly 2-to-1. And even on politically charged issues, such as health care and immigration, legislative votes don't always fall neatly along party lines.
Still, the shake-up could increase the likelihood that lawmakers approve a measure to expand Medicaid coverage, despite opposition from the most conservative lawmakers and Republican Gov. Dave Heineman.
"We've gained a number of new, independent-minded legislators - people who I think are willing to really dig into the issues and buck the governor if need be," said Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, a Democrat. "That will certainly make the body as a whole more independent and more willing to work the issues through."
Heineman has argued that Nebraska still needs to improve its tax climate to entice new businesses that will help the economy grow, while keeping both young and old residents in the state. On Monday, the governor promised to increase funding for the University of Nebraska and the state's three public colleges as part of his two-year budget package.
The biggest shakeup is the return of independent Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who was elected after term limits forced him out of office four years ago. Chambers is known for his sharp questioning, which puts many lawmakers on the defensive, and for his encyclopedic knowledge of legislatives rules that helped him single-handedly block measures he opposed.
The 38-year veteran lawmaker has said many bills approved in his absence weren't debated as aggressively as they should have been, and he promised to "do some cleaning up" once he's sworn in.
Chambers spent his long legislative career trying to eliminate capital punishment. While he never managed to get rid of it, he successfully filibustered and blocked bills that would change the state's method of execution, because he was convinced that the electric chair would eventually be ruled unconstitutional.
The Nebraska Supreme Court proved him right in 2008, but lawmakers have since approved lethal injection for executions in his absence.
For their part, the freshman lawmakers plan to meet weekly once the session starts to discuss policy issues. Some of the new members are already talking about joining forces to develop a proposal to phase out state income taxes on military retirement pay and Social Security benefits.
"When things get hot and heavy, we want to make sure we're still talking to each other, keeping things as nonpartisan and cordial as possible," said Bill Kintner, a Republican from Papillion who will take the oath of office on Wednesday.
With a laugh, he added: "Right now, we're still on our honeymoon."
Sue Crawford, a Democrat from Bellevue, said she plans to focus on local education and economic development issues during her first year in office. Crawford said she also expected to wade into the debate over a proposal to expand Medicaid coverage to thousands more Nebraskans, a measure that Republican Gov. Dave Heineman assails as unaffordable.
"We need to think about both short-term budget impact and leveraging what's going to happen in the long-term," Crawford said. "Those decisions that we make about health care, I believe, will be one of the legacies of this session. I think it's a critical time for us to establish a leadership position in this state."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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