Letter to the Editor

Our legislature needs to simplify

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Outsiders applaud Nebraska's unicameral legislative system for its simplicity and openness. Unicameral advocates highlight the requirement that each introduced bill receive a public hearing -- something unique among state governments.

However, in examining more deeply what happens to bills after completing public testimony one soon discovers that what is introduced is all too often not what is considered in committee and on the floor of the legislature.

To be sure, every bill number introduced receives public testimony (unless withdrawn by the introducer) -- but what happens to bill content is another matter. In collecting and collating data for a new Web site that tracks the work of the legislature and senator voting records, the Platte Institute for Economic Research uncovered a disturbing practice like a shell game (under which of three cups is the pea) that is becoming too prevalent.

Senators take a bill that has received public testimony and remove its original language by committee amendment or on the floor and replace it with content substantially different. When done by committee, it is not until the bill number with the committee amendment is introduced for floor debate that Nebraskans can become aware that the content of the original bill are recommended for major change or elimination. We the citizens and the second body of Nebraska's legislative system find out about these switching maneuvers only after a bill and its modifying amendments reach the floor. Amazed and confused -- try to follow this example.

Early in the 2007 Unicameral session LB606 was introduced which addressed alternate dispute resolution. The public hearing was held but nothing more happened in 2007. Fast forward to 2008. LB606 was gutted by a proposed committee amendment that converted it to a stem cell research bill. A week later LB606 reached General File, the first step on the full legislative floor, and the committee amendment was challenged as not being germane to the original subject of the bill. The presiding chairman, who had just prior made this his priority bill, ruled it germane and a challenge of this ruling failed. The amendment which completely changed the subject and content of the bill was subsequently passed, as was the bill, and signed into law, with an emergency clause included, a month later.

Anyone tracking LB606 believing that it dealt with alternate dispute resolution was undoubtedly shocked by the outcome. But the pea switching from one cup to another is not quite over.

The ADR language in the original LB606 came back to life in another bill. LB1014 was introduced in 2008 to change provisions relating to judicial vacancies and judicial resources. An amendment was proposed by committee that deleted the original language of that bill and replaced it with sections from eight other bills, including the original language from LB606 -- another move of the pea to another cup. It passed on final reading and was signed by the Governor.

Consider what happened in Nebraska's supposedly simple and open unicameral process. A bill about stem cell research was passed without a single bit of public testimony on that subject. Then, to accommodate the original language removed from this bill another bill was gutted to incorporate the language from the first bill.

One has to wonder what has happened to the "one bill, one topic" concept envisioned by the founders of the Unicameral. Isolated events some might argue. Unfortunately, we are finding this type of shell game maneuvering to be more prevalent than thought.

The unicameral system was formed based on simplicity and openness so to be responsive to the citizens of Nebraska. As legislative rules and practices have changed over the years the basic tenants that each bill introduced receive public testimony and retain subject integrity throughout the legislative process are being violated more often than is healthy for a system purported to be transparent.

Technically, each bill number receives public testimony. In reality, topics and language do not always receive public testimony. New topics and major language changes are being inserted throughout the unicameral legislative process without public testimony.

Nebraskans should be concerned that our senators are circumventing the public testimony requirement. The new Platte Institute Web site www.unicameralvotesonline.com provides tools to more easily track bills and senators to help citizens regain stature in their role as the second body of Nebraska's legislative system as envisioned by U.S. Senator George Norris, the father of the Unicameral, and other visionaries. It's a small step, but an important one, to greater transparency.

-- Roger P. Lempke is the executive director of the Platte Institute for Economic Research and is the former Adjutant General of the Nebraska National Guard.

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