LINCOLN — New leaders, more moderate senators and — probably most importantly — the return of Ernie Chambers are expected to spell big changes in the Nebraska Legislature.
Expect tougher sledding for issues such as requiring voters to present identification at polls, further restricting abortion and rescinding last year's controversial prenatal care vote.
Gov. Dave Heineman, who saw a handful of legislative candidates he backed lose in November, is predicted to have a more difficult time with his proposals when lawmakers return to the State Capitol on Jan. 9.
And with a new Legislature, there may be more momentum to alter the size of the Omaha school board and reform the metropolitan-area Learning Community.
There will be a big turnover in leadership, with a group of legislative captains, including Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, Appropriations Committee Chairman Lavon Heidemann and U.S. Sen.-elect Deb Fischer, leaving because of term limits.
Sen. Greg Adams of York is the only announced candidate for speaker so far and, regardless, is the hands-on favorite to replace Flood.
Adams, a 60-year-old former teacher, is viewed as a strong advocate for the body, as well as someone able to work through complex issues after wrestling with state aid to schools and community colleges as chairman of the Education Committee.
The Legislature, Adams said, will definitely have a “new face.” But he said he's confident new leaders will step up, and he is excited about an “energetic” class of new lawmakers.
Ten new senators, along with Chambers, will take their seats. They are more moderate, as a group, and include five who beat candidates endorsed by Heineman, a Republican who stepped up his involvement in legislative races this fall.
But likely the biggest change will be the return of Chambers. The 75-year-old Omaha lawmaker comes back after sitting out four years, because of term limits, and lobbyists and senators expect debate to become longer, sharper and more detailed.
The senator has 38 years of experience derailing bills he doesn't like, and, thanks to term limits, will be dealing with a much less experienced set of colleagues.
Only one state lawmaker, Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, has more than six years' experience. Thirty-two of the 49 senators have never experienced, firsthand, Chambers' talents for slowing debate and verbally tearing apart an unprepared senator or someone testifying at a committee hearing.
Issues that have impact on the poor, such as requiring voter ID and cutting off prenatal services for the unborn babies of low-income and illegal immigrant mothers, are not expected to get a kind greeting from Chambers.
“He's a one-man wrecking crew,” said former State Sen. Don Wesely, a former colleague who is now a lobbyist.
“The 'What-will-Ernie-do?' question has come up already in the drafting and preparation of bills,” Wesely said. “If you bring something to the floor and you're not prepared, you'll face a buzz saw.”
Julie Schmit-Albin of Nebraska Right to Life said her organization “made hay while we had sunshine” during the four years that Chambers was not in the Legislature, passing several bills that further restricted abortion. It won't be as easy now.
“He's an obstructionist, particularly on pro-life bills,” Schmit-Albin said. “He's not going to let anything through easily.”
Chambers' return may also aid some issues, particularly efforts to reduce the size of the Omaha school board, and change the Learning Community.
The senator has criticized the Omaha Public Schools, and as a member of the Learning Community Council has voiced complaints about its effectiveness. He replaces Sen. Brenda Council, a former OPS board member and an OPS supporter.
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh said he'll renew his attempt to reduce the size of the 12-member school board in 2013 and expects to find an ally in Chambers.
“I'm loath to speak for the senator, but we may be able to get to some common ground that I could not with Sen. Council,” Lautenbaugh said.
The Learning Community, he said, will be an issue in 2013 because it is not working as intended.
There also will be a big changeover in leadership in the 49-seat Legislature.
Seven of the 14 standing committees — including biggies Appropriations, Revenue, Education, and Transportation and Telecommunications — will see new chairmen.
Several key legislative committee chairmen departed, including Sen. Abbie Cornett (Revenue), Chris Langemeier (Natural Resources), Rich Pahls (Banking, Commerce and Insurance), Heidemann (Appropriations) and Fischer (Transportation).
New leaders, viewed as most likely to emerge if they hadn't already, include Adams, Ashford and Sens. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, Steve Lathrop of Omaha, Galen Hadley of Kearney and Tom Carlson of Holdrege.
Lautenbaugh is expected to become an even more important dealmaker, and the new chairmen of the Appropriations and Education Committees, because of their positions, will gain prominence.
The officially nonpartisan Legislature will see three fewer Republicans (30 instead of 33). Some of the new members will replace lawmakers with similar views (Sara Howard, for instance, will replace her mother, Sen. Gwen Howard, in central Omaha's 9th District), but there will be distinct changes in others.
New senators Kate Bolz of Lincoln, Rick Kolowski of Omaha, Sue Crawford of Bellevue and Al Davis of Hyannis are seen as at least slightly more moderate than the senators they replace, while John Murante of Gretna and Bill Kintner of Papillion are viewed as more conservative.
The governor's work against candidates who were elected could leave some hard feelings with them. That would bode ill for Heineman's efforts to repeal the prenatal law and pass tax cuts to make the state more business friendly.
Heineman has said he would work with whomever was elected, and one of his key allies, Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, said he doesn't expect to see any “vendettas” on issues.
“I think people are bigger than that,” McCoy said.
But McCoy and other senators and lobbyists agreed that there will be big changes.
Chambers, they said, forces colleagues and lobbyists to “do their homework” in preparing for committee hearings and debate. There also will be more questions to answer when the budget comes up, and less predictability in whether bills advance.
Chambers, according to veteran lobbyist Walt Radcliffe, can change the tone of a day on a dime, sometimes turning a minor issue into a days-long debate. That backs up progress on other bills, and forces compromise to get things moving again.
“What we know about Ernie is that he's very unpredictable,” Radcliffe said. “And unpredictability is one of the most disruptive things to the process.”
Nebraska Legislative Committees and announced candidates
Agriculture: Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala
Appropriations: Sens. Tom Hansen of North Platte and Heath Mello of Omaha
Banking, Commerce and Insurance: Sens. Mike Gloor of Grand Island and Pete Pirsch of Omaha
Business and Labor: Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha*
Education: Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids
General Affairs: Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilbur*
Government, Military and Veterans Affairs: Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln*
Health and Human Services: Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln*
Judiciary: Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha*
Natural Resources: Sens. Tom Carlson of Holdrege and Mark Christensen of Imperial
Nebraska Retirement Systems: Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha*
Revenue: Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney
Transportation and Telecommunications: Sens. Annette Dubas of Fullerton and Scott Price of Bellevue
Urban Affairs: Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln*
(*current chairman of committee)
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