LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers launched their 2014 session Wednesday with a minimum of ceremony and the introduction of several tax-related bills.
They first welcomed State Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue. He was appointed to replace Sen. Scott Price, who resigned in the fall.
Then they got down to the business of introducing legislation, tossing 69 bills into the hopper. Among them were tax cut bills introduced by two senators running for governor, Sens. Charlie Janssen of Fremont and Beau McCoy of Omaha.
Heading into the session, Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams of York wouldn't predict how the rest of the session might unfold.
“I wish my crystal ball were crystal clear,” he said. “I don't really know how this session will end or how it will go.”
Observers say the session has all the ingredients to be difficult, with myriad controversies packed into fewer days while term limits and elections loom.
The Nebraska Legislature alternates long and short sessions. This year will be a short one, lasting 60 legislative days and ending in mid-April.
But there will be more bills to consider, including bills carried over from last year and new ones that will be introduced.
At the same time, Gov. Dave Heineman and 17 of the 49 state senators are facing the end of their terms.
The constitutional term limits could have some senators looking to shape their legacy or feeling freer to take politically difficult positions.
Meanwhile, other senators will be positioning themselves to seek legislative leadership posts next year.
Lawmakers may be more likely to buck a lame-duck governor on issues, but Adams said he doesn't expect Heineman to be any less active this year.
Also, five senators will be trying to split their time between legislative duties and campaigning for higher office.
Three contenders for the Republican gubernatorial nomination — McCoy, Janssen and Tom Carlson of Holdrege — will have their eyes fixed on the May 13 primary.
Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill, a Democrat, and Omaha Sen. Pete Pirsch, a Republican, are running for state auditor.
The governor and two senators who want to be governor are calling for major tax cuts, always a crowd-pleaser. But key lawmakers are urging caution, warning against dipping too deeply into the cash reserve or cutting funding for state obligations.
Round two over extending Medicaid coverage to more low-income Nebraskans is expected to begin early in the session. Winning enough votes to cut off a filibuster and override an expected gubernatorial veto could be tough in an election year.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers will make another pitch to eliminate the death penalty, guaranteeing emotional debate from both sides.
Translating a special committee's call to fund water projects by increasing some taxes, as well as tapping state sales taxes, could be a tough sell. The committee proposed taxing pop, bottled water and ethanol to raise $50 million annually.
Lawmakers have to balance conflicting concerns on prisons. On the one hand, bulging prison populations have them looking at community alternatives to avoid the cost of a new prison. On the other hand, deaths linked to inmates or former inmates in the community have them looking to keep criminals behind bars longer.
Expect plenty of roaring over Nebraska's new mountain lion hunting season. Chambers, the master of the filibuster, has vowed to fight anything related to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission if the agency continues to allow cougar hunts.
Look for another attempt to get charter schools in Nebraska. Lawmakers balked at earlier proposals to authorize publicly funded schools operating outside of school board control, even when sold as a way to overcome Omaha's achievement gap.
A likely debate about ending Nebraska's system of splitting electoral college votes would bring out partisan politics, even in the nonpartisan Legislature. Republicans want to return to a winner-takes-all system before the next presidential election.
Protective gear may be needed when lawmakers debate yet again whether to let adult motorcycle riders ride without a helmet. The argument pits health costs and safety concerns against tourism revenue and freedom from government restrictions.
Some lawmakers think it's time to revisit Nebraska's constitutional ban on gay marriage, with 17 states and the federal government recognizing such marriages. Attitudes have changed since the ban passed but putting the repeal question before voters remains a long shot.
As electronic cigarettes have grown in popularity, so have calls for regulating the devices. Watch for bills aimed at keeping them out of the hands of minors and, perhaps, including them under the statewide indoor smoking ban.
Grand Island leaders hope to enlist the Legislature in their fight to keep the Grand Island Veterans Home. The governor announced plans to move the home to Kearney, following a bidding process last year.