Kelly: 'The Unicameral' — Nebraska-born, though not spread -
Published Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 12:30 am / Updated at 12:07 pm
Kelly: 'The Unicameral' — Nebraska-born, though not spread

LINCOLN — As a newcomer long ago, I soon heard of a mysteriously named Nebraska creature — the unicameral.

A one-hump camel? A relative of a unicorn? A universal camera?

None of the above. It referred, of course, to our unicameral (one-chamber) Legislature, unique among U.S. states.

The word is an adjective, but in Nebraska it was commonly used as a noun when referring to “the Unicameral.” Not many people say it that way anymore, though the Legislature's website tells “The History of the Unicameral.”

Don't hold your breath waiting for other states to emulate the Cornhusker State and take a hatchet to the legislative branch. Nebraskans, though, once took a deep breath and audaciously eliminated the state's entire 100-seat House of Representatives.

A ballot initiative in 1934, opposed by most elected officials, limited the legislative branch to senators starting in 1937.

U.S. Sen. George Norris of Nebraska, who had orchestrated and campaigned for a one-house system, soon wrote: “The two-house legislature is a relic of the past.”

Except that it wasn't — and it's not.

An Oklahoma lawmaker recently introduced a bill favoring a unicameral legislature in the Sooner State. Proposals elsewhere have called for asking voters to amend state constitutions to set up one-house systems. They never get anywhere.

“The problem,” said State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, “is that it's so politically difficult for a chamber of legislators to say, 'We're going to stand down and give up our jobs.' ”

Brenda Erickson, senior research analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C., said the introduction of bills calling for unicameral legislatures “is fairly common.”

Measures failed last year in Connecticut and Maine. In 2011, bills didn't gain traction in Hawaii and Oregon. Since 2007, Minnesota, Virginia, Pennsylvania and South Carolina all have let one-house bills die.

Some people love the unicameral idea. A Michigan writer called the Nebraska model “the trifecta of transparency, efficiency and cost savings.”

A Honolulu Star-Bulletin article said: “No one ever accuses Nebraskans of being out of step. Rather, they are admired for keeping costs down with lower per-capita government costs than other states.”

Avery, a retired political science professor, said he receives calls every legislative session from lawmakers in other states who are curious about Nebraska's one-house system. He is happy to sing its praises.

“It's absolutely excellent,” he told me at the State Capitol. “It has brought accountability and openness to the process in ways that other states can't even come close to. It's a pretty special place.”

Every bill is guaranteed a public hearing and none can pass without three levels of votes by the full chamber. There are no “conference committees” in which differing bills passed in two houses are reconciled and returned for further votes.

Supporters of a unicameral system, according to the conference of legislatures, claim lower costs, greater efficiency, more direct responsibility, less political friction and a reduction in the power of special interests and lobbyists.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Backers of a bicameral system say a two-house legislature prevents hasty and careless legislation, provides a check against popular passions and impulses, protects against corruption and control by lobbies and maintains an American tradition used in 49 states and the national government.

If a two-house system is good enough for the federal government, shouldn't it be good enough for the states?

Sen. Norris said that was a false analogy. The two houses of Congress, he said, were a compromise between the large-­population and small-population states.

There was no more reason for two-house state legislatures, Norris said, than for municipalities to elect two city councils or for banks to name two boards of directors.

Avery, a Democrat, said another big plus for the Nebraska Legislature is that it is officially nonpartisan. Most senators belong to a political party, but they don't run under party labels, and there are no party caucuses at the Capitol.

Norris was a national figure, creating the Tennessee Valley Authority and serving as a prime Senate mover behind the Rural Electrification Act. He also was one of eight senators lauded in John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage.”

A progressive Republican who became a registered independent late in his political career, Norris titled his autobiography “Fighting Liberal.”

Nebraska's beautiful State Capitol — at 400 feet the second-­tallest in America — was built starting in 1922, with offices and legislators moving in within a few years. It was finished in 1934, the year Nebraskans voted to abolish the state House of Representatives.

The vote was a landslide — nearly 60 percent in favor. The result wasn't a house divided, but simply a House uninvited.

The strikingly beautiful House chamber has been used ever since for ceremonies and visitors, but not lawmaking.

Even if no other states see the wisdom, our unique “unicameral,” nearly as rare as a unicorn, is a home-grown creature that Nebraska is sure to keep.

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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