LINCOLN — They both like Big Red sports, have seemingly endless energy and can be emphatic and emotional when defending their political views.

Both worked for their political parties and are students of the game.

But that's about where the similarities end with State Sen. Heath Mello and Gov. Dave Heineman.

Mello, a Democrat who lives in South Omaha, and Heineman, a Republican from Fremont, have clashed frequently on issues ranging from prenatal services for children of immigrants to state help for funding Omaha's expensive sewer separation.

Now this odd couple must work together on one of the toughest, most complicated and most integral tasks of state government: the budget.

Heath Mello

Mello, to the surprise of many, was elected last week as chairman of the Legislature's influential Appropriations Committee.

It touched off immediate speculation that the debate over the state's spending priorities, which comes in May, would be long, bitter and divisive, given the past sniping between the 33-year-old senator and the 64-year-old governor.

Both Mello and Heineman last week pledged a professional relationship based on seeking what's best for the state. Many around the State Capitol predict the pair will drop the political potshots because forging a budget agreement is such an important task.

Former Sen. Lavon Heidemann, the previous Appropriations Committee chairman, had his share of heated debates with Mello but said the chairman can “do the job.”

“Heath could frustrate you on a daily basis but, in the end, we always made it work,” Heidemann said.

Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, who has carpooled to Lincoln with Mello the past four years, said his friend is passionate but prepared to work and compromise with the governor.

“You could very well see a Ronald Reagan-Tip O'Neill kind of relationship,” Nordquist said, referring to the Republican president and Democratic speaker of the U.S. House who fought over politics but were able to forge a consensus on important issues.

“At the end of the day, they know they need to work together,” Nordquist said.

So who is Heath Mello?

He is described as bright, passionate, talkative and engaged.

His suits and ties are crisp, and his short black hair is neatly combed. He retired his clunky 2004 Saturn Ion — and its cracked windows, faulty heater and 185,000 miles — last summer after it broke down.

Mello attended Catholic grade schools in Omaha — Our Lady of Lourdes and Blessed Sacrament — before his family moved to Gretna, where he graduated from high school.

He played baseball and basketball in high school, sang in the swing choir and was the biblical Noah's eldest son on a state champion one-act play team. He's comfortable with public speaking, using his hands to emphasize his points.

A fan of U-2 and the Boston Red Sox, Mello was the first member of his family to go to college. He earned a political science degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He considered careers as a teacher or lawyer but opted for politics, thinking he could “make a difference in people's lives.”

He worked for the Nebraska Democratic Party and former U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, whom he considers a mentor.

He also counts as mentors his father John Mello — a former machinist who now has a master's degree in information technology — and Heidemann, a Republican and farmer recently elected to the University of Nebraska Board of Regents after leaving the Legislature. Pictures and posters of Bobby and John F. Kennedy decorate Mello's office.

A community development director for Metropolitan Community College, Mello has been married two years to his wife, Catherine. He just finished reading a book about Bill Clinton, still plays pickup basketball games and, like the governor, loves to golf.

Mello has worked with Heineman on a few issues, most recently the proposed (but failed) merger of the State Departments of Labor and Economic Development. He was a key player in forging the compromise last year on the governor's income tax-cut plan.

Mello is the youngest chairman of the Appropriations Committee since Scott Moore won the job at age 30 in 1991.

Mello defeated the odds-on favorite, Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte, by one vote to become the first Omaha lawmaker since the 1950s to hold the post. And he is the first Democrat since 1948 to hold the position. He won, colleagues and lobbyists say, because of his energy, hard work and grasp of details.

Heading the Appropriations Committee is perhaps the most time-consuming job in the Legislature. Appropriations is the only committee that meets five days a week. Its members, because of the enormous task of balancing spending by dozens of state agencies, cannot serve on other committees.

The job of an Appropriations chairman is a little like herding cats. The chairman takes the recommendations of the governor on how to spend $3.5 billion a year, melds that with the ideas of fellow senators, an army of lobbyists, special interests and state agency heads, and then, with the eight other senators on the committee, draws up a budget. The full Legislature must approve it; the governor can attempt to veto elements he doesn't like.

“He's the balancer of the committee,” Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff, a veteran member of Appropriations, said of the chairman. “You have to be able to work with everybody.”

Heidemann said the chairman must be a lawmaker “for the entire state.”

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a leading Democrat in the Legislature, said he expects both Mello and Heineman to reduce their public policy spats and work together on the budget.

“He'll work cooperatively, but he'll work independently,” Lathrop said of Mello. “His role is different now.”

Mello said he's idealistic but pragmatic.

“Now I have to bring people together,” he said. “Everyone has their own priorities, but we'll find a balance.”

As of Friday, Mello and Heineman already had met twice since the legislative session opened on Wednesday.

They've extended olive branches, said Mello, who was all smiles after emerging from a meeting at the governor's mansion Wednesday afternoon.

Heineman said Friday that he “expected to have a very good and very strong, professional working relationship” with Mello.

The budget work begins in earnest on Tuesday, when Heineman, in his annual state of the state address, unveils his budget and policy priorities for 2013.

He's promised a bold package of tax cuts and increased spending for higher education. Both proposals may clash with spending priorities of the Legislature and have to fit within the slowly recovering tax receipts of the state.

Cats must be herded.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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