After 10 years, term limits reshape Nebraska Legislature

July 10, 2016 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The Legislature has changed dramatically in the 10 years since term limits started booting Nebraska senators out of office, but debate still rages over how long they should be able to serve.

Critics say lawmakers spend more time reinventing the wheel and less time developing long-term agendas or reaching compromises on state policy. Those who pushed for the change say they helped break a “good old boy” system that gave too much power to entrenched senior senators.

The new restrictions have given more power to lobbyists and staffers and may have contributed to a recent rise in campaign spending, current and former lawmakers say — but they’re unlikely to change anytime soon. A proposed constitutional amendment to increase the amount of time lawmakers can serve to two six-year terms died in the Legislature last year. Four years ago, voters rejected a measure to extend the limit to three consecutive four-year terms.

Nebraska is one of 15 states that impose term limits on lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Voters approved term limits in 2000 with a constitutional amendment that went into effect in 2006, restricting senators to two consecutive four-year terms. Because Nebraska has a one-house Legislature, lawmakers can’t run for office in another chamber as their counterparts in other states do.

“Term limits gutted the Legislature as a branch of government,” said Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, Nebraska’s longest-serving state senator, who contends the term limits measure was aimed at him. “It will never be the same. I don’t see any way that the Legislature can regain the stature it once had.”

Chambers, who first served from 1971 to 2009, developed a reputation as a firebrand and used filibusters to singlehandedly stall votes on bills he opposed. Term limits forced him from office, but he was elected again in 2012. The 79-year-old said many new senators arrive without knowledge of why past bills were rejected, don’t understand the potential impact of legislation they introduce and are “used and misused by the lobbyists.”

Term limit supporters, like Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, believe the concerns are overblown. He said term limits have kept individual senators from growing too powerful because of seniority, as well as make sure lawmakers stay aligned with their constituents by limiting the time spent as an incumbent.

“It’s just a cleaner form of government,” he said. “It fosters more debate on issues and participation by encouraging people to run for office. The senators are closer to the people now.”

Groene disputed the argument that senators need years to learn the ropes, saying it doesn’t take long to understand legislative rules and policies.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus proposed a constitutional amendment last year that would have let senators serve up to two consecutive six-year terms, instead of two four-year terms, but the measure died in the Legislature.

Term limits make it easier for state agencies to drag their feet on changes they oppose, Schumacher said, because they know senators will eventually leave. But on the other hand, Schumacher said, “dead wood” senators — ones who sat in office without contributing to the lawmaking process — were removed.

Former Speaker Greg Adams said he still sees thoughtful, workhorse senators coming into office, but term limits have made the Legislature “reactive rather than proactive.”

Limiting senators to eight years makes it harder to set a long-term agenda on taxes, school financing and water policy, he said. Senators rely on longtime legislative staffers to explain why certain policies were rejected in the past, he said, but many of those employees are nearing retirement.

The number of filibusters has also increased, reaching a record-high 24 during the session that ended in April.

“When you’re changing senators so often, it really complicates your ability to look down the road,” said Adams, whose term expired in 2015.

Former state Sen. Doug Kristensen, who served as speaker from 1997 to 2002, said lawmakers seemed more likely to reach compromises during his tenure because senators would spend years tweaking a bill until they found a version that could pass.

“The problem now is you don’t have the benefit of time to be patient,” he said. “It’s either win or lose, and move on. I think it makes it harder to serve.”

Term limits also may have contributed to the recent sharp rise in legislative campaign spending due to more seats coming open, according to Kent Rogert, a lobbyist and former state senator. He also thinks that vote-trading is more prevalent because many senators want to pass major legislation before their time in office ends.

But he sees the other side, too, with new senators bringing fresh perspective and energy to the Legislature that’s lost when someone sits in office for 20 years.

Term limits have also given lobbyists a new way to influence the process, because each election brings a wave of new senators.

“If we know that we can’t get something with the current Legislature, we just wait two years,” Rogert said.