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Face-off possible when legislative session opens

November 15, 2016 GMT

LINCOLN — The first day of the Nebraska Legislature is typically a time to welcome senators and tend to formalities.

But this January, it could also include a showdown when the time comes to elect leadership for the 105th Legislature’s dual sessions.

Election of the speaker and committee chairs is, by legislative rules, a secret ballot. Proponents of keeping it that way say it tamps down partisanship. With a secret ballot, they say, the Legislature is more likely to get the best chairperson, especially in a lawmaking body that has a large majority of one party: 32 Republicans, 15 Democrats, one Independent and one Libertarian.

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But some senators have been pushing for an open ballot in those elections. They say the unicameral Legislature, which is one of the most accessible in the nation, is deviating from transparency in this one area. Committee leaders have quite a bit of power in determining what bills get forwarded to the full Legislature for debate. And Nebraskans have the right to view the process of selecting those senators.

Secret votes, said Sen. John Kuehn, promote distrust, open the possibility of vote and influence trading and allow back door partisan and special interest influences to impact one of the most important decisions.

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist had some of those same arguments against open ballots. They promote looking out for the party rather than for the Legislature as an institution and Nebraska residents. And they would enable people outside the Legislature to influence who leads committees.

A little more than seven weeks from the start of the session, it’s unknown which senator might attempt to offer up a rule change for open ballots. Five senators who are known to support it -- Sens. Laura Ebke of Crete, Mike Groene of North Platte, Merv Riepe of Omaha, Bill Kintner of Papillion and Kuehn of Heartwell -- have said they have no plans to try to push it through on the first day.

“If there’s really a desire to do it, we ought to change it in the permanent rules so that it takes effect not this Legislature but the following Legislature (two years from now),” Ebke said.

Riepe said he has mentioned introducing transparency, but for hospital and medical pricing, not for open ballots.

“Because it had the word transparency in there I think people thought that I was going to introduce the rule change for transparency on the voting for committee chairs,” he said. “So that’s the misunderstanding there.”

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This isn’t the battle Groene is picking this session, either. “I can’t lead every fight,” he said.

Even Sen. Bill Kintner, who fought for it last session, says he does not plan to introduce a transparency rule change in January.

So that leaves Kuehn.

“I don’t have any plans at this point ... of being the champion of it on the first day,” Kuehn said Friday. “I think it’s something a number of people have talked about.”

Both he and Krist have published opinion pieces recently about the open ballot issue. Kuehn says he is asked about it frequently in constituent meetings, he said.

In the past several years, senators who have attempted to change the legislative rules to open up the vote have been shot down, either by the five-member Rules Committee that decides which changes will go to the full Legislature or in debate.

In 2015 the Rules Committee, made up of four Republicans and one Democrat, voted unanimously to kill a proposal by Kintner to make the votes public.

Chairman Tommy Garrett, who was defeated Nov. 8 in his bid to return to the Legislature, said that after rejecting the proposal there was “blowback” from the Douglas County and Sarpy County Republican parties.

In the 2016 session, the proposal was offered again, and again the Rules Committee rejected it. So Kintner attempted to amend it into the permanent rules when they were be debated by the full Legislature, but lost on a 17-30 vote.

A major argument continues to be whether an open vote would turn Nebraska’s nonpartisan Legislature more partisan.

Krist, who is chairman of the Executive Board, has opined that most of the people calling for open ballots are partisan ideologues who want what’s best for their party and its control of membership, and do not necessarily want to take into consideration who the better candidate might be.

The transparency argument, he says, has been made popular in recent years by outside groups such as Americans for Prosperity. The state Republican Party also has called for open voting in a resolution.

Groene said Democrats have been more partisan in the Legislature than Republicans ever have.

“They (Democrats) vote as a block,” Groene said.

Of the 14 standing committee chairs in 2015 and 2016 elected by secret ballot, 10 are Republicans and four are Democrats. The speaker is also Republican. But in 2014, five chairs were Republicans and nine were Democrats. And the speaker was Republican.