Photo illustration of the Nebraska Legislature
Photo illustration of the Nebraska Legislature

Morning light floods the hallway, soaking polished stone floors and rough masonry walls in a harsh glow. Bronze busts of Nebraskans, such as Chief Standing Bear and author Bess Streeter Aldrich, look out opposing windows onto a snow-covered courtyard at the Nebraska Legislature in January.

In that stillness, State Senator Megan Hunt, who represents neighborhoods such as Benson and Dundee, is animated. On her feet, punctuating sentences with her hands, she talks about issues from food insecurity to abortion. But just as she’s hitting her stride, a man pops around the corner.

“Senator, your bill is up.”

In the 10 minutes since she left the legislative chamber they’d shuffled the schedule. Now she’s on deck.

“What?” she exclaims, already turning to run down the hall, her blue suede shoes clacking on the floor behind her.

Things move quickly in the Nebraska Unicameral.

Even as senators jump between meetings and legislative sessions, there’s always competition for their attention. A swarm of lobbyists, journalists and others waiting to carve out a slice of their time. Research to hack through that never stops piling up. Fundamental differences of philosophy and personality to bridge.

Balance, it turns out, is a senator’s greatest asset.

Whether balancing time, interests or bottom lines, every session is a tightrope act. And while each year it ultimately inches toward some end, many say this year’s path looks uncertain.

“I mean, it could just completely break down,” said State Senator Wendy DeBoer, who represents an area that includes northwest Omaha and Bennington. “If we don’t find ways to negotiate with each other and work together in the next couple weeks, then it’s going to be a long session.”

This year, evergreen issues, such as property tax reform, are coming to a head against heavy hitters, such as a bill to give tax breaks to businesses, titled ImagiNE Nebraska, and funding for a massive $2.6 billion University of Nebraska Medical Center project that would position UNMC to be the nation’s leader in disaster management. They’re geared up to not only be the biggest issues, but also to have their votes linked.

Last year, a group of mostly rural senators blocked ImagiNE Nebraska following failure to pass property tax reform. A similar fight is expected this year with both bills returning, largely unchanged, as well as the addition of a separate bill to provide UNMC funding, which would come from ImagiNE.

Among Omaha senators, a variety of strategies has emerged to find a solution this time around. But it’s also raised anxieties about how large the shadow of these issues will loom — whether other bills will get their time and how the debate will affect existing tension between rural and urban senators.

For experts like Renee Fry, executive director of the Nebraska think tank OpenSky, the tension and linking of major proposals are far from typical.

“I’ve never seen anything [like this] where you have such huge policy implication,” she said. “I mean big, big, big proposals that have been tied this way. I don’t remember a time where we’ve been looking at something like this.”

And that doesn’t even touch the more than 500 other bills, resolutions and amendments also introduced, all of which need to find some conclusion in this short 60-day session that ends April 23.

But in the face of that challenge, many Omaha area senators share an optimistic outlook. Because, while there’s no predicting the session’s outcome, there’s generally an understood expectation that everyone is working toward a common goal: a better Nebraska.

What that means for each individual varies, and the path to that end goal is filled with political maneuvers, hard-fought compromises and an always-on-your-toes readiness. But, for some, that process, as messy as it is, contains the magic of the Unicameral.

“It’s almost like a ballet or dance when things are working well,” Hunt said. “It’s so graceful and smooth. It always surprises me when that happens.”

‘This is going to take all the oxygen out of the whole session’

In recent years, property taxes have evolved into a central issue of the state, taking a toll on rural areas especially. What’s more, the state’s dependence on property tax revenue to fund its programs has increased in recent years as tax cuts since 2006 have cost the state $900 million, according to Fry.

“We’ve had this gradual shift where we’ve put more and more on property taxes,” Fry said. “Without revenue to address that shift, nothing changes.”

Efforts to solve this issue have fallen into a seemingly unbridgeable divide of rural versus urban interests that’s pitted school spending against property tax relief.

But this year, some say the issue feels like it’s hit a tipping point. The primary bill to address property taxes, introduced by State Senator Lou Ann Linehan, who represents northwest Omaha, Waterloo and Valley, is informally tied to ImagiNE Nebraska. That program would give billions in tax breaks over its lifespan as well as to the $2.6 billion UNMC project, which would receive $300 million in state funding — $50 million each year for six years. The remaining funding for the project, which could create 87,000 permanent jobs, would come from city, private and other sources in a bid to eventually win federal funding of possibly $1.5 billion.

Fry said it’s not uncommon to tie bills together to achieve compromise. However, she added, to do it with issues this colossal with far-reaching policy implications hurts the overall debate.

“In terms of process,” she said, “it’s terrible.”

Among Omaha senators, the issue’s elicited a variety of responses. For some, it’s a call to action to jump into the debate.

DeBoer introduced her own legislation to address property taxes with an emphasis on maintaining strong school funding by preserving the current funding model and doing away with an inflation cap proposed in Senator Linehan’s bill.

“Ultimately, the biggest difference in our bills is whether we fundamentally believe schools spend too much money or not,” DeBoer said.

State Senator John McCollister of central-west Omaha said property tax woes concern both rural Nebraskans and Omahans.

“Pressure from our constituents is so intense that minor differences can be ironed out,” McCollister said. “You go door to door like I’ve gone and that’s the topic that everyone talks about.”

Hunt said she’s made it clear she’s not going to get into the nuts and bolts of the property tax debate. When she sees a good plan, she’ll support it. Hunt won’t support ImagiNE Nebraska, however, because the bill doesn’t include language to protect discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, she said.

“When you’re talking about developing workforce and giving people jobs, but you’re voting for discrimination in these jobs,” she said, “I don’t think you’re taking workforce seriously.”

Hunt’s main focuses are backing bills to allow college athletes to make money off their likeness, expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and reverse a bill concerning education around a two-step chemical abortion treatment.

She knows those controversial bills will take serious muscle to pass, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising is the effect issues like property taxes and ImagiNE Nebraska are having on even the most non-controversial bills.

One bill Hunt introduced would allow for the creation of arts districts in Nebraska, a federal designation that opens opportunities to funding and grants to support creative endeavors. Hunt said Nebraska is currently the only state without these types of districts.

Any other year, Hunt said she’d expect this bill would get fast-tracked to approval given its uncontroversial nature. However, the larger debate puts that in jeopardy.

“This is going to take all the oxygen out of the whole session,” she said.

DeBoer agreed. Though she’s jumped into the property tax debate, she recognizes there are issues getting shortlisted. As a member of the judiciary committee, DeBoer said prison overcrowding has specifically caught her attention.

“This summer we’ll have an overcrowding emergency declared,” DeBoer said. “And there’s no indication from anyone that we think we’re going to actually get below the 140 percent designed capacity threshold that we’d need to [in order to] solve the emergency.”

Others, such as State Senator Tony Vargas, who represents downtown and South Omaha, say while property tax reform is a huge issue in the state, it ranks very low on the priority list for his constituents. Instead, his constituents have made clear their priorities lie in education, health care, housing and workforce development.

This session Vargas is introducing bills that would lower cell phone taxes, which he said disproportionately affect poorer people who rely on phones for the now-fundamental need to access the internet. On housing, Vargas said he has bills that could incentivize development of old homes in his district — a process that could equalize access to affordable housing.

“If we’re able to pass a lot of these different middle-income housing bills or affordable housing bills,” he said, “we’re going to create the type of environment that is creating a community that has multiple options of housing rather than further segregating our cities.”

Others are optimistic that their bills will find space in the debate.

State Senator Mike McDonnell, who represents South Omaha between 72nd Street and I-480, has introduced a bill to allocate money to establish language assessment tests for deaf children. He’s also introduced legislation to fund added positions within the Department of Corrections that connect young offenders with education and workforce development programs.

McDonnell said it’s true issues such as property tax reform and ImagiNE Nebraska will take up a lot of time. However, he said, senators work in good faith and understand opening the conversation for issues beyond their own constituency is essential to the big picture.

“You take care of your own backyard, but you also look out for the state,” he said.

Bridging the divide

In 2018, state legislatures across America took a hard turn. For the first time in a century, all but one state lawmaking body were controlled by a single party. To many, the revelation was a sign of increasingly uneasy times.

Since 1994, both parties’ political antipathy toward the other has nearly tripled, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. In 2016, Pew also found not only had the division widened, but it also became more vitriolic. A full 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said the other party’s policies were a threat to the nation’s well-being.

And while the Nebraska Legislature isn’t free from those societal trends, its position is unique.

Since 1937, the Nebraska Legislature has been the country’s only nonpartisan state lawmaking body. That means officials are elected without their party affiliation on the ballot, and there’s no formal party leadership in the legislative body.

While it may seem superficial, as most senators don’t try to hide their party affiliation, it has an impact on lawmaking.

Hunt remembers talking to a lawmaking friend in Pennsylvania whose bill was taken off schedule because he supported a Republican’s bill.

“If that happened here,” she added, “people would flip shit.”

Indeed, party influence in the Legislature can be limited.

In August of last year, McCollister, a Republican, began tweeting his frustration with his party. He said the GOP had “enabled white supremacy” and was “complicit to obvious racist and immoral activity,” and he called out other Republican senators and representatives for looking the other way.

Suddenly, the suburban Omaha senator’s face was plastered across Twitter and network television feeds with talking heads on both sides weighing in. Back home, the Nebraska GOP told McCollister to leave the party.

But McCollister, who’s caused party friction in the past by supporting legislation for climate change, Medicaid expansion and reproductive rights, hasn’t stopped. He’s still a Republican, still in the Legislature and still tweeting his dissatisfaction with the GOP.

And how has that stymied his ability to work in the Legislature?

“So far not much that I can tell,” he said.

McCollister still holds positions on key committees, such as revenue, legislative planning and executive board, and doesn’t believe his tweets will jeopardize any of the 11 bills he’s introduced this session. The reason being, without a party leader looming over him, McCollister said he feels free to vote his conscience and stand up for what he believes in.

“Nobody objects to somebody standing up for principle,” he said. “But you can do it in a way that antagonizes people, and you can do it in a way that respects the other senators in the body.”

And that sentiment, following conscience before party, is echoed throughout the body, especially in electing committee chairs, which often feature a mix of Republicans and Democrats. It was also apparent when the Legislature defied expectation in 2015, abolishing the death penalty and then overriding the governor’s veto.

It stems from a mutual respect for your colleagues, which Hunt said is inevitable in a 49-member lawmaking body.

“I like my colleagues,” she said. “I like them because I hang out with them, and I get drinks with them, and I can ask them, ‘Why do you think that, dude?’ We can really talk directly about these things.”

But not everyone sees the Legislature so free from influence.

Lobbying still plays a big role in Nebraska politics. Fry said that influence is visible in the ImagiNE Nebraska bill, for which some senators are feeling pressure to vote a certain way.

“They’ve had lobbyists tell them, if you don’t support this, we’re going to find an opponent and run them against you,” she said.

And while it’s not uncommon for those conversations to happen, Fry said they became more widespread last session, particularly around this issue.

“It’s made a lot of folks who are up for reelection pretty nervous,” Fry said.

Others worry how term limits have affected the partisanship of the Legislature. Since their introduction in 2000 and implementation in 2007, term limits have caused more polarization around issues and between senators, according to a University of Nebraska study in 2015.

The study found this made it harder to form trusting relationships and that there was a significant increase in supporting bills along party lines in sessions between 2006 and 2010.

However, senators say division on recent issues is less a function of party beliefs than geography. And even those aren’t impassable.

“There is a different set of issues for urban senators and rural senators,” DeBoer said. “It doesn’t mean that urban senators don’t care about doing things to support rural Nebraska and vice versa. But there’s a different perspective.”

Hunt, a self-described leftist progressive, knows she’s got strikes against her when it comes to bridging political and cultural divides. But she’s been surprised how willing people are to listen, meet in the middle and respect one another.

“It’s because of those good relationships that maybe they’ll drag my bill through the mud,” she said, “but they won’t drag me through the mud.”

What to watch

Along with property taxes, business tax breaks and proposed funding for the UNMC infectious disease center, there are plenty of other controversial and wildcard bills that throw the fate of this session into question.

Fry said OpenSky’s biggest concern is about how rigorous debate will be.

Others have their attention on issues such as abortion, health care and prison reform.

Also in the purview is next year’s redistricting process. With U.S. Supreme Court cases and national media coverage, redistricting and gerrymandering promise to engage senators and the public and reignite familiar frictions.

“There is a rural, urban divide,” said McCollister. “It’s going to be particularly acute when we do redistricting in 2021 because rural Nebraska could lose two to three seats.”

It’s a lot to unpack, especially in a 60-day session, and promises the kind of fight that’s both exciting and secretly anxiety-inducing for senators like Hunt. At the end of last session, Hunt said she left the Unicameral feeling dismayed. Nothing moved fast enough, and no issue ever felt resolved.

But she’s still here, still willing to stay up all night working on bills and hunting down senators to iron out legislative nuances. Because, despite their differences, she’s found most senators share a common directive — one that trumps ego and political theater and keeps the cogs turning year after year.

“As cynical and pessimistic as I can be,” Hunt said, “it’s almost always the case that people are working in good faith.”

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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