State Sen. Robert Dover of Norfolk explains a proposal to increase legislative term limits from two to three terms on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. Dover's legislation has garnered 39 cosponsors. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — A Nebraska lawmaker said Friday that allowing legislators to serve an additional four-year term could provide better, more effective representation and heal some damage done to the institution.

Legislative Resolution 22CA, proposed by State Sen. Robert Dover of Norfolk, could let voters decide whether state legislators should serve three four-year terms, instead of two. The Legislature would first need to approve the measure.

Voters approved the two-term system in 2000, and it went into effect with the 2006 elections.

“I think that when we instituted term limits, we did a disservice to the people of Nebraska to term limit one senator,” Dover told the Executive Board, alluding to former State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha. “And I think that was wrong.”

Other states have term limits on state lawmakers, but they do not have a Unicameral, Dover explained.

“As the senator is not able to continue using their accumulated knowledge in another house, this makes the Nebraska Legislature very susceptible to institutional knowledge loss,” Dover said.

Senators who returned after term limits

Current State Sens. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, who returned this year, and Ray Aguilar of Grand Island, who returned in 2021 after sitting out a term because of term limits. Both signed onto Dover’s proposal.

Former State Sen. Steve Lathrop returned in 2019. State Sens. Mike Flood of Norfolk and Rich Pahls of Omaha returned in 2021. Lathrop retired, Flood is now in Congress and Pahls died in April 2022.

Former State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha served from 1971 through 2008, returning in 2013. He was term-limited a second time in 2021. Chambers is so far the only legislator to have been term-limited twice, and he could run for another legislative seat in 2024 if he wishes.

Former Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed Dover in July to succeed Mike Flood after Flood’s special election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Dover’s resolution has 39 cosponsors in the 49-member body, including seven of the nine members of the Executive Board (Speaker John Arch of La Vista and Tom Briese of Albion, chair of the Executive Board, did not sign on).

Freshman legislature

Barry Kennedy testified in support on behalf of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Greater Omaha Chamber and the Lincoln Chamber.

Kennedy noted that in 2025, at least 15 senators will not return due to term limits, and more could choose not to seek reelection. He said that about three-fifths of the Legislature will have no more than two years of experience.

In a business, Kennedy said employers would never dismiss employees after eight years.

“Typically by then you’re doing everything you can to keep them employed,” Kennedy said.

Jay Ferris with the Nebraska Farm Bureau said Nebraska has automatically kicked out “very effective” state senators every two years, so expanding term limits could stabilize this turnover and help them beat an arbitrary clock.

Ferris testified in support also on behalf of the Nebraska Corn Growers Association, Nebraska Pork Producers Association and Nebraska Soybean Association.

Balance of power

Former State Sen. Al Davis testified in support for the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club and the Nebraska Farmers Union. He said Dover’s legislation could be “one of the most important” this session.

Davis noted staff turnover in the Legislature compared to executive branch agencies, which Kennedy said becomes a problem in the balance of power between branches.

For example, judges serve lifetime appointments, while the governor does have term limits.

But the knowledge at the ready for the governor can outbalance the Legislature, Kennedy said, where the citizenry is directly represented.

State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, a member of the Executive Board and a cosponsor of the resolution, asked some supporters and Dover whether the lobby could have increased influence as a result of the legislation.

Dover said that while lobbyists could form longer relationships, thus increasing their power, the downside of not changing would be greater.

‘Citizens are watching’

While no one testified against Dover’s proposal Friday, the measure has received criticism from the Liberty Initiative Fund, a Virginia-based organization. Its leader is also the former president of U.S. Term Limits, a group that helped get term limits passed in Nebraska.

term limits
 Postcards like this one hit mailboxes across the state in January from a Virginia group opposed to changes in the Nebraska’s term limits for state legislators. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The fund mailed hundreds of postcards to constituents of state senators who are supporting the proposal, stating that politicians were trying to “trick” voters.

Dover said he was surprised Friday the postcards went out so soon. He and other testifiers noted that if the Legislature does take up the proposal, a massive education campaign would be needed to get it over the finish line.

Ferris said the Farm Bureau could provide support for education as needed.

Unlike previous iterations of the three-term proposal, Dover’s resolution does not include language that would bar current incumbents from seeking a third term. Therefore, the 10 legislators who won reelection in November could run for a third term in 2026 and serve through 2030.

Dover said this is by design because if voters approve the change, it should be immediate.

Bill Hawkins, testifying in a neutral capacity, noted that a state senator could be removed at any election, regardless of term limits.

He said voters should decide the issue.

“This building is full of dedicated people who make this state run, and you folks just get to represent them,” Hawkins said. “The citizens are watching.”

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