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How the Cornhusker State Put Its House in Order

Charles Hillinger's America

February 17, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

LINCOLN, Neb. — It could only happen in Nebraska--the kind of spirited fight to elect the speaker that occurred on the floor of the Unicameral Legislature at this year's opening of the 89th session.

In other states, the presiding officer of a legislative body would be chosen in caucus from the ranks of the party in power. There is no political party in power in Nebraska's Legislature.

No Democratic leadership. No Republican leadership.

Nebraska's Legislature is nonpartisan. When candidates run for the 49 seats, their party affiliation does not appear on the ballot.

The Cornhusker State is unique on two scores--the only state among the 50 with a unicameral (one-house) legislature, the only state lawmaking body that is nonpartisan.

It took an hour and eight ballots for the 49 senators to select their speaker by secret vote. In seven ballots, Bernice Labedz, 65, of Omaha, a public relations director for a brewery, could not come up with 25 votes or more, a majority, to win the top spot.

Neither could William Nichol, 66, speaker the previous two years and former mayor of Scottsbluff.

Both received 24 votes, ballot after ballot, with one senator abstaining. Finally, on the eighth ballot it broke and Nichol garnered the necessary 25 votes to 23 for Labedz and one vote for another senator.

Nichol happens to be a Republican. Labedz happens to be a Democrat. But during the voting, Nichol confided that he knew six Republicans who were not voting for him. The votes were not, as they never are in the Nebraska Legislature, along party lines.

"What we really have here is a statewide town meeting with 49 independently thinking members," said Jerome Warner, 57, a farmer from Waverly, Nebraska's senior senator, beginning his 23rd year in the Unicameral. He was speaker in 1969-70. His father was the first speaker of the Unicameral in 1937-38.

Why is Nebraska different?

"The nonpartisan Unicameral is the legacy of the late George W. Norris (he died in 1944), Nebraska's fiercely independent U.S. senator," said Gov. Bob Kerrey, 41. "Norris was known as the 'Gentle Knight.'

"He was a Republican, yet he endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt for President. He was a lifelong advocate of political reform. He hated partisan politics. He was the father of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a socialist measure. He led the campaign to eliminate one of Nebraska's legislative chambers."

Norris had a saying: "The governor is the president of a corporation, the Legislature is its board of directors and the people are the stockholders." Norris wanted a legislature small enough so it could be carefully controlled by the public and also would be less expensive to operate.

It was during the height of the Great Depression 50 years ago in November, 1934, that Nebraskans voted by an impressive majority to adopt the one-house, nonpartisan system. There had been 133 members in the House and Senate combined. That number was reduced to 43 senators when the first Unicameral met in January, 1937.

Last month, as part of the opening week's ceremonies of the legislative session, the ornate hall where lawmakers meet was officially named the George W. Norris Memorial Legislative Chamber.

Across the Rotunda from the Unicameral, under the golden dome of the Nebraska state house, is the Nebraska House of Representatives, a ghost chamber, left exactly as it was when last used as the state's second house in 1936. Leather is frayed and peeling off chairs in front of desks that had been occupied by former House members.

"You know it's really a fluke that Nebraska has this unique political system," Lt. Gov. Donald F. McGinley, 64, of Ogallala, noted. "The Unicameral rode on the coattails of two extremely popular issues, repealing Prohibition and permitting parimutuel horse racing.

"It was a three-way package deal. Proponents of one issue supported the other two. Thanks to the gamblers and the drinkers, Nebraska has its one-house Legislature."

Senior Sen. Warner cited many examples of why the Unicameral system has worked so well for Nebraskans: "A recent independent study of the 50 state legislatures ranked Nebraska first in accountability.

"It costs less, speeds legislation, is more efficient. Power is spread out broadly. Every single bill introduced must by law have a public hearing. Unlike other states, there are no games played between two houses, one house passing the buck to the other."

He said being a Nebraskan senator is like being in a fishbowl. "Each of us is solely responsible for what is or isn't passed. There is no escape. There is no party discipline. All leadership is elected at large. New coalitions form and dissolve daily over each issue.

"I doubt lobbyists have any more or as much influence as in other states."

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