There is a high turnover in the Legislature. Few members use the Unicameral as a political steppingstone as they do in other state legislatures. In the 1985-86 Unicameral, 38 of the 49 senators have served six years or less, only eight have been senators more than 10 years.
Warner, a senator since 1963, was asked why he keeps running for office. He laughed and replied: "It beats feeding steers in January, February and March snowstorms. I let my brother run the farm while I'm in Lincoln tending to legislative business."
Gov. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor winner who lost his right leg in Vietnam in 1969 when he was a Navy frogman, said a big plus for the Nebraska Legislature is that decisions are based on the merit of each bill rather than on party considerations.
"A drawback at times," noted the Democratic governor, "is the lack of identifiable leadership, someone I know I can go talk to, to try to move programs along."
Because of the nature of this legislative body, Rod Johnson, 27, the youngest member, had no compunctions about running against two veteran members for chairmanship of the important Agriculture and Environment Committee. Johnson, a farmer from the small town of Harvard and a senator for two years, won.
"I'm sure someone my age with my limited legislative experience would never be elected to an important chairmanship in another state," Johnson conceded after being selected for the leadership position in a secret ballot at the opening day's session.
Johnson talked of the sense of independence of each of the 49 senators. Ernie Chambers, 47, the Unicameral's only black, is a prime example. He is an outspoken maverick, one of the Legislature's most articulate members. He wears sweat shirts, Levi's and track shoes to every legislative and committee meeting he attends.
"Sometimes I wonder what a black man like me is doing in a room full of white people," laughed Chambers as he lifted weights in his Capitol office. All of Nebraska knows what Ernie Chambers is doing. He is known as "the conscience of the Unicameral." Nebraska, with a population of 1,570,000, has fewer than 60,000 blacks, most of whom live in Omaha. Chambers has been a senator for 15 years.
One of his proudest moments was when his 1980 resolution was adopted calling for a divestment of state funds from companies doing business in South Africa. It was the first such action by any legislature in America and has been a model for other states.
Chambers has attracted national attention in the sports world for his proposals (never enacted) to pay football players as university employees. A graduate of the University of Creighton Law School, he has never practiced as an attorney, choosing to cut hair in an Omaha barbershop to augment his $4,800-a-year income as a senator.
Nebraska's legislators' pay scale is on the low side on the national level. In Alaska, lawmakers are paid $48,000-a-year, in New York, $32,960, and in California $28,110, not counting other covered expenses and benefits. Rhode Island is at the bottom of the rung. Legislators in the smallest state receive only $5 a day, a maximum of $300 a session with no per diem expense money.
Agriculture is Nebraska's biggest industry. So, it comes as no surprise there are more farmers (16) in the Legislature than any other group.
"One regret is the small salary and the time required limit participation. Most members are fairly well-to-do farmers and business people or retired. In my case, my husband has been the bread winner, so I have the time," said Shirley Marsh, 59, of Lincoln, a senator for 12 years. She was the only woman senator her first four years in office. Now there are 12 women in the Unicameral.
Legislators from every state in the nation and from many foreign countries over the years have beat a steady path to the 400-foot-high white limestone Capitol dominating the Nebraska plains and topped by the 19 1/2-foot bronze statue of the Sower, a barefoot man standing on a 12 1/2-foot pedestal of wheat and corn, and casting seeds "to bring a finer, more noble living to all Nebraskans."
They come to see the Nebraska experience, the nonpartisan Unicameral at work. Practically every state at one time or another since 1937 has sent delegations to study the system.
Jess Unruh, California state treasurer and former speaker of the California State Assembly, for a time led a campaign promoting a unicameral legislature for California. In an article on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1972, Unruh wrote:
"If someone tells you a two-house Legislature is good for the state, ask them why, then, don't we have two Los Angeles City Councils, or two county Boards of Supervisors. Or, if two are 'good,' why wouldn't three be better?"
Former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, supporting Unruh's effort, declared at the time: "It is completely unnecessary and too costly to have a two-house Legislature. The advantages of a one-house legislature are numerous, greater cooperation between members, stronger check on the power of the governor and less duplication of effort."
A drive to put the question on the California ballot failed in 1974 when sponsors were unable to get enough qualifying signatures on petitions. Interest in the matter has since died although it surfaces briefly from time to time.
As Patrick J. O'Donnell, 35, Nebraska's clerk of the Legislature, sees it: "Other states find it too novel, too unique. They don't want to upset the apple cart."