The nation’s only one house Legislature is looking at changing its committee structure to streamline the process and equalize the work load of bills that are considered to become law.
Much of it makes sense, but who cares outside of the 49 elected lawmakers, their staff of hundreds and members of the Executive and Judicial branches? We should all care if it will give the average citizen the same access to the process and retain the transparency of that process. Imagine lawmakers getting more work done in less time.
Remember, this isn’t just politics, even though it seems like the wrangling of 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats and one Independent is sometimes similar to the mess we hear about in Washington. We’re talking about measures that have the potential to change your way of life and affect your health or safety, even your taxes.
A study committee chaired by Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln is looking at ways to possibly combine some of the 14 standing committees that review hundreds of bills each session. For years, only the nine-member Appropriations Committee has met every day. Some suggest that the Judiciary Committee should also meet every day to handle what has become a larger bill load than most other committees. There is also talk about possibly combining the Agriculture and Natural Resources committees and taking a fresh look at exactly what the General Affairs Committee does.
Change is not a four-letter word, but it can ruffle some feathers. Long-standing committee chairs may have to relinquish, or at least rethink, some of their perceived power. Lobbyists might have to readjust their thinking.
Logistically, filling 14 committees from the ranks of 49 senators can be tricky. Currently, senators who serve on a Wednesday through Friday committee also serve on a Monday – Tuesday committee. Eliminating one or more committees from either category will present challenges. Likewise, making one or more committees a five-day-a-week responsibility creates similar staffing issues.
In short, that’s a lot of moving parts. That’s a lot of tradition to justify and uproot. Senators generally serve on one to three standing committees, and some of them on additional special committees, such as oversight of the justice system, the Executive Board or Performance Audit.
If the General Affairs Committee is eliminated, how are the issues of gambling and liquor regulation divided among other committees, and which committees make the most sense to consider the issues? Maybe the Judiciary Committee could meet five days a week. With the 218 bills before that committee last session, such a change seems to make sense. The Agriculture Committee only heard 18 bills. The Natural Resources Committee received 38 bills. Then there’s talk about making the Education and Revenue Committees larger. Each currently has seven members.
The study committee is expected to take a formal vote this month and schedule hearings on the proposals. A Rules Committee vote would follow and then discussion by the Legislature in the next session. Given how rules changes bog the session down in the initial days, look for a fight if the new plan isn’t nailed down fairly tightly before-hand. Time is definitely a factor in this one.
Committee chairs can wield immense power over whether legislation advances to debate before the full Legislature. The Governor and party agendas and even committee membership can paint the fate of a bill. There’s a reason the governor has chosen to throw his own money at some candidates. We just act like we can’t see the strings.
Preserving the nonpartisan composure of the Nebraska Legislature is crucial through all this. Public access to the Legislature and the process – unprecedented in any other state, is of high importance.
It’s encouraging to see some creative thinking in this area. Let’s hope that there is also some positive action and the whole exercise is more than just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 19 years.