The 106th Nebraska Legislature will have 12 freshmen, 10 elected (eight with no incumbent running) and two to be appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts to replace incumbents who were elected to new posts. Five incumbents in the even districts up for grabs had no opposition.
It’s doubtful this group will look much different than its predecessors as it faces – or tries to avoid – meaningful debate on property taxes and school funding, one of the looming topics on their plates. Given the seriousness of what lies ahead, one can only hope the newbies are well prepped for the task at hand.
The officially nonpartisan Legislature carries over 14 veteran lawmakers who are Republicans and 13 who are Democrats. Voters selected 14 Republicans and five Democrats in the contested races on November 6. Independent Ernie Chambers of Omaha was not up for election. One can expect Ricketts will appoint two Republicans.
Three incumbents lost. Republican turned Libertarian Laura Ebke of Crete lost to farmer Tom Brandt of Plymouth, a Republican. Ricketts appointee Republican Theresa Thibodeau of Omaha lost to Democrat Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha and Republican Merv Riepe of Omaha lost to former state Senator Democrat Steve Lathrop.
Ebke, chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, switched parties a year ago when Ricketts called out a number of Republicans for not voting the party line in the officially nonpartisan body. He heavily funded Thibodeau’s campaign against Cavanaugh, the daughter of former Nebraska Democratic Representative John Cavanaugh. Likewise, Ricketts funded Riepe’s campaign against Lathrop who sat out his mandatory one term after being term-limited. Lathrop had chaired a special committee that investigated the Nebraska Department of Corrections.
As for the fresh new faces, here’s a quick glimpse. Meghan Hunt, 31, is the owner of an Omaha e-commerce company who replaces term-limited Burke Harr. Like Harr, she is a Democrat. Republican John Arch, 62, of LaVista, is the CEO of Boys Town National Research Hospital and Clinics. He replaces term-limited Jim Smith. Ben Hansen is a 39-year-old chiropractor from Blair. The Republican replaces term-limited Lydia Brasch. Mike Moser, 66, is a Republican who owns a retail music store in Columbus. He replaces term-limited Paul Schumacher.
Myron Dorn, 63, is a Republican farmer from Adams. He replaces Don Baker, of Beatrice, who decided one term was enough. Glenvil farmer Dave Murman, 64, is a Republican who replaces John Kuehn who also decided one term was enough. Tim Gragert, 59, a retired military and federal employee from Creighton, replaces term-limited Tyson Larson. He is a Republican.
In Omaha’s District 10, the seat represented by Bob Krist for 10 years, Wendy DeBoer, 44, a Democrat college instructor from Bennington, won by 37 votes over Republican estate planning lawyer Matt Deaver, 43, of Bennington. Because of the narrow margin, the vote is subject to an automatic recount.
Democrat Lynn Walz of Fremont returns to the Legislature. She was Krist’s lieutenant governor candidate in their failed effort to unseat Ricketts. Gone will be Sen. John Murante, of Gretna, who was elected state Treasurer and Sen. Dan Watermeier, of Syracuse, who was elected to the Public Service Commission. Ricketts will appoint their successors.
So, here we go again with 30 Republicans, 18 Democrats and one Independent in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. There will be a new Speaker, new committee chairs, a new rules battle and, oh, a lot of really tough issues: property tax relief; paying for voter-approved expanded Medicaid; funding schools; correcting the mess at Corrections.
One can expect that Ricketts and his legislative cronies – no, we haven’t forgotten the gang of 27 who gathered before the 105th Legislature convened to “determine” who would be leaders – will be up to their usual attempts to make the nation’s only unicameral a mouthpiece for the Republican Party.
Here’s hoping they fail.
J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 19 years.