Proposal allowing increase in senators debated

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February 4, 2020 - 5:44pm

Supporters say adding more senators to the Nebraska Legislature will help represent constituents better, while opponents say other changes should come first.

Right now, the Legislature comprises 49 state senators – roughly one for every 40,000 Nebraskans. Sen. Jim Scheer, speaker of the Legislature, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment to allow up to 55 state senators.

Scheer says when the one-house Unicameral began, in 1937, there were 43 senators, or one for every 27,000 Nebraskans at that time. When that number increased to 49 in the 1960s, there was one for about every 30,000 people.

Scheer said his proposal won’t solve all the problems with legislative districts – for example, it wouldn’t shrink the huge legislative districts in western Nebraska, where population loss has forced senators to represent larger and larger areas.

“It just gives a little better representation to those constituents and all of our 49 districts or whatever number you choose to utilize,” Scheer said.

Because the proposal is a constitutional amendment, voters would have to approve it. Then, future legislators would have to decide how many – if any -- senators to add. An estimate from the legislative clerk’s office puts the annual cost of adding 6 senators at about $1 million.

Memo from legislative clerk's office on costs of expansion. Note: calculations are for an increase of six senators, an increase allowed, not required, by the proposal.

Sen. Dan Hughes farms outside Venango, on the Colorado border, and represents a district that stretches almost 200 miles to Holdrege, in the south central part of the state. Hughes said its tough representing such a large area, and suggested adding senators to prevent the district from getting even larger would help. 

“When I get to the east end of my district, I'm closer to Lincoln than I am to my home. And logistically that is a very difficult district to service. And part of our roles as state senators, I think is to service our constituents, to be visible, to be accessible,” Hughes said.

Sen. Justin Wayne, who represents an Omaha district, said he recognizes some of his colleagues serve very large districts. But Wayne said there are countervailing considerations as well.

“We are at a place in society where we have more technology and access to our elected officials than we did when this was passed a long time ago. We have the ability to be on Twitter, Facebook email… so the ability to contact and interact with your elected official seems to be a lot easier today than it was a long time ago,” Wayne said.

Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson said it’s sometimes difficult to find enough candidates to run for the existing seats. Friesen said that points to a different problem.

“Our pay level is too low. We can't hardly justify to people to look at them and say, ‘I want you to run for office, but you know you're going to get paid $12,000 a year to give up eight years of your life,’” Friesen said.

Under voter approved term-limits, senators are eligible to serve no more than two four-year terms.

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha said the pay Friesen mentioned reflects popular dissatisfaction.

“The record of the Legislature going before the voters with various proposals is not good. Consider our low pay of $12,000. I know we have gone before the voters two or three times to make an effort to increase that paltry amount. How about term limits? That's another example of dissatisfaction with this legislature by people in the state,” McCollister said.  

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said he’s hesitant about having more senators as an option at the same time the Legislature will be redistricting next year. Lathrop, a registered Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, said the last redistricting was a partisan exercise by Republicans.

“We have had bills that would make for a fair process, and they don't see the light of day,” Lathrop said.

Lathrop said the current number of senators works pretty well. He recalled looking across the legislative chamber on one of the late nights lawmakers sometimes work toward the end of a session.

“You know how it's dark in this room and everybody has their light on, and I looked across the room, and I thought to myself, this whole thing works pretty well,” he told his colleagues. “Like, there's a few lawyers in here. And we had some PhDs. We had some farmers, we had some ranchers, we had a butcher, we had a candlestick maker probably. This works. This works. Forty nine works,” Lathrop said.

Scheer stressed the constitutional amendment itself would not increase the number of senators – that would be up to future legislators, who could chose to increase by any number between one and six, or none.

And Scheer said he doesn’t know if he has enough votes from current senators to put the measure on the ballot this November. But the speaker, serving his last year due to term limits, said it would be worth giving future legislators the option of increasing their number.






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