2013 Legislature opens with committee chair elections

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January 9, 2013 - 5:44pm

The Nebraska Legislature began its 2013 session Wednesday selecting new leaders who could affect the direction of measures that will be debated this year.
For the most part, the  opening day was ceremonial. Members of the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard presented the colors, marching up the center aisle to place the national and state flags in the front of the chamber. Chief Justice Mike Heavican swore in newly elected and re-elected members, and then lawmakers got down to the business of choosing their leaders. Without opposition, Sen. Greg Adams of York was elected speaker, with primary responsibility for setting the order of bills for lawmakers to work on. Adams said he would work with all senators.
“I was asked not long ago ‘Adams – what’s your agenda?’ And I have no political agenda. But I do have an agenda. My agenda is to help you be the best senators you can be. To help you do your job. To help you in any way that I could blend your political life with your personal lives. I have an agenda for fairness above all else,” he said.
Then, by secret ballot, lawmakers selected committee chairs, who are influential in shaping the bills that come out of their committees. Most of the elections had only one candidate.
 Among those that were contested, the closest was for the important job of heading the Appropriations Committee, which recommends what the state should spend money on. Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, a registered Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Unicameral, defeated Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte by one vote, 25-24. The lobbying firm of Mueller Robak immediately tweeted that Mello’s election set the stage for “epic budget battles” with Gov. Dave Heineman.
 Mello laughed when asked about that, then got serious. “Well, I haven’t seen the governor’s budget yet, and I don’t think anyone’s seen the governor’s budget yet. So until we ultimately start the process – the official budget process – next week when the governor introduces his budget, no one knows what’s ultimately going to happen,” he said.
As an example of his ability to work with Heineman, Mello pointed to last year’s income tax debate. After considerable back and forth, Mello agreed to a compromise with the governor on a tax cut that was smaller and more directed toward lower income groups than Heineman originally proposed.
 In other contested races Wednesday, Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege defeated Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial for chair of the Natural Resources Committee, whose responsibilities include water and pipeline legislation. Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha defeated Sen. John Nelson of Omaha for vice chair of the Executive board. All those senators are registered Republicans.
In another race, Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton defeated Sen. Scott Price of Bellevue to head the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, whose jurisdiction includes roads and phone service. That was another instance of a Democrat defeating a Republican, despite the GOP’s 30-17 registration advantage among senators, with two independents. Last month, Nebraska Republican Party Chairman Mark Fahleson urged Republican senators not to support Democrats or independents for committee chair.
 Wednesday, Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, a registered Democrat, said he detected a trend. “I think independent legislators and moderates in the body really carried the day in these committee chairmanship elections. To get elected there really is a bloc in the center of moderates that you have to convince. And I think Sen. Mello and Sen. Dubas and Sen. Krist all demonstrated their abilities to carry forward in the positions they were elected to,” Nordquist said.
Adams, a registered Republican, said he rejected a political interpretation of the results. “I know there are those that would try and make a political story out of that in that ‘Well, was it an urban vs. rural, or a D vs. R.?’  Maybe it was. I didn’t see it that way. I saw it instead -- and if you will recall they were very close votes -- I saw it as good candidates for those positions and my colleagues and I choosing the person that we thought could best lead the committee,” he said.
Thursday, senators get down to the business of introducing bills.

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