Public chairmanship elections: accountability or partisanship?

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January 8, 2012 - 6:00pm

Electing committee chairs openly, instead of by secret ballot, would improve accountability, says a senator who wants that rule change. But an opponent says the change could threaten the nonpartisan character of the Legislature.

When the Nebraska Legislature reorganizes every two years, senators vote by secret ballot on who should be the chairperson of various committees. But Omaha Sen. Bob Krist wants to change that. "I believe those leadership positions in the committee chairs are very, very important. And I think that they tell our constituents a lot about what we want in terms of leadership for the body," Krist said. "So the rule change that I propose is to make all the committee chairs - the standing committee chairs - a public vote. A record vote. So that each one of the 49 of us can tell our constituents who we think the proper leadership would be."

That might sound like inside baseball, without much effect on the anyone outside the Legislature. But Krist points out committee chairs have a lot of influence over which legislative proposals move ahead, and in what form. He said casting leadership votes in public would make senators more accountable.

But Senator Annette Dubas of Fullerton thinks the change is a bad idea. Senators are elected by the public without party labels appearing next to their name on the ballot, and Dubas said that nonpartisanship generally carries over into the Legislature's internal workings as well. "If we open this up to a public vote, I think it would really jeopardize the nonpartisan atmosphere that we have in here," she said. "Whichever party is in the minority -- and most typically it's usually the Democrats who are in the minority here - I think it would be very hard for some of our Republican counterparts who really think maybe there is a Democrat who does have the capability of leading. And that's evident because we do have some Democratic committee chairs. I think it would be harder for them to have to make that kind of decision publicly because of some of the fallout they might have to take either from their party or their constituents."

Dubas is a registered Democrat. Krist, a registered Republican, said he's not seeking partisan advantage. "I did not go at this with the goal of trying to make things more partisan. In fact if we wanted to be partisan about things, we would caucus privately," he said. "We would get together and say All Republicans will be chairs.' And with the majority in the body right now, (32 Republican to 15 Democrats and 1 independent, with one vacancy) we could do that right now. That's a given fact."

Krist said voting in public would also make senators more accountable to each other. He noted that several years ago, he ran for the chairmanship of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, and did not receive all the votes he was promised in private.

But Dubas, who was also defeated when she ran for chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee, said she doesn't put much credence in vote counts, anyway. "I went, I talked to my colleagues, I made my case, and I totally respect the decision they made whether it was for me or against me. I was on the losing end of that race, but I hold no sour grapes or anything over it. I had my opportunity," she said. "If I wanted to run again I would expect to do the same thing. (I) have no idea how it would turn out. But I don't think having an open public vote would serve me or anyone else in this legislature."

The Legislature's Rules Committee is expected to decide Tuesday whether or not to endorse Krist's proposal. But Krist said even if the committee does not recommend it, he will still try to get it considered by the full Legislature.

In other news, Attorney General Jon Bruning is defending the state's aquistion of the drug sodium thiopental for use in lethal injections. Defense Attorney Jerry Soucie, representing death row inmate Michael Ryan, has charged the drug was stolen by being obtained improperly from a middleman who diverted it from its intended use for research purposes.

Bruning says records show the state legally obtained the drug from an exporter after the manufacturer had been paid, and asked the court to set an execution date for Ryan.




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