Gov.-elect Jim Pillen shakes hands with state senators in the Nebraska State Capitol while walking to be sworn in as governor.
Gov.-elect Jim Pillen shakes hands with state senators before being sworn in as governor on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, in Lincoln. (Nebraska News Service Photo/Zach Wendling)

State senators have already completed three of the 90 days in the 2023 session, though not without complications and allegations of some senators advancing “a radical and partisan agenda.”

The first two days of the week, senators publicly came together as they and statewide officers took their oaths of office. But on Thursday, as senators considered official committee assignments, some alleged the process was more based on favors and partisan influences than the state of the Legislature.

State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, who returned to the Legislature after eight years, having served from 2007-2015 before being term-limited, was one of those senators alleging foul play.

Conrad said norms of the officially nonpartisan, one-house body had typically been upheld — including in committee assignments.

“Apparently, those customs and norms have been put by the wayside to push, I think, a radical and partisan agenda,” Conrad said. “Let’s just be candid and clear about it.”

conrad hunt ZJW 010623 03 1024x683 - Keeping Up With the Legislature: Days One-Three (Jan. 4-6)
State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha (right) listens to State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln as debate continues on committee assignments on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023, in Lincoln. (Nebraska News Service Photo/Zach Wendling)

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who sits on the Committee on Committees that sorts senators onto committees, abstained when the committee voted to approve the assignments.

Hunt said on Twitter that committee placements are normally made with consideration to incumbency and not taking people off of their committees, seniority and senators’ top preferences.

“None of that was a priority for the committee today,” Hunt tweeted on Jan. 4, the first night of the legislative session. “It was all about partisan selfishness and favors for friends.”

Conrad and State Sen. Ray Aguilar of Grand Island are the only two senators to have served more than eight years, due to term limits, with Aguilar returning in 2020.

Still, Conrad questioned why she did not get a placement on Appropriations, the budgeting arm of the Legislature she sat on during her first stint in office, without an explanation for the move. On the campaign trail, Conrad committed to trying to return to the seat.

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, chair of the Judiciary Committee, offered a motion to reconsider the assignments. Wayne asked for a trade so freshman State Sen. John Fredrickson of Omaha, a clinical social worker and adjunct professor, could bring a mental health perspective to his committee, but without a viable trade, Wayne withdrew the motion.

“Two people are needed to trade, it’s not there, so we’re going to move forward,” Wayne said.

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha offered again for the committee to reconsider the assignments so she could give her seat on Health and Human Services to Fredrickson on Natural Resources. As of Friday afternoon, the motion was still pending, though Cavanaugh withdrew her effort on Monday, Jan. 9.

State Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, chair of the Committee on Committees, detailed the process her committee took for committee assignments and encouraged senators to adopt the report before the debate began.

Senators approved the committee assignments 40-7 on the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 9, with State Sens. Carol Blood of Bellevue and Myron Dorn of Adams excused and not voting. The list of committee assignments can be found here.

Leadership assignments take shape for next two years

The Legislature selected Brandon Metzler to succeed longtime clerk Patrick O’Donnell in addition to committee chairs for 16 standing and select committees.

State Sens. John Arch of La Vista and Tom Briese of Albion will respectively serve as Speaker of the Legislature and chair of the Legislature’s Executive Board. State Sen. Ray Aguilar will serve as vice chair of the Executive board

Committee chairs are as follows:

  • Agriculture: Steve Halloran of Hastings
  • Appropriations: Rob Clements of Elmwood
  • Banking, Commerce and Insurance: Julie Slama of Dunbar
  • Business and Labor: Merv Riepe of Ralston
  • Education: Dave Murman of Glenvil
  • General Affairs: John Lowe of Kearney
  • Government, Military and Veterans Affairs: Tom Brewer of Gordon
  • Health and Human Services: Ben Hansen of Blair
  • Judiciary: Justin Wayne of Omaha
  • Natural Resources: Bruce Bostelman of Brainard
  • Nebraska Retirement Systems: Mike McDonnell of Omaha
  • Revenue: Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn
  • Transportation and Telecommunications: Suzanne Geist of Lincoln
  • Urban Affairs: Terrell McKinney of Omaha
  • Committee on Committees: Joni Albrecht of Thurston
  • Rules: Steve Erdman of Bayard

Read more about the first day of the Legislature and the leadership team here.

Reflections on the first week

After the first week, some senators are excited for the rest of the session while others are cautious about moving forward after a tense debate over committee assignments.

“It’s kind of a rocky start,” State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said, adding that there is some unease after State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln introduced motions to indefinitely postpone two bills the day they were introduced. “That’s not a good way to start.”

Conrad introduced two motions on LB15 by State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion and LB79 by Erdman. LB15 would provide a youth minimum wage and change training wage provisions, and LB79 would eliminate property, income and corporate taxes.

Conrad said the motions are to make clear to her colleagues she will stand up for her constituents. Both bills will go through the committee process, but Conrad said her effort gives her a chance to be upfront with her colleagues if and when the measures reach the floor.

“I think it’s the prerogative of each individual senator to utilize the tools available to them in the rules as they see fit,” Conrad said. “So again, being clear, crystal clear, I’m here to protect the institution, working families and civil rights.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha said she was depressed after the first week. She said she had come “in good faith, hoping for the best and expecting the worst, and it seems like it’s more partisan than ever.”

“People are not being honest with each other. People are not thinking for themselves, and they’re behaving in a foolish way that makes Nebraskans look down on the Legislature, and that becomes an embarrassment for the entire state,” Hunt continued. “So I really would just urge all of my colleagues, no matter where they are ideologically, no matter what party they are, to really think for themselves and do this work with the dignity that it deserves.”

Freshman State Sen. Loren Lippincott of Central City said his first week has been good, though there’s a lot to learn as he becomes more comfortable.

“I am pleased with how everybody, to date, is working well together, establishing some very strong friendships,” Lippincott said. “That’s important; a lot of this is very much relationship oriented.”

Lippincott served as a page in the Legislature while he was at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and he’s watched the Legislature in recent years. So while it’s a “fast-moving stream,” Lippincott said he looks forward to the rest of the session.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan said the first week was excellent with strong committee staff, great leaders and good committees.

“I think we’re gonna have a great year,” Linehan said.

Week one bill introductions

After the first week, 145 bills and 14 resolutions or constitutional amendments have been introduced.

Some bills from the first week include:

LB77 by State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, which revives his effort to allow Nebraskans to openly carry firearms without training or a permit. The bill has 25 cosponsors.

LB79 by State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, the Nebraska EPIC Option Consumption Act, which would eliminate property, income and corporate taxes (as the acronym states). Erdman also introduced two constitutional amendments — LR6CA and LR7CA — that would rework Nebraska’s tax system to be more focused on retail consumption taxes and excise taxes.

LB39 and LB54 by State Sens. Carol Blood of Bellevue and Terrell McKinney of Omaha would, respectively, include disability and racial impact statements for certain or all legislation.

LB22 by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha would decriminalize the use and possession of marijuana.

LB12 and LB13 by State Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue would, respectively, establish the Nebraska Human Breast Milk Bank and require coverage of human breast milk under the Medical Assistance Act.

LB70 by State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, with State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln joining the bill, would provide free state ID cards and copies of birth certificates for specific reasons related to voting. The Legislature will be required to draft voter ID laws after a successful ballot initiative, but a bill has not yet been introduced.

LB91 by State Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair would prohibit drivers or passengers on motorcycles or mopeds from driving on highways in the state unless they are older than 21. Drivers and passengers would also need to be certified by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation basic motorcycle rider course or a “substantially similar” course by the Department of Motor Vehicles. The bill also clarifies eyewear requirements for motorcycles.

LR2CA by State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard, if passed, would allow voters to decide whether the Nebraska Constitution should be amended so the Legislature is bicameral, senators are elected by party affiliation, committee chairs and other legislative officers are elected in a public vote and that all meetings of the Legislature be open to the public.

LR3CA by State Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha, if passed, would give voters an opportunity to amend the Nebraska Constitution so all top statewide officers — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, auditor of public accounts and state treasurer — are elected in a nonpartisan manner.

LR14CA by State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, chair of the Executive Board, if passed, would allow voters to amend the Nebraska Constitution so top statewide officers, including the governor, and legislators could be recalled.

Zach Wendling is a senior journalism and political science double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln focused on political, policy and governance reporting. He is the spring 2023 intern for the Nebraska Examiner and has been published in publications across the state as part of the Nebraska News Service. Wendling interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. and worked for The Daily Nebraskan at UNL. He is one of the founding members and inaugural president of UNL's new campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.