On the final day of the Nebraska legislative session on April 20, outgoing senators gave farewell speeches focused on upholding the nonpartisan nature of the institution and offered advice to returning and future senators.
Thirteen lawmakers are leaving: 11 are term limited while two — Sens. Steve Lathrop of Omaha and Tim Gragert of Creighton — are not seeking reelection. In November, 24 of the 49 legislative seats will be decided by voters.
Every senator thanked their staffers, past and present, and many applauded those who help run the Legislature, like Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O’Donnell and those in his office. Each also expressed appreciation to their family, friends, spouses and many others who have helped them along the way.
Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha
Sen. Brett Lindstrom of Omaha said that when he came to the legislative body he was pretty quiet and that he’s tended to be relatively quiet when on the floor throughout his tenure. He said he liked to participate behind the scenes in one-on-one conversations before what he said were primetime floor moments.
“I always found the most effective members of the body were the ones who engaged not on a political basis but on policy,” Lindstrom said.
Nebraskans are all one degree of separation from each other, he said, so relationships matter.
“I think as a senator that was very important to me, because no matter what topic, no matter what issue … we’re all in this together,” Lindstrom said.
One of his big accomplishments, after introducing the legislation over multiple years, was to end the tax on social security. Senators approved Lindstrom’s legislation to do so this year.
“It took me several years but persistence pays off, and I want to thank everybody in this body for encouraging me,” Lindstrom said.
Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln
Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln recalled a conversation he had with former Sen. Galen Hadley, who left the Legislature in 2017 due to term limits. According to Morfeld, Hadley was opposed to term limits but thought they were a graceful way of departing without disappointing anyone.
“No one will fully understand the immense honor it is to serve in the Nebraska Legislature until they’ve had the opportunity to do so themselves,” Morfeld said. “No one will understand the sacrifice it takes on your friends, family and even your own mental and physical health.”
Morfeld listed four things he will miss: representing and learning from constituents, incredible bonds with his colleagues, learning from colleagues across the state and working with staffers who had been with him his entire eight years as well as many years before that.
“These bonds often know no ideological boundaries, and truly, in many respects, I think we are family,” Morfeld said of his friendships with his fellow senators. “Happy, sometimes sad, and often dysfunctional.”
He cautioned those continuing to serve to uphold the spirit of the independent, nonpartisan body. While it may not be in a senator’s immediate interest, Morfeld said it is to the people of the state.
“Short term gains, when it comes to our institutions, often lead to long-term losses, and future legislators will do well to remember it,” Morfeld said.
Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton
Counties: Boyd, Cedar, Dixon, Holt, Knox, Rock
Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton paraphrased a quote from President Ronald Reagan that says a lot can be done if no one worries about who gets the credit, which can be applied to the Legislature.
He gave thanks to all of his colleagues in the Legislature but gave special thanks to Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who he said he knows by many names: senator as a colleague, colonel as a comrade and Tom as a friend.
“Senator Brewer has had my six from day one,” Gragert said. “He was out there walking with me in the parades and, when needed, in the committee briefings and here on the floor, he always spoke up for me. I appreciate that and I thank you, colonel, and God bless.”
While he said he’s never prayed over the Legislature, Gragert did offer one departing promise:
“I will pray for you all who remain and the new legislators for their wisdom to do the right thing for the right reasons,” Gragert said. “Also, for those of you who fish, my wish to you is for tight lines and calm winds. Take care.”
Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln
Unlike most fellow senators making remarks, Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln said he doesn’t have a lot of advice or a general message, as very few thoughts have been left unsaid.
“That was really a commitment to myself that I had a finite amount of days here … and making sure I made the most out of each of them,” Hansen said.
But one message is the Legislature must do better to support legislative staffers. They are the lifeblood of the institution, Hansen said, and support the state in more ways than is known.
As he leaves, Hansen said he will continue to be willing to support and counsel friends.
“I believe I’m leaving the defense of the state in the hands of people who were better prepared than I was at the same point in my career,” Hansen said.
Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson
Counties: Hall, Hamilton, Merrick, Nance
Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson echoed a sentiment from former Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, whom he sat next to for many years, that he didn’t come to the Legislature to make friends. However, doing so was inevitable.
The senator highlighted work done in North Omaha, spearheaded by Omaha Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne. Friesen said he hopes that aid will be the answer for those areas, but once the economic development goes through, the Legislature should look at rural Nebraska and try to spur growth there.
“Because longer term, that’s what’s going to make the state successful,” Friesen said. “A lot of people can look to us as an example, and I think we’re a place people can come to, anyone.”
The Nebraska Legislature is truly nonpartisan, Friesen said, and while politics is often injected, senators do vote according to their beliefs.
Friesen said he hopes the money appropriated this session does good things but that taxpayers will appreciate the tax breaks. However, there’s still a need for more property tax relief.
“I appreciate and I will miss this place at times, but otherwise I’m going to spend a lot of time at home,” Friesen said.
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln called the final legislative day bittersweet, being honored to have done the work she was elected to do and get to know all of her colleagues. She said she hopes her constituents continue to see the value in the nonpartisan Legislature.
“We are a small gem in the middle of the country able to get more done than any other legislature in the country,” Pansing Brooks said. “We are about people and not parties, and I think that’s what’s so important. Most Nebraskans don’t live in a partisan prison.”
She offered three pieces of advice, in addition to reminding colleagues to prioritize kindness in their voice: be ready to forgive and move on, embrace those in need and be persistent.
Pansing Brooks read a quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estés, an author, educator and philosopher, that centers on the idea that people are not meant to fix the entire world but rather intended to stretch out and mend what’s within reach.
The senator also thanked former Sen. Ernie Chambers and Judi gaiashkibos, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs.
On her way back to her desk, Pansing Brooks hugged each of her colleagues.
Sen. John McCollister of Omaha
Sen. John McCollister of Omaha said his work in the Legislature has been the capstone of his career, which has included 35 years at McCollister and Co., 30 years at the Metropolitan Utilities District in Omaha and four years running a think tank.
“When people ask me why I was willing to work for $12,000 a year, mere peanuts, I tell them the psychic income was enormous,” McCollister said. “Where else can you make laws that help people and have fun doing it?”
The practice of politics is an art, he said, and sometimes people win, other times they fail. However, partisan bickering should not be allowed to consume the Legislature.
“We have seen the cancer it causes and the rancor just isn’t productive to our Unicameral,” McCollister said. “It’s important to maintain collegiality and not hold personal grudges; vote for a bill on its merits, not the position of a party.”
Examples are seen in Washington, D.C., and across the country, McCollister said, but Nebraska senators must hold the vision of George Norris in their hearts, whose influence in the 1930s led to the nonpartisan, one-house Legislature. Legislators must also focus on compromise, a non-dirty word essential to successful lawmaking.
“You’ve all touched my life in one way or another,” McCollister said of his colleagues. “Thank you, friends all, for the late nights, the good times and the outstanding discussions.”
Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango
Counties: Chase, Dundy, Frontier, Furnas, Gosper, Harlan, Hayes, Hitchcock, Perkins, Red Willow
Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango, the outgoing Executive Board chair, said his position allowed him to work with people in all divisions of the Legislature, to whom he’s grateful.
While time in the Legislature is short and senators come and go, the institution remains the same and needs to be protected. Each senator must hold one another to a higher standard.
“We are family, that’s been said before, and we can fight like cats and dogs, like families do, but at the end of the day we are family and it needs to be kept in the family,” Hughes said. “We don’t need to be getting it outside the doors; we solve problems in-house. That’s the way it works best.”
Every day is a new set of challenges, but if senators can’t respect the institution, the public can’t either, which leads to chaos, according to Hughes.
Hughes listed 10 things he wished he would have known before coming to the Legislature, including the need to trust but verify and to never take or make the job personal.
Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha
Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha recounted his path nine years ago to the Legislature, which involved a bike ride the day after deciding to sell his podiatry practice of 30 years.
He was previously an advocate for the scope of podiatry in Nebraska and as chair of the state board of health would often testify or lobby on bills before the Health and Human Services Committee. Thus were stepping stones to his service now.
“Every day as I walk into that east door, I marvel at the fact that I’ve had this opportunity to make the decisions that affect all Nebraskans,” Hilkemann said. “I have never taken that responsibility lightly.”
While most votes — around 80%, according to Hilkemann — are easy, others are hot-button issues that will disappoint some voters. But if given the chance again, Hilkemann said he would do it all over as he’s become a better person.
“Before I got here, my life had a lot more black and white than it does upon my leaving,” Hilkemann said.
The senator also recounted his service as the acting governor of the state in the summer of 2018. He came down to the office, just in case, and spent most of that time praying there would be no tragedies, storms or violence.
This allowed him to grant his grandchildren, friends and colleagues admiralships into the Nebraska navy.
“That was a wonderful opportunity, a memory I will cherish the rest of my life,” Hilkemann said.
Like many others leaving, Hilkemann said that while he’s always been a registered Republican, he ran with the desire to serve, not to advance party interests.
“I pray that going forward as a state and nation, we grow together to build one another up and see the best in each other,” Hilkemann said. “If we do, we will become a better state and nation.”
Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha
In his second farewell address, after being term limited four years prior, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha focused on thanking those he served with for 12 years.
Four years prior he said he gave a speech without notes and blubbered through about the institution, barely getting through it. But he said he’s already shared most of his notes on the institution during his time there.
Lathrop was in the first class of senators in 2007 that replaced more than a dozen senators after term limits went into effect. He served with some senators who were still there for years but not yet term limited, those who passed down the culture of the nonpartisan body.
“I’m incredibly grateful for their example, their mentorship and for showing us and teaching us the culture and the unwritten rules of the Unicameral,” Lathrop said.
When he first came in 2007, Lathrop said he was 48 and still had kids at home, meaning he missed baseball games and dance recitals.
“I so appreciate the sacrifice family makes so that we can all come down here and serve,” Lathrop said.
Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward
Counties: Polk, Seward, York
The Legislature is one big family that comes together to make things happen, Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward said, and he’s enjoyed serving with each senator.
To his colleagues who are staying, Kolterman urged them to never stop learning. He said that coming from a predominantly white, rural community, he was never exposed to any kind of diversity. But the representation of the following senators diversified his knowledge: Sens. Ray Aguilar, Tom Brewer, Megan Hunt, Terrell McKinney, Patty Pansing Brooks, Tony Vargas, Justin Wayne and former Sens. Ernie Chambers and Tanya Cook.
“You’ve all helped me, and this body, become more aware of the challenges you have faced and the challenges we face as a state,” Kolterman said. “I’ve appreciated your strength and candor as we have discussed and wrestled with challenges of the minorities in this state and hope we have made it a better place together.”
The senator specially thanked Vargas, who Kolterman got close to after the deaths of Vargas’ father and Kolterman’s wife. The shared sorrow helped bring the two together, Kolterman said.
Kolterman’s final message was to his so-called RINO colleagues — Republicans in name only — who are also leaving the Legislature this year: Sens. Robert Hilkemann, Brett Lindstrom, John McCollister, John Stinner and Matt Williams.
“Wear that label as a badge of courage,” Kolterman said. “We were elected by the people of our districts to represent all of them in a nonpartisan way. I believe George Norris would be darn proud of us. Political parties are important, but they shouldn’t run our state legislature. This body needs to remain nonpartisan so all people are represented.”
Stinner, Williams and Kolterman became known as the Three Apostles, and Kolterman thanked them for being there for him through thick and thin.
Sen. John Stinner of Gering
County: Scotts Bluff
Sen. John Stinner of Gering helped guide the Legislature through multiple budgets as Appropriations Committee chair, including dividing American Rescue Plan Act funds this year.
The first time Stinner walked through the glass doors and saw his name on the vote tallying board, he said it was a sobering experience that left him awe-struck.
“I remember saying a little prayer to the Lord saying, ‘Please don’t let me do any harm,’” Stinner said.
In his first year, Stinner would travel back and forth from Gering and Lincoln each weekend — 6 hours each way if speeding. He said his wife noticed he was beginning to sag, and she made a difficult decision to leave her vocal music instructor role at her school.
His experiences broadened his horizons from learning fiscal and legislative processes to always reading new material.
“That has been an enlightening process, one that I have actually pretty much enjoyed,” Stinner said.
Two guiding principles helped him as appropriations chair: stay fair and balanced and always do the least amount of harm possible.
“My message today is to do the least amount of harm and the most amount of good,” Stinner said.
Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg
Counties: Buffalo, Custer, Dawson
When he first got to the Legislature, Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg recalled a friend who told him, “Democracy works if you’re willing to engage in thoughtful compromise.”
“I didn’t understand that quite as well eight years ago as I do today … and that’s what we do a lot in here,” Williams said.
Three core values help Williams in life. These include recognizing the importance of people in success and that little can be done alone, doing what is right and with a sense of responsibility and always striving to do better.
In a recent radio interview, a radio host asked Williams what he is most proud of after eight years. Rather than specific policy, Williams said it’s that he’s never sacrificed his character.
Williams also recalled a lesson he learned 12 years ago that, when faced with adversity, humans either quit, blame or step up. In his service, no one’s ever quit or gone home.
“Sometimes we’ve blamed and we’ve recognized it’s never done us any good when we do that, but, at the end of the day, there’s only one choice, and that’s stepping up and accepting responsibility of working together for positive change,” Williams said.
As people reflect on their service, Williams said to focus on the future rather than on the past.
“[I] encourage each one of us to not let our memories of the past be more important than our dreams for the future,” Williams said. “And I choose to dream big, and I challenge each one of us to dream big.”
Williams also gave a special shoutout to his apostle friends, his rocks: Sens. Mark Kolterman of Seward and John Stinner of Gering.