Politicos debate the pros and cons of Nebraska's non-partisan Legislature

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On the floor outside the legislative chamber in Nebraska’s capitol is a mosaic that depicts man’s mastery of fire. Inside the chamber, politicians often make fire of a different sort.

Story, photos and video by Sean Whalen, NewsNetNebraska

In America, it seems we like our politics extra partisan. From “death panels” to the “war on women,” the level of rhetoric in the country has been ratcheted up several notches.

Nebraska says it does things differently than the rest of the country. Its state Legislature is unique both in that it is unicameral – one house – and that it is non-partisan.

To some, the fact that Nebraska is non-partisan is a real political achievement and something for the rest of the nation to admire. To others, it’s just wishful semantics.

One thing is agreed upon: the two differences make Lincoln an interesting place politically. Just don’t think that, because Nebraska is non-partisan, politicians here are any less likely to play rough in the sand box.

“Terry Carpenter (a former Nebraska congressman and state senator) used to say ‘Politics is a dirty, double-crossing business and that’s why I like it,” said Walt Radcliffe, a lawyer some call the “dean” of lobbyists. “I think politicians and people who work in politics are usually the center of controversy.”

With the Legislature ending April 18, all eyes are now on the November elections. While a big focus is on the battle for Ben Nelson’s Senate seat, half of the legislative seats are up for grabs. For political strategists like Amanda Johnson, legislative campaign coordinator for the Nebraska Democratic Party, the time is now.

Johnson doesn’t let the official non-partisan designation stop her from marketing Democrats.

“When you’re canvassing for a candidate, you can tell them this candidate is a Democrat,” Johnson said. “But with a non-partisan election, in this state, you’re going to need a lot of Democrats and Republicans to win.”

Groups of lawmakers, lobbyists and others often congregate outside the legislative chamber when the Legislature is in session. Lobbyists are not allowed to enter the chamber.

Johnson said that the lack of party identity on the ballot helps her party. Many people ask her about party affiliation of particular candidates and a more open disclosure of party identity would hinder her party’s ability to get candidates elected because Republicans outnumber Democrats.

“It would be harder for us to get people elected (in a partisan Legislature) because the whole state of Nebraska is turning more red,” Johnson said. “I think it would make my job harder, and I might not even have a job if we couldn’t get candidates elected.”

Her counterpart, Nebraska GOP Executive Director Jordan McGrain, agreed, saying the GOP would have even more seats without the distinction.In fact, to McGrain the whole issue is mostly nonsense. Behind the scenes, he said, “party battle lines are drawn;” he called Nebraska’s partisanship a “not-so-well-kept secret.”

It isn’t difficult for citizens to determine the party affiliation of state senators. A quick search on Wikipedia shows 34 Republicans and 15 Democrats, with McGrain assuring that everyone within the statehouse knows the party affiliations of the state senators.

McGrain would like to see the end of non-partisanship because it would help his party. Johnson prefers the status quo, which helps her party.

Their thoughts show the divide in opinion about the non-partisan process. Supporters claim the distinction makes politics more amiable, stops filibustering and allows politicians to more effectively represent the interests of their constituents. Opponents feel the designation is irrelevant, as many party line votes occur anyway and the GOP generally has the run of the place.

Bill Avery, a state senator from Lincoln and former political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said politics is politics regardless of partisan designations.

“We don’t have a majority party or minority party with an organized group of senators,” Avery said. “Getting a bill passed means you have to get a coalition on every bill – the same 25 green lights don’t go on every time.”

McGrain said the non-partisanship of the Nebraska statehouse does not affect the GOP’s choice of candidate, as a typical Republican is a typical Republican. McGrain also noted that a non-partisan Legislature does not stop the parties from contributing large amounts of money – well into the hundreds of thousands – to like-minded candidates.

With relatively new term limit laws (no one can serve more than two four-year terms consecutively), partisanship seems to be getting stronger in the statehouse, as senators can no longer work out deals with statehouse friends they’ve worked with for 30 years.

“In theory, the non-partisan Legislature should make things move more smoothly and help the right things move through,” said Kent Rogert, lobbyist and former state senator. “With term limits coming into play, partisanship has gotten a little stronger, and there are definitely times when partisanship gets in the way.”

Video: Nebraska political figures discuss their roles in a non-partisan statehouse.

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This lack of continuity has been a boon to the many lobbyists like Rogert, who stand outside the doors to the legislative chamber floor every day of the session. (Lobbyists are not allowing inside during the proceedings.) Both McGrain and Johnson acknowledged lobbyists as a vital force in getting bills passed.

While many people have an idea of lobbyists as a shadowy, money-distributing force, in reality the lobbyists in Lincoln consider themselves educators more than anything, informing state senators about the facts of laws up for debate – facts that undoubtedly benefit those who paid them to do so.

For example, Rogert supports western Nebraska farmers concerned with the expansion of the Keystone XL Pipeline and advises politicians to take more time to study the issue before making a decision. (Republicans generally support the pipeline.)

As usual, lobbyists like Rogert will need to introduce themselves to 15 or more new freshmen during the next session. Statehouse changes this year are expected to benefit the GOP, which hopes to gain an even greater majority in the Legislature as well as Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat.  Doing so would give the party every major elected office in the state. Non-partisanship is made a lot easier when there’s no party opposing your policies.

“(Getting rid of the non-partisanship) would be an acknowledgement of what we all understand to be a daily reality,” McGrain said. “It’s pretty obvious: If you want to win an election, the machine that exists is with the party structure. If you’re a Democrat running for office, you’re going to seek help from the Democratic Party, and if you’re a Republican running for office, you’re going to seek help from the Republican Party.

“That’s just the way it goes.”