Nebraska senators play a significant role

Story by Emily Younger, NewsNetNebraska

Nebraska State Senator Ken Schilz speaks during the 2011 legislative session. Photo: Nebraska Legislature

Nebraska native Neleigh Frandsen considers herself to be fairly knowledgeable when it comes to state politics.  Yet, ask the University of Nebraska-Lincoln student to name her state senator and she replied; “Um…Mike Johanns?  Gosh I wish I knew,” Frandsen said.

Frandsen’s not alone. NewsNetNebraska asked ten other random Nebraska residents to identify any of the 49 state senators. They all drew a blank. Being a state senator in Nebraska doesn’t appear to be the most recognizable of political careers, so what motivates them to run for office?

University of Wisconsin-Madison Political Science Professor Michael Wagner said it’s not for the money.  Nebraska state senators make only $12,000 per year, according to public records.  Wagner said people run for the legislature because they want to represent their community.

“Most folks who run for office want to produce good public policy and increase their own political influence,” he said.

State Senator Ken Schilz of Ogallala agrees with Wagner.

“I wanted to represent my district well.  I wanted to stay in tune to what they want and what they need,” he said.

As District 47’s state senator, Schilz represents ten counties with roughly 35,000 residents.  Besides his legislative position, Schilz helps manage his family business, McGinely Schilz Feed yard.

“It’s a whirlwind all the time, but the busier I am, I find the better I am,” he said.

Schilz said at times it’s difficult juggling two jobs, a wife and two kids, but he knows his role in western Nebraska is significant.

“You get out in my district and the state senator is the highest, the biggest,” he said.

Wagner says this might be because Schilz represents a larger geographic area than districts in eastern Nebraska.  In fact, Schilz, who is running unopposed this election, is the only Nebraska state senator whose district is bordered by three states, Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota.

Because his district is about 300 miles west of Lincoln, Schilz lives in a Lincoln townhome during the three months the legislature is in session.  Schilz said he doesn’t mind living in Ogallala and working in Lincoln because it lends to different experiences.

“Different people have different experiences,” he said.

According to Schilz, the Nebraska legislature works well because it’s made up of people with different interests and backgrounds.

“A lot of times in the legislature you see an issue you don’t know anything about, but you can look across the aisle and you can look up a couple rows and you know that that senator has worked in that field, or lives around that or has had that going on,” he said.

Why it matters to UNL

The Legislature is responsible for establishing Nebraska policies and law-making in the state, according to the Nebraska Unicameral official website.  Wagner says Nebraska state senators are an essential liaison between the state and its citizens.

“They can represent their constituents policy views, they can help constituents with individual problems they might be having with government, and they can symbolically represent their constituents by taking stands on issues that aren’t under the Unicameral’s purview too,” said Wagner.

He said the Legislature influences several aspects of resident’s lives: the quality of schools, the safety of streets, and the state of Nebraska’s economy.

Schilz said his job also directly affects UNL students.

“The state every year gives money to the University.  There’s Innovation Park, which I think will give a lot of opportunities for students,” said Schilz.

On May 26th, 2012 the Nebraska Legislature passed its two-year budget focusing on education and jobs, including a $25 million investment in the University of Nebraska Innovation Campus.  Nebraska Innovation Campus will be a public/private-sector research technology and development center to strengthen economic growth and potential of the state and the university.

“It will help students by raising the stature of the whole University as well as providing opportunities for post graduate students and possible jobs once they receive their credentials,” he said.

In the November elections Schilz said Nebraskan’s need to keep in mind how important state senators are to UNL and to the state.

“Being available to constituents, not only for legislation, but help with dealing with state agencies, dealing with federal agencies even dealing with local political subdivision.”

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