Thursday, February 3, 2011

Second dispatch from Nebraska

The weather has improved considerably -- it's now sunny and over 20ºF! And I kid you not: this place is fascinating from a parties perspective. Here are some things I've learned so far:

  • The Speaker of the Unicam has very few formal powers. Both he and the committee chairs are elected by secret ballot (!), so he can't reward loyal members with sweet committee chairmanships. Nor can he reward or punish people using office funding or staff allocations, as those are required to be equal across offices. Nor can he directly assign bills to friendly or unfriendly committees. A particularly partisan and creative Speaker could, I suppose, come up with ways of controlling the agenda, but it would be real work.
  • Legislators love the Unicam. Legislators I've spoken to in other states often speak with reverence about their own state and some of their colleagues, but usually reference a "system" or "partisanship" or something else that prevents good ideas from becoming law. Nebraska, conversely, seems like a really great place to be a state legislator. The pay is terrible, but with only 49 members, no (official) parties, and no other chamber to whine about/mess things up, they all seem to know each other pretty well and don't see the value in demonizing one another.
  • What is good for legislators is not necessarily good for the folks outside. The parties, at various times in the past, have called for the legislature to become a partisan institution. Apparently, the calls for that were a bit louder a few years ago when there were more Democrats in the chamber and Republican activists thought they could more reliably prevail on legislation in a partisan system. But now with fewer than 15 registered Democrats in the chamber, Republicans figure they will win no matter what, and Dems agree.
  • There's broad agreement that the Unicam is becoming more polarized, and a variety of explanations as to why, including term limits, the influence of a very partisan Governor Heineman, and ramped up recruiting efforts by the Democratic Party. I witnessed a contentious debate about lawsuit immunity on the chamber floor yesterday that broke somewhat along party lines. I'm told this is unusual.
  • There's a secretive society of business leaders in Omaha called the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backwards). They're mostly focused on business development and philanthropy and host a bizarre annual ball that sounds like something out of Mardi Gras, but apparently they sometimes get involved in politics. I'm trying to learn more about them.
  • Lazlo's in Lincoln's Haymarket neighborhood brews some pretty decent beer.

1 comment:

jim said...

What is good for legislators is not necessarily good for the folks outside.

Yeah, I was gonna say that I bet that legislators in one-party southern legislatures of the past also enjoyed it more than current legislators do.

heh... captcha: billogre