The Nebraska Way: Nonpartisan Politics Under One Roof
The ornate, high-rise tower and cavernous hallways emblazoned with colorful mosaics aren’t the only unusual features of the state Capitol and the policymaking world here.
For starters, there’s only one legislative body, making Nebraska the only U.S. state with a single-chamber legislature. There are only 49 elected lawmakers— they’re all senators—for the entire state.
What’s more, political-party affiliation doesn’t matter in the Nebraska legislature. It really doesn’t. The legislature has been nonpartisan and unicameral since 1937, three years after voters approved the system.
"I couldn’t even tell you on the floor who’s a Democrat or a Republican, nor do I even care," said state Sen. Vicki McDonald of Rockville, about 120 miles northwest of Lincoln. She describes herself as "a registered Republican with Democratic ways."
But recent debates over the future of hundreds of Nebraska’s smallest rural schools—not to mention the continuing tiffs over school finance—show that the unicameral, nonpartisan way of doing business can have its drawbacks.
In particular, some observers contend, the limited number of state senators keeps rural areas from having strong local representation. Others suggest that the polite nonpartisanship may hinder needed debate on important issues.
In this growing capital city of 232,000, it’s more about the senators, who they know, where they’re from, and their links to business and other interests.
And if there is a dividing line between them, it might be driven chiefly by the fact that more Nebraskans are moving to urban and suburban areas around Lincoln and Omaha, the state’s biggest city. The resulting differences between city and country lawmakers may be growing—and affecting education policy more than ever.
"Rural-urban division is the strongest" way of divvying up lawmakers in Nebraska, said Robert Sittig, a retired political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Mr. Sittig said those divisions, though, aren’t as pronounced as they are in some other states—including California, Alaska, and Montana—that over the years have looked at switching from a two-chamber, partisan legislature to a Nebraska-style system.
And it’s true that elections and policymaking here are not as influenced by political parties as they are elsewhere, he added. "It’s a good idea. It works well here, and it would work in other states," Mr. Sittig said of the legislative setup.
While the policymaking arena may have less of a political tone, that doesn’t always mean education groups find it easier to get their way—especially on the school finance front.
A study released last year by the Nebraska Association of School Boards and other groups advised state lawmakers that $700 million in new education funding was needed annually to help public schools improve.
"I think that the policymakers did everything they could not to recognize the study," said John A. Bonaiuto, the executive director of the school boards’ group and a former state schools chief in neighboring South Dakota. He argues that the limited number of strong education leaders at the state level has kept the finance issue on hold.
The legislative quagmire cited by Mr. Bonaiuto and others led the 46,000-student Omaha school district to sue the state last year demanding more money, especially to help poor and immigrant students. A companion suit likely will be filed later this year by a number of rural districts with similar concerns.
A perceived lack of a resolution on school funding has forced dozens of school district mergers in Nebraska in recent years, because tight and uncertain fiscal conditions make it hard for small schools to survive.
Ron Clark, a farmer, father, and school board member in the 180-student McCool Junction district about 50 miles west of Lincoln, blames the unicameral legislature for limiting local representation on the state level.
Nebraska has the fewest state legislators of any state— including dozens fewer than states such as Vermont, Wyoming, and West Virginia. In a state stretching roughly 500 miles from east to west, the low number of lawmakers puts some senators in legislative districts that encompass thousands of square miles.
Up-close representation isn’t always possible.
"One of the downfalls is the unicameral legislature. We don’t have any representation," said Mr. Clark, who has helped fight off a school closing in McCool Junction. "If I could have one change down there in the legislature, I think it would be the two-house system."
Meanwhile, the city vs. country issue raised its head this session as the legislature debated a bill on the future of the state’s small rural schools.
Sen. Ron Raikes of Lincoln pushed a bill to force about half of Nebraska’s 500 school districts to merge with neighboring districts. The so-called "Class 1" districts serve K-8 students only, and are affiliated with high school districts near them. ("Nebraska District-Merger Bill Generates Controversy," April 14, 2004.)
Ultimately, Mr. Raikes’ bill stalled, though he has promised to bring it back next year.
Stephen A. Swidler, an education professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who testified in support of his son’s Class 1 school and others like it, said deliberations on the issues showed the pros and cons of the small, nonpartisan legislature.
"You just don’t hear partisan rhetoric," he said. "It’s funny and interesting and folksy."
On the other hand, that very tone may deflect more intense debate on the issue. "There’s very little debate and rancor here—now part of that is Nebraska politeness," Mr. Swidler added.
One of a Kind
But if Nebraska is onto a good thing, students here may be the last to know it.
During recent deliberations on ethanol plants, school groups filed into the three-sided observation balcony that overlooks the legislative chamber. Lawmakers stopped and introduced the groups and named their schools, and then stopped their work to applaud.
Teachers Carmen Worick and Cheryl Heimes from the TEAM Program, an alternative middle school in the 20,000-student Millard school district near Omaha, said it’s difficult to help students understand how the legislature here differs from the U.S. Congress and other state legislative bodies.
"It’s kind of a hard concept for the kids," Ms. Worick said.
Eighth graders Michael Hermanson and Zach Turk sat on the straight- angled wooden pews in the balcony and took in the day’s debate.
"It’s hard to understand what they’re talking about," said Michael, as the ethanol debate dragged on.
Ardis Koehn of Lincoln brought her two teenage sons to watch the legislature. She finds the lack of partisan debate refreshing. "It makes you sit up and kind of follow the issues rather than the party," she said.
Sally Gordon may be the biggest fan of the unicameral, nonpartisan approach. At age 95, she’s the matriarch of the chamber’s sergeants-at-arms, who wear bright-red coats, guard the doors, and deliver messages to senators.
"I think it’s marvelous," she said of Nebraska’s setup. "It’s less expensive for one thing, and since it’s nonpartisan, they know their vote is very important."
Vol. 23, Issue 34, Page 8Published in Print: May 5, 2004, as The Nebraska Way: Nonpartisan Politics Under One Roof