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Rules Debate

When I first arrived in the Nebraska Legislature in 2017, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha stood in front of me on the legislative floor. He turned around and gave me some good advice. He told me to learn the rules. I began to read the rules. Upon doing so, I quickly learned how confusing the Rule Book of the Nebraska Legislature was. So, immediately upon adjournment last year, I turned my attention to re-writing the Rule Book.

The project of re-writing the Rule Book of the Legislature focused primarily on two tasks. The first task was to rearrange the material in the Rule Book so that the rules for each stage of debate could be found in a single rule. The second task was to develop a separate rule for how the Legislature would go about debating and passing proposals for changes to the Rule Book. After working with a committee of eight staffers, what resulted was a much more user-friendly and more complete re-write of the Rule Book of nearly 100 pages. The most important rule change that the Legislature could pass this year is this complete re-write of the whole Rule Book.

I have served on the Rules Committee of the Nebraska Legislature ever since I first arrived back in 2017. I have never seen the rules become more convoluted than what they have been for the last couple of years. Last year we had 57 proposed rule changes presented to the Rules Committee. This year we toned it down to 34 proposed rule changes.

Last week the Legislature began the process of making rule changes. The Rules Committee held a very efficient public hearing on these 34 newly proposed rule changes, then the Rules Committee met in an executive session for five hours to deliberate over the proposed rule changes. The members of the Rules Committee engaged in a full, fair, and robust debate over the rules. We did not always agree, but the spirit in the room was always very congenial, cordial and to the point. I very much appreciated that the members of the Rules Committee could disagree without being disagreeable.

This year the Legislature will allow time up until the twelfth legislative day for deliberating over the rules. Back in 2017 the Legislature spent nearly 40 days debating rule changes, and that was inappropriate. This is why I wrote a separate rule for how to debate the rules. Nevertheless, the Rules Committee combined several rule changes and redacted others in order to present a package of rule changes that will make the legislative process more efficient.

The Legislature cannot duplicate what occurred in 2023. When I am out visiting with constituents, two subjects invariably come up. The first is usually taxes. The second is rule changes. It surprised me to learn how many people across our state watch the Legislature. The people of Nebraska sent their state senators to Lincoln to do the business of the state. That did not happen last year. While some may argue that the Legislature passed a lot of bills last year, that is not my concern. My goal is not to just pass legislation; my goal is to pass the kind of legislation that makes sense. Passing 31 bills through a Christmas tree bill with a single vote is not the right way to make laws.

The Legislature needs to learn how to work more efficiently. Introducing 850 bills in a single year and holding hearings on each bill is not the most efficient way of doing business. So, the day may be coming when state senators will be limited in the number of bills they introduce and not every bill necessarily deserves a public hearing. The bottom line, though, is that unless the Legislature can figure out how to become more efficient, we will continue to get what we have been getting.

Some people wonder why I am so interested in changing the rules during my final year in the Nebraska Legislature. The reason is the same as when I planted a tree at the age of 70. I may never get the chance to enjoy the shade from that tree, but my grandchildren will. Therefore, my intention is to leave the State Legislature in a better place than how I found it when I first arrived. That means that the rules should be changed such that state senators can disagree without becoming disagreeable, and that the majority can continue to rule while respecting the will of the minority.


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