A Legislative Branch Like No Other

The Unicameral Serves Nebraska’s Citizens

by Judy Shutts

Nebraska’s Unicameral has been written about, discussed, and analyzed,
but it continues to serve the state. Unicameral has the distinction of being the only one-house legislature in the nation. But it wasn’t always that way.

The change came about nearly 78 years ago, primarily because of George Norris, a Progressive Republican who believed a one-house legislature would be more transparent and efficient. Norris believed that legislators would be more accountable to their voters, rather than being loyal to their party. 

The Unicameral consists of 49 members who call themselves State Senators. They are elected without party affiliation and can override a veto with 60% compared to two-thirds required in other states. Instead of being elected by partisan leaders committee members are elected by their colleagues. 

George Norris’s great experiment is so well en- trenched that Nebraskans simply take it for granted. Although elsewhere, few students of politics pay much attention to it. No other state has seriously considered adopting it. But the Unicameral is interesting, and it deserves a closer look. 

Charlyne Berens, a former professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, thinks the Unicameral is not only interesting, but important. She has written a book, titled appropriately, One House. The book examines Senator George Norris and his quest to change the legislature. 

The Unicameral opened for business in 1937 and since then, members have been required to check their partisan affiliation at the door. 

They are supposed to be just 49 senators. It is no secret in the Unicameral which party the members favor and the parties are more involved in elections. But once they are elected, there isn’t a majority
and minority. 

“George Norris thought partisanship got in the way of the state’s business,” Berens said. “His intent was to have an open and accountable lawmaking body.” Berens believes it has lived up to that intent. 

“If you are new, it’s easier for parties to have in influence, but it’s not of official,” Berens said. “In Nebraska, there is a shift in legislators because of other factors, such as the change in rural and urban areas.” 

Patrick O’Donnell, long-time clerk of the legislature, says the non-partisan nature affects the workings of the legislature. Each member serves on two committees, sometimes more. 

“The State Senators develop expertise by sitting on a committee and they develop relationships with colleagues,” he said. 

The Former Senator Kathy Campbell said Nebraskans take the Unicameral for granted. In other states, not every bill gets a public hearing. 

The Unicameral prides itself on its open system.  When a bill is introduced, there
is a public hearing, debates, and final reading. “Any citizen can watch the process play out online or on television. We have wonderful public television,” Campbell said. “People do not appreciate the transparency and openness of our system.” 

The State Planning Committee of nine members is charged with identifying the long-term issues and themes facing the state. Then the legislature sets up a task force. For example, Senator Mello and Senator Campbell worked to introduce the Intergenerational Poverty Task Force within the Legislature. The task force provides data and recommendations on way to break the cycle of poverty in Nebraska. 

The State Planning Committee also recommended an Aging Task Force and in 2014 the Legislature chose to override the Governor’s veto in favor of the task force. By 2030, Nebraska is expected to have nearly 419,000 Nebraskans who are at least 65. 

Senator Kate Bolz said, “The aging population in Nebraska is growing and we have a choice today to plan ahead.” 

Campbell is confident the one-house legislature is still serving the state well. She said the legislators weave the bills to suit the constituents, not the party. 

“When I visit other states I always come home and think, ‘I’m so glad we have the Unicameral.’” 

Because being informed is an important part of a citizen’s ability to participate in the legislative process, NebraskaLegislature.gov offers several news-related services to its users. 

Unicameral Update Online 

Each week during the legislative session, the Unicameral Update covers legislative activity, including stories on floor action and committee hearings. Committee hearing schedules are included in each issue, as well as a weekly review of all legislative activities and educational and informational features. Go to http://update.legistature.ne.gov/ 

Senators’ Web Pages 

Some senators maintain web pages where they share information about their bills, the progress of the Legislature and other news relevant to their district. Readers can subscribe to their individual RSS feeds to receive the most up-to-date news. A tool to help identify your senator can be found at: http://nebraskalegislature.gov/senators/senator_list.php

Watch the Legislature Live 

Nebraska Educational Telecommunications (NET) provides live coverage of legislative floor activity and public committee hearings held at the Capitol. These can be viewed as a video stream from
http://www.netnebraska.org/capitol/. For technical assistance with the video stream, contact NET at
(800) 698-3426. 

The same broadcast is provided on cable television at NET2 through the following cable operators: Cox Cable Omaha, TimeWarner/Spectrum (Southeast Nebraska) and Charter Communications (Central Nebraska). These communities also air NET’s digital broadcast channels: Alliance, Bassett, Hastings, Lexington, Lincoln, Merriman, Norfolk, North Platte and Omaha. When the Legislature is not in session, these channels broadcast regularly scheduled programming. The complete NET2 program schedule http://netnebraska.org/capitol/ is available on their website. 

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