LINCOLN–The Nebraska ballot measure establishing legislative term limits that intended to weed out career politicians worked. But according to some, the outcome means living with an inexperienced government and increased gridlock.
The ballot initiative, dubbed Measure 415, passed in the 2000 election year. It took effect in 2006 and limited senators to a maximum of two four-year terms. Senators would then have to sit out four years before becoming eligible to run again.
The first ousted by term-limits was Sen. Arnie Stuthman of Platte Center, in 2010.
From there, each election year saw an increasing number of senators term-limited.
In 2012, nine senators left. In 2014, that number increased to 17 ineligible incumbents. By the 2016 election any senators who successfully ran in 2006 were ineligible. The number that year included 11 senators.
Ten years after the term-limit amendment was enacted, the Legislature had a new and inexperienced face. Those familiar with the Legislature say the effect has been an increase in partisan politics and a greater tendency of senators pursuing all-or-nothing tactics to pass legislation.
“We’ve got 40 guys who have three years or less experience right now–out of 49,” Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O’Donnell said. “That’s not a lot of experience.”
O’Donnell, who has served as the state Legislature’s clerk for nearly 41 years and who provides orientation training for newly elected senators, has witnessed the impact firsthand.
“We really ratcheted it up big time when term limits came into play,” O’Donnell said of the orientation training.
The amount and type of training senators now receive has changed also.
Besides what he calls the “nuts-and-bolts” topics, senators also receive “institutional based” training topics. The goal, O’Donnell said, is for new senators to understand and think of the Legislature as an institution.
“That’s all designed to make them think that they are now part of something that is greater than the sum of the individual parts,” he said. “That, to my way of thinking, is really critical after term limits. Because I don’t have the luxury of having mentors here.”
Gone are the days when new senators could turn to a Jerry Warner, known as the “Dean of the Legislature,” who served 35 years. O’Donnell considered that kind of experience and knowledge extremely valuable for new senators to tap.
“Our institutional mores are almost nonexistent now,” he added of the Legislature as a whole.
That knowledge drain has resulted in some senators’ increased reliance on long-term staff members and lobbyists for information. And, he said, he and his staff find themselves doing more mentoring than they did before term limits–when senators would turn to colleagues to learn the ropes.
Term limits have also shifted the time frame in which senators hope to gain experience and leave an impact.
In 2016, the Legislature tapped junior senators for the first time to fill committee chairmanships.
“It was not unusual for someone to be here eight years before they even thought about running for a chairmanship,” O’Donnell said. “We had two this last session. That was unprecedented.”
John Hansen, Nebraska Farmers Union president, also has concerns with the long-term effects term limits have had on the Legislature.
“The impact of term limits is clearly being felt in the Nebraska Legislature,” he said. “We’re seeing folks being much more aggressive at pursing chairmanships and jumping into things quicker and faster because they know–at most–they have eight years.”
Hansen, who has worked closely with the Legislature and testified on various bills for nearly 30 years, echoed O’Donnell’s observations.
“Term limits has meant that the institutional memory and the influence that goes with it has shifted to the long-term staff, to the bureaucracy heads that have been there for a long time and to the [lobbyists],” he said.
An increase in partisan politics in the officially nonpartisan Legislature and newly aggressive nature of some lawmakers, he said, have led to what he considers a loss of cohesion and respect within the body.
Since term limits began in 2006, the Legislature has experienced a rise in filibuster use–setting a record in 2016–and increased gridlock. The 2017 Legislative session was marred by gridlock, and members managed to pass just two bills in a 30-day period.
Some senators who support term limits also have noticed the effects and think extra time to work would benefit the body.
“The point is the public is realizing how important [experience is]– even if it’s just three terms, that’s 12 years,” Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, said. “Because those folks that are in that four-to-six [year range], they’re getting it.”
Albrecht, who was one of the first-ever freshman senators elected to chair a committee, said she had the benefit of drawing on her previous government experience to adjust to the learning curve.
She had previously served on the Papillion City Council for eight years and the Sarpy County Board of Commissioners for five years before being elected to the Legislature in 2016.
She also relied heavily on a colleague, Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft, for guidance, and it kept her grounded, she said.
If freshman senators lack previous government experience, it creates difficulties and an increased reliance on others to learn, she said.
“If you haven’t served in that capacity, this is tough,” Albrecht added. “Because you do have the deer-in-the-headlights look for at least two years until you wrap your arms around what’s really going on.”
Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon was one freshman senator elected in 2016 who lacked extensive legislative experience to drawn on and was forced to learn quickly.
“It was hard at first, because you don’t know where the mail room is–heck, you don’t know where the bathroom is,” he said, laughing, about his first year in office.
Brewer, who said he received not so much as a handshake from his predecessor, started from scratch: new staff, new documentation on district issues and new bills to draw up.
“I had no one [to lean on], and the good thing is when you learn the hard way, you don’t forget,” Brewer said. “And what was really difficult the first year became pretty easy the second year.”
He was one of the first-term senators who intended to hit the ground running, and he plans to take a larger leadership role in the future, he said.
Brewer views term limits as necessary but said lawmakers would benefit from extended time.
“In a perfect world what you do is 12 years with no chance to come back,” he said. “You serve those 12 years, you give it your best during those years, and you’re done and go home.”
But despite the steep learning curve freshman senators must work through, and the growing contention within the Legislature, not all senators agree term limits should be adjusted.
“I support the current structure of term limits,” Sen. Tom Briese of Albion said. “I understand the argument against it–know the institutional knowledge many of us newer folks are lacking. But on the other hand, we’re not potted plants.”
Briese, who was also a freshman senator in 2016, acknowledges the difficulty but doesn’t believe adjusting term limits is the right answer. He places responsibility on the new senators to learn the workings of the Legislature and catch up to those who have been there longer.
“They say that the ballot box is all you need for term limits, but that ignores the power of incumbency,” he said. “The power gives the incumbent the edge in many ways. The ballot box is not the great equalizer, it seems to me.”