LINCOLN–Every January, a week or so after the New Year’s celebrations have ended, 49 men and women come together in the State Capitol in Lincoln. Some are old friends, some new acquaintances with very different backgrounds. All are brought to the seat of government by a duty of service to the state they call home.
Each is paid $12,000 per year for her or his service in the Nebraska Legislature. Most senators are employed, and busy, with the demands of other jobs in their hometowns. Some are farmers, some are restaurateurs. One owns a boutique in midtown Omaha, and another is fresh out of college, juggling law school classes.
Each senator comes to the Capitol as a representative of the people who voted them into office. Nebraska’s senators battle for what they believe in — against and with others doing the same — serving a rapidly diversifying and ideologically fragmented public split along urban and rural lines.
But Nebraska’s population base is far from politically monolithic. As the state’s rural communities continue to lose young talent and its eastern side becomes increasingly urban — 68 of the 93 Nebraska counties lost population between the census years of 2000 and 2010, while Lincoln and Omaha’s metropolitan areas now account for well over half of the state’s citizens — statewide sociological frameworks vary from Falls City to Scottsbluff.
“If you’re in an urban environment, you want more government. You exist in your living abode, and then everything around you is communal. And you need public safety more, you need more streets, you need parks, you need public transit,” said fifth-year Sen. Mike Groene, who represents District 42 and North Platte. “So more of your income you’re willing to give for taxation to provide for how you exist. But rural people, we want less taxation because we pay for more of our own stuff. We maintain our own roads, sometimes, outside of where we live. We have our own septic tanks, our own water wells. We have our own parks — it’s wide open space.
“There’s just a natural conflict between ideologies of taxation and how big government should be.”
Groene, a self-proclaimed populist, typically doesn’t stay quiet when he has qualms with bills that interfere with the rural lifestyles of the people in his district. His positions often oppose those of urban senators whose proposals could impact the lives of the people in his district and the taxes they pay.
In late March, Groene spoke against LR14CA, a resolution introduced by North Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, that would allow more flexible use of tax-increment financing in low-income areas. Groene, who has long opposed lenient applications of TIF, criticized the bill for vaguely defining which areas could be deemed “extremely blighted” and eligible for extended property tax increases to fund TIF.
The Legislature stalled, as Groene and his rural constituents still stood against the bill, while Wayne said in his April 3 remarks on the floor that their opposition made him question his support for property tax relief — a main concern of rural senators this session.
In the same brief monologue in front of the Legislature, he acknowledged that disagreement is to be expected on the unicameral floor, and sometimes compromise and collaboration is the best course of action.
“And then after that, [Groene] helped amend the bill to make it better,” Wayne said.
The revised amendment added wording to specify which extremely blighted areas could qualify for extended TIF funding under the bill. Though it still received a ‘no’ vote from Groene, LR14CA passed on April 18.
“We’ve still got to work together,” Wayne said, looking back on the tension a month later. “It’s not about personalities. It’s about getting the work done.”
Groene fundamentally agrees.
“I get along great with Sen. Wayne, no matter what people say. We like to give each other a bad time,” Groene said. “You know, personalities conflict like anything in life, but that has nothing to do with politics.”
Since 1937, Nebraska has been the only state with a single-house legislative structure. Similar governments have been proposed in Ohio, Missouri, Maine and Minnesota, but Nebraska’s unicameral remains one-of-a-kind.
Envisioned by early-1900s Republican U.S. Sen. George W. Norris of McCook, the unicameral is officially nonpartisan. There’s no line running through the chamber, splitting Democrats and Republicans. Senators of both party backgrounds are scattered throughout the Norris Legislative Chamber, with first-term Omaha senators seated next to veterans from Henderson.
Former state senator and current University of Nebraska lobbyist Heath Mello said he thinks that’s the way it should be.
“The nonpartisan nature of the unicameral allows people to hang out and socialize and spend quality time with each other, regardless of where they live, regardless of what their political views or political party affiliation is,” said Mello, who served two terms in the unicameral from 2009 to 2017.
Wayne said it’s essential that senators understand their colleagues’ points of view. He said after he was elected in 2016, he made a point of getting to know the other senators and their backgrounds, an effort which he calls “meeting people where they are.” He drove around the state, learning the issues faced in rural Nebraska communities.
“You can’t expect somebody to come to your side of the block if you’re afraid or don’t want to or are unwilling to meet them on their side,” Wayne said.
When Sen. Lynne Walz, a former Fremont school teacher, was campaigning for lieutenant governor last year with gubernatorial candidate Bob Krist, she noted a growing feeling of detachment among Nebraska’s western voters, many of whom she said felt like their voices weren’t heard in the midst of the state’s ongoing urbanization.
“So many people say, ‘we feel like we’re not even part of Nebraska.’ I think that if more people on the eastern side could go to the western side and visit and talk, they might have a little bit more empathy for how people from outstate Nebraska feel,” she said.
Walz said when the rural-urban divide comes to the forefront of discourse in the unicameral, personal differences should be set aside to recommit to a common goal, especially after contentious debates.
“I mean, it is driven by differences, and it’s driven by your own morals and your own ethics,” she said. “But at the end of the day, you have to sometimes give and take to make it the best piece of art that you can for the whole state.”
To do so, the unicameral must be built on relationships, Wayne said.
“We need to sit down, get to know people, have a drink, have a beer, have a steak,” he said. “Figure out what makes everybody tick and figure out what they need for their community.”
Even with term limits adding new senators to the Legislature every two years, Sen. Adam Morfeld of District 46 in northeast Lincoln said the relationships among senators are built on foundations of trust. Though he said he often disagrees with Sen. Mike Hilgers, who represents District 21 in northwest Lincoln, Morfeld said he considers Hilgers a good friend.
“I’m friends with a lot of the other colleagues,” Morfeld said, “and that’s the thing you don’t see [in the news], it’s that we form really strong bonds in the Legislature because we’re unified, in the sense that we understand that this is a unique experience and it’s a tough experience and we’re generally interspersed with people from other political parties and backgrounds.”
As the Legislative calendar winds down for 2019, senators will return to the people who sent them to Lincoln. Morfeld to the nonprofit he founded, Civic Nebraska. Groene to his job as territorial sales manager for Brothers Equipment, an agricultural implements dealer. Walz to selling real estate at Fremont-based Don Peterson & Associates. And Wayne to his downtown Omaha law firm. Until next January.
Whether rural or urban, conservative or liberal, Nebraska’s continuing experiment in unicameral government brings to mind another social structure.
“Do things get contentious? Yeah,” Morfeld said, “but it’s like a big family.”